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Sullivan Seeks to Lead the University of Virginia at a Challenging Time

In January, when Dr. Teresa Sullivan became the first woman selected to become president of the University of Virginia, expectations were that the noted sociology professor, provost and executive vice president for student affairs of the University of Michigan would ease into her job in bucolic Charlottesville.

When she took over in August, however, the scene was anything but peaceful.

The school, built on the high-minded values of Thomas Jefferson, was in the midst of one crisis after the other. The beating death of Yeardley Love, a senior and a member of the university’s highly ranked women’s lacrosse team, made national headlines, particularly because her boyfriend George Huguely, a player on the men’s lacrosse team, is facing trial for her death. In a major test of academic freedom, the school was being dragged into court by the state’s attorney general as part of a fraud probe into a former university climatologist’s research into climate change. And like schools everywhere, UVa was struggling from big state budget cuts prompted by the worst economic downturn in 70 years.

If these weren’t enough, Sullivan has the charge of enhancing Virginia’s top-flight academic rating and ensuring it remains a diversity leader in recruiting students and faculty. Both are legacies of her predecessor, Dr. John T. Casteen III, who helmed the university for 20 years.

Having been brought up in Little Rock, Ark., and in Mississippi, Sullivan is familiar with the racial challenges Southern schools face. Before becoming Michigan’s provost, she spent 27 years at the University of Texas at Austin as a professor and administrator.

Here, Sullivan explains why the school instituted criminal background checks of students and shares her priorities as president:

DI: What are the biggest issues you are confronting at the university? What are your goals as president?

TS: Some of the key issues that I plan to address in my first year include: finding able successors for two of the university’s most senior vice presidents; implementing recommendations from recent long-term planning initiatives; finding additional financial resources to offset losses in state support; retaining our best faculty and recruiting extraordinary new faculty; creating a new internal budget model that is more transparent and easier for staff and faculty to understand; and, finally, thinking more systematically about productivity in the classroom. The university is already productive — we have among the very highest graduation rates in the nation — but we still need to think about additional measures that would help the university get more bang for its education buck. The greatest challenge, and one that many public universities face, is financial. How do we invest in priorities without the money to do it? To sustain what we have and to build additional strength, we need to have sustainable sources of revenue.

DI: You have taken special steps to make sure the university knows about criminal infractions by students. Why did you do this and how will it work?

TS: In the wake of Yeardley Love’s death last spring, the office of student affairs began to think through ways to better address how the university could gather information on students who had been convicted of crimes. This was not meant to be punitive, but to give the university information so that quick intervention could take place if a student began to exhibit a pattern of dangerous behavior.

The university already had a policy that required all students to report any arrests and convictions during the year, but it was difficult to track this information. (Now) at the beginning of each year when students log in to access their student information, there’s a simple pop-up box that prompts students to answer a few questions including whether they have been arrested. If students do not answer the questions, they will not be able to proceed.

After the news of Yeardley Love’s death reached me last May, I also began to think about what we as a community could learn from this horrific event and how we might begin to identify the characteristics of a caring community, one in which members recognize their mutual responsibility to each other.

In September, we held a Day of Dialogue, an extraordinary day in which more than 1,000 members of our community — students, staff and faculty — came together for a day of candid discussion about our responsibilities to each other and to our community. Conversations that we began on the Day of Dialogue will continue in the days, weeks and years ahead. We will be meeting to discuss themes that emerged during the day so that we can talk about what the next steps will look like.

DI: Do you have any comment on Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s attempts to probe the global warming research of former UVa professor Michael Mann?

TS: University leaders are disappointed that the institution must continue to litigate with the Attorney General, but will continue to stand for the principles we have articulated since the Civil Investigative Demands were first put forward in April. We do this to support academic communities here and elsewhere.

DI: Will there be any changes during your administration regarding fundraising?

TS:  Right now we are deciding how to frame the messages for the final $1 billion (of a $3 billion campaign) and deciding on a strategy to help us have a strong finish. There is a great deal of excitement about this push to the finish line. The excitement is about the future of the university and the need to address some key issues that demand our attention. They include, but are not limited to, the restoration of the Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson and a special focus on faculty retention.

It won’t be easy. We’re all operating in a different economic reality. We are deeply in debt as a country. We’ve got a lot of money to pay back, and it’s going to fall disproportionately to the next generation to do that.

But what is a university about?  A university is about preparing the next generations. They are the ones who will carry us forward into the future. If I’m a donor, I want to invest in that future.

DI: The University of Virginia has a strong reputation for attracting diverse students. Are you taking any steps to enhance this reputation?

TS: I worry less about our reputation than I do about the reality. We will continue to recruit and admit the brightest students from all backgrounds. It is the diversity in our student body — including racial and socioeconomic diversity — that enhances and enriches the discussion and learning in the classroom. Students tell us that living and learning with students from different backgrounds, different cultures and different countries adds a dimension to their daily lives that extends beyond the classroom. We are preparing our students to be leaders in their communities but also to be global citizens who understand their place in the world.

DI: How can public universities deal with the problem of federal and state budget cuts and rising costs while keeping tuition affordable?

TS: We’re doing it every day with the help of our donors and with the help of our faculty and staff. A great many people have sacrificed and gone without salary increases for the past three years to help the university keep operating at the highest levels. UVa has long been known for its extraordinary efficiency. In the most recent U.S. News rankings, UVa ranks 25th in the nation — tied for second among public institutions — yet our “resources” ranking is 64th. That means we are doing some things very well.

As to your tuition question, the University of Virginia remains a true bargain in higher education for our in-state students. At the same time, with our comprehensive financial aid program, AccessUVa, we have been able to offer extraordinary opportunities to students and families who do not have the means to pay tuition. And we continue to be committed to offering 100 percent of need to all students who qualify for financial aid. Income should not be a barrier to a college degree. The long-run solution for AccessUVa is for us to have a large enough endowment, with endowment proceeds helping to fund those scholarships.

DI: Virginia has a strong reputation for academic excellence. How can you mandate and expand that?

TS: The key to academic excellence is an excellent faculty. We need to find resources to pay faculty competitive wages, to provide start-up costs for new science, technology, and engineering faculty, and to hire faculty as a number of our most distinguished professors near retirement age.

Academic reputation also rests with great students and great graduate students, with everyone focused on learning both inside and outside the classroom and the creation of new knowledge. You cannot be an academic powerhouse without the integration of all three.

When you look at the University of Virginia’s undergraduate experience coupled with the outstanding graduate and professional schools, you begin to get a sense of the academic excellence here.

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