The greatest triumphs of Mayo Clinic trustee Mary Sue Coleman, Ph.D., come not from her personal resume — but from the influence she's earned through her "relentlessly pleasant" approach.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
The Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees welcomed Mary Sue Coleman, Ph.D., in 2014. She is president emerita of the University of Michigan. Time named her one of the nation's "10 Best College Presidents," and the American Council on Education honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Dr. Coleman's quiet, consistent style as president of the University of Iowa for seven years and the University of Michigan for 12 more was successful because of her philosophy of positivity. It has guided her professional activities through decades of turmoil and triumph.
"I always set a high bar for myself, and wherever I am, I want to make sure that I achieve what I set out to achieve," Dr. Coleman says. "And, I think I have."
Successes have certainly piled up, and Dr. Coleman's philosophy struck a chord with none other than the chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, who, in her 2013 bestseller Lean In, complimented Dr. Coleman for her approach of being relentlessly pleasant.
In pursuing — and achieving — excellence, it is little wonder that Dr. Coleman is highly respected and she fits seamlessly into Mayo Clinic's Board of Trustees, serving since 2014. Starting her career as a biochemist, Dr. Coleman's background in the collaborative fields of education and science provides unique insight to the trustees on servant leadership. Whenever she receives accolades, Dr. Coleman credits the teams of people she worked with, recognizing that diversity in thoughts and experiences has shaped who she is and the world around her.
Dr. Coleman was born in Kentucky and as a young child lived in Georgia. Her father was a chemistry professor in the 1950s, and her mother was a grade school teacher. At the time, the Georgia state legislature considered closing public schools instead of integrating them.
"My father and mother were so horrified at the notion lawmakers would do that, that they moved the family," Dr. Coleman says.
Her family moved to Iowa. The population wasn't very diverse in terms of racial makeup, and there were few concerns about blocking children from educational pursuits based on the color of their skin. Her family's relocation became the basis of Dr. Coleman's efforts to champion diversity throughout the rest of her career in higher education and beyond.
"From when I was a young girl, the importance of diversity was seared into my brain. We cannot exist as a society unless we are willing to find a place for people from different backgrounds," Dr. Coleman says. "It's extraordinarily important, and I've tried to live that all of my life."
One of her biggest challenges came not on a university campus but through the ballot box. In the aftermath to winning at the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of affirmative action, Michigan voters decided to ban affirmative action admission policies in the state's public universities, causing enrollment of black and Hispanic students to drop.
Dr. Coleman calls the decision a disappointment because the University of Michigan had championed diversity in the years leading up to the vote and decision.
"The university believed it was deeply important to create a diverse learning environment that was good for all students, not just for students who had been underrepresented in the past," Dr. Coleman says. "We felt like it was critical for universities to be able to craft their admissions policies that took into account race and ethnic background as well as a number of other attributes, using a holistic approach in evaluating students for admission."
Excellence in Education
Recognizing the importance of diversity is not the only principle Dr. Coleman carries with her. Trace Dr. Coleman's lineage and the value of education emerges. Her paternal grandfather left his livelihood as a farmer to become the first in their family to go to college, paving the way for succeeding generations to build a better life. It was one of Dr. Coleman's great privileges to provide similar opportunities to the next generation of students.
"The societal benefit that flows from educating a student who is the first in the family to go to college is magnified in future generations," Dr. Coleman says. "It is enormously powerful and brings that knowledge beyond the campus and out into the world."
Having retired as president of the University of Michigan, Dr. Coleman now serves as president of the Association of American Universities during a time when funding is threatened and disruption is common within higher education. The association comprises 62 institutions that are distinguished by their research excellence — one of the many commonalities she sees between her professional work and her role as a member of Mayo Clinic's Board of Trustees.
"In my higher education career, both as a faculty member and scientist, and then moving into administration, I felt like my greatest accomplishment was that I focused on the experience students were having. We remained student-centered for the same reasons Mayo Clinic is patient-centered. Their needs should come first."
Importance of a Team
Dr. Coleman's mantra that positive change can be made when you bring the best and brightest together has further solidified her belief in Mayo Clinic's value of excellence.
"The best outcomes and highest-quality service can be achieved through the dedicated effort of every team member," Dr. Coleman says.
Dr. Coleman sees the fingerprints of this strategy across Mayo Clinic. "When you encounter a challenge, get the team around you," Dr. Coleman says. "It's very similar to how Mayo Clinic surrounds the patient with the world's best experts to treat their complex condition. That's what we tried to do for higher education at both the universities of Iowa and Michigan."
When the Great Recession hit in 2007, that philosophy protected the University of Michigan during challenging times. Dr. Coleman brought together a team with a bold vision to inspire generosity from the university's philanthropic friends to tackle decreasing state support. The plan would allow students to return to campus with only a minimal tuition increase despite traditional funding streams all but drying up. Its success was remarkable.
Just as the recession was winding down in 2009, Time magazine recognized Dr. Coleman as one of the nation's "10 Best College Presidents." Despite an immense financial challenge, the university had completed a historic fundraising campaign while raising its profile as one of the nation's top research institutions.
"Philanthropy made it possible for students to keep coming to the University of Michigan," Dr. Coleman says. "The same principle exists at Mayo as we pursue excellence in health care. All of the incredible diagnostic work and treatments provided can't be done without the generosity of benefactors who help take Mayo's medical marvels and make them available for the world."
Dr. Coleman's relentlessly pleasant attitude and purposeful optimism push Mayo Clinic toward the future — embracing the challenges that come with a complex health care environment.
"I want to be associated with organizations that are recognized for their ability to change, to be dynamic, to be at the forefront," Dr. Coleman says. "All of those are characteristics I saw at Iowa, at Michigan and I see at Mayo Clinic."
Philanthropy fuels the mission of Mayo Clinic. Visionary benefactors are the vital catalysts behind our pioneering patient care, breakthrough medical research and world-class educational programs.
We are solving the world's most serious and complex medical challenges – one patient at a time. Support Mayo Clinic's efforts today.