Mary Sue Coleman broke ground as the University of Michigan’s first woman president.

She marked another milestone Sept. 9 when the building that houses the Life Sciences Institute was named Mary Sue Coleman Hall, making it the first academic building on the Ann Arbor campus to bear a woman’s name.

Coleman, President Mark Schlissel, Board of Regents Chair Jordan Acker and other members of the university community celebrated with a ceremony in the Windows Lounge of Palmer Commons.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 100 people, Coleman said the moment felt a bit surreal.

“I am grateful to the Board of Regents for recognizing me in this way,” she said. “I loved being president of the University of Michigan.

“The Life Sciences Institute in Mary Sue Coleman Hall embodies everything that I had hoped for nearly two decades ago. It is a place of science, a locus of collaboration and discovery, and a symbol of diversity. Thank you for this honor.”

President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman speaks during the celebration of the formal naming of Mary Sue Coleman Hall, which houses the Life Sciences Institute. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Coleman, a biochemist who built a distinguished career through research before rising sharply through the ranks of higher education administration, was president of U-M for 12 years before retiring in 2014.  

Among her many accomplishments, Coleman established the North Campus Research Complex, led the fight for affirmative action to the U.S. Supreme Court and helped make the Life Sciences Institute a world-class hub for collaborative bioscience discovery. She was named one of Time magazine’s “10 best college presidents” during her tenure.

Schlissel said Coleman’s impact on the university, on higher education and on the role of discovery in society will resound for generations.

“Scientist, professor, advocate and president, Mary Sue Coleman has always broken ground for research and education at the highest levels,” he said. “How wonderful that future students and faculty will come here, forever see her name on this hall, and learn her story as a great leader of the University of Michigan and of America’s research enterprise.”

Acker joked that he and Coleman started their U-M careers around the same time — she as the president and he as an undergraduate student. He thanked her for her service to U-M and said he was honored to have learned at the university during her presidency.

“President Coleman was loved by the student body,” he said. “Her warmth, compassion and connection to our entire community defined her term as president.”

Photo of a plaque being unveiled at the naming of Mary Sue Coleman Hall
From left, President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman, President Mark Schlissel, LSI Director Roger Cone and Board of Regents Chair Jordan Acker unveil the replica of a plaque that will be installed on the newly named Mary Sue Coleman Hall. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

During her remarks, Coleman recalled how the Life Sciences Institute building was nearing completion as she was interviewing for the presidency. Finding the talent to bring it to life proved to be a challenge, she said. Some people were skeptical about the institute’s open laboratory concept, and initial faculty hires backed out when they heard Coleman’s predecessor, Lee Bollinger, was leaving the university.

Coleman said instead of trying to attract star scientists from other institutions, she sought senior scientists from Michigan to anchor the facility and then looked outside for bright, young scientists who would embrace the chance to work in an interdisciplinary environment.

Coleman hired biochemist Alan Saltiel to serve as executive director, a position he held for 13 years. They recruited researchers who represented different Michigan departments, setting the stage for the institute’s success.

“Through all the change and growth, and despite a devastating pandemic, LSI’s environment has been a constant: It’s welcoming, it’s productive and collaborative,” Coleman said. “I never hesitate to say that it was one of the most satisfying endeavors of my presidency.

“And now my name is on the building that houses the institute, something that I never could have imagined when I made the decision to follow my heart and become a scientist.”

President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman receives a standing ovation from the crowd on hand for the formal naming of Mary Sue Coleman Hall. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Roger Cone, the Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute, said the institute’s innovative, open-lab design was a radical departure from the enclosed laboratories that were common throughout the 20th century. The environment fosters transdisciplinary science and creative risk-taking, he said.

Cone also is vice provost and director of U-M’s Biosciences Initiative, Asa Gray Collegiate Professor of the Life Sciences, and professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and of molecular and integrative physiology.

He said Coleman’s support for the institute is apparent in many aspects of its ethos and operations. For example, the Mary Sue and Kenneth Coleman Endowed Life Sciences Institute Lecture Fund brings to campus international scientific leaders to share their research with U-M’s broad life sciences community.

LSI Associate Director Janet Smith recalled how Coleman personally reached out to her in 2004 to share her excitement about the LSI and about Smith joining the faculty.

“As my LSI colleagues have seen time and time again, when you talk to Mary Sue, you feel valued and you feel listened to, and that’s just wonderful,” said Smith, who also is the Margaret J. Hunter Collegiate Professor in the Life Sciences, Martha L. Ludwig Distinguished University Professor of Biological Chemistry, and professor of biological chemistry, and of biophysics.

Smith said the early recruitment of outstanding junior faculty members who achieved success at the institute was the result of Coleman’s support for the institute’s vision and her collaboration with Saltiel.

“We were looking at exploring new ways to collaborate, new ways to build the scientific community, new ways to help everybody excel, and to build communication and communities across different labs and different disciplines,” she said. “Mary Sue Coleman fostered that culture for exploration and community building that became so successful in the LSI.”

The ceremony included a performance by a student saxophone quartet and the unveiling of a replica of a permanent plaque that will be installed at the building.  

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