Coleman did her undergraduate work at the University of Chicago, and her graduate work at Cornell and Columbia. She has worked in education since that time, as a professor of literature at SUNY-Stony Brook, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which she founded at the New School for Social Research. In 1987 she was appointed president of Bennington College where she served for 25 years until her retirement in 2013. In 1994, Coleman led Bennington College through an organizational restructuring to reanimate Bennington’s vanguard educational mission. Since then, the College has launched new pioneering curricular programs—among them the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, which invites students to put the world’s most pressing problems at the center of their education.
Coleman’s vision of a liberal arts education has been recognized nationally by her place on the Select Committee of the Association of American Colleges and on the boards of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation; the Council for a Community of Democracies, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the Annapolis Group, the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA, chair of the Vermont Rhodes Scholarship Trust and the Council of Advisors for the European College of Liberal Arts. In 2000 She gave the keynote address at the Artes Liberales General Conference in Warsaw on “The Relationship between Liberal Education, Freedom and Democracy.” In 2009, she delivered the closing speech at the 25th Anniversary TED Conference, and the keynote at the Council of World Affairs Conference in 2011 on “What Matters.”
Coleman has been awarded honorary degrees from the University of Vermont, Hofstra University, and The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA).