Former University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman travels to Blacksburg this week to launch Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries project with a public lecture Thursday morning.

She’s a natural choice to jump-start the presidential initiative challenging the Virginia Tech community to look decades into the future and rethink the university of tomorrow.

President emeritus since retiring last year, Coleman is lauded as a visionary leader in higher education.

Time magazine named her one of the nation’s “10 best college presidents,” the American Council on Education honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award, and she co-chairs the Lincoln Project, an initiative of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences to preserve the strength and diversity of public research universities.

Coleman’s 12-year tenure (2002-2014) leading the University of Michigan was marked by a focus on entrepreneurship, innovation, interdisciplinary studies, global engagement, and a successful $3.2 billion capital fundraising campaign.

She will address a number of these topics during her speech at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 24, at the Moss Arts Center. The speech is free and open to the public. It will be video recorded and posted on the Beyond Boundaries website.

Introduced recently by President Timothy D. Sands, the Beyond Boundaries project is organized in four thematic areas:

  • Advancing as a global land-grant university
  • Preparing students for the world in which they will live and work
  • Discovering new funding models
  • Envisioning the campus of the future

Coleman praised Sands for engaging a broad-based group of faculty members in the process. University visioning conversations can happen in a vacuum so an inclusive process is important, she said.

“Getting people from across the university together to talk about the future of the institution is the most important part of this process,” she said. “Sometimes it’s more important than what you actually come up with.”

Coleman is outspoken on the need for universities to become more innovative and entrepreneurial. Her speech kicking off the 2014 American Council on Education’s annual meeting was entitled "Innovate, Disrupt, Repeat."

“It is time for all of us in higher education to become the innovators we are teaching our students to be,” she said.

It’s important for Virginia Tech – and all research universities – to think internationally as it plans for the future, Coleman said.

“The world economy is so interconnected. The changes we have seen happen in the last 20 years will only get more intense,” she said. “We need to tackle important global issues that include food production and climate change. If universities aren’t the place to solve these problems, then where?”

The University of Michigan ranked No. 17 in the 2014-15 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Coleman said the Michigan’s global engagement increased in the past decade through a thoughtful process that started with an inventory of countries where Michigan faculty members were already working. That inventory discovered, for instance, that 145 faculty members already had deep relationships in Africa.

Michigan eventually targeted four different areas – Brazil, Asia, Africa and India – and made investments in those countries through shared projects and partnerships.

Coleman stressed that university leadership was quite cautious about extending the university’s brand of academic offerings. Michigan doesn’t have campuses abroad but it does look for opportunities to create strategic partnerships.

For instance, the University of Michigan - Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute offers specialized degree programs in China in an English-language format. It’s a study abroad destination for some Michigan students and it also allows selected institute students to apply for transfer admission to the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering.

“It’s extremely important to get buy in and continuing involvement from high level university administrators on these international initiatives," Coleman said.

The University of Michigan captured record donations during Coleman’s tenure as president – and funding and cost are major themes of the Lincoln Project she’s co-chairing with Robert Joseph Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

When it comes to attracting donors and raising money, Coleman said, it’s vital for public universities to act more like private universities.  

One key, she said, is investing in the fund raising infrastructure by hiring the right people and giving them the right technology to do the job. Another important step is nurturing relationships with students and alumni to reinforce the values and benefits they received by attending the university – building a case for why they should give back to the institution.

“We have to do it,” she said. “Development takes time.”

Coleman would also like to see “a serious conversation about differential tuition rates” based on a family’s income and she thinks companies need to play a bigger role in supporting public institutions.

Businesses benefit immensely from the work at universities, yet they almost offer no direct support, Coleman said. “It’s time for us to say ‘it’s part of your responsibility.’ “

Considering the campus of the future and how the residential experience may change is one of the main purposes of the Beyond Boundaries initiative.

Higher education must continue to evolve, Coleman said.

She believes technology offers immense opportunities for universities to personalize and enhance a student’s learning – and to better track success and shape outcomes. But a student sitting in front of a computer to learn coursework, without the ability to meet individually with the teaching faculty, is not the best solution for the future.

“Online learning is a sideshow,” Coleman said. “I think the residential campus will remain a big part of higher education.”

Coleman is the first of several speakers in the Beyond Boundaries lecture series. The speaker series format – which includes time for discussion with President Sands and questions from the audience – is designed to allow the Virginia Tech community to learn from the experiences of other institutions and engage with the speakers. Future speakers will be announced in Virginia Tech News and on the Beyond Boundaries website.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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