Sullivan reflects on her tenure at University of Virginia

Virginia News
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Teresa A. Sullivan’s books are still on their shelves at her Madison Hall office at the University of Virginia. She hasn’t yet taken down teaching awards or decided which papers will stay in Charlottesville and which will go with her on a yearlong sabbatical to the University of Texas.

Five days before she leaves that office one last time, the eighth president of Mr. Jefferson’s university hadn’t yet found time to pack. She plans to maintain a steady regimen of meetings and events, including a banquet to close one of her proudest achievements in office, the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University, until her final day in office on July 31.

Sullivan, once dubbed “the unluckiest president in America,” is now a case study of the expertise required and trials faced by a modern university president. She has led UVa through the murders of students, the renovation of an iconic building, racial soul-searching and research, an attempted administrative coup and a white supremacist march on Grounds.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a formula anymore to be university president,” Sullivan said. “There might have been when I was a young faculty member — it was pretty much provosts became presidents — but that’s not true anymore.”

After eight years in office, Sullivan still doesn’t like to be in the spotlight and doesn’t speak about her accomplishments in grand terms. Many of her lasting decisions are rooted in practical terms and in a deep-seated conviction that the university should be open to all.

Those beliefs came early, from mentors and from her own experience as a woman in academia, Sullivan said. But her own barrier breaking occurred matter-of-factly; there were few female professors to look up to when she began a postgraduate internship at Michigan State University.

“I remember the first day that I wore a pantsuit to the office, and there was all this consternation,” she recalled. “Were we allowed to do that? Well, it was freezing in Michigan — the snow was deep on the ground — and I thought a pantsuit was just kind of sensible. Anyways, that broke the glass ceiling for pantsuits there, and lots of women wore them after that.”

The academy has changed a lot, but sometimes she is still surprised by what people find radical, Sullivan said.

“I might have learned from that that things that looked straightforward to me didn’t always look straightforward to other people,” she said.

Other decisions were borne from straightforward assessments of the numbers. Along with reorganizing the UVa Medical Center, Sullivan said she counts hiring new and diverse faculty and right-sizing salary offers and scholarship programs among her top achievements in office.

“She knows the nuts and bolts of academia and she does the work day by day and step by step,” said Rusty Conner, the rector of the university.

Nuts-and-bolts problems face nearly every leader of a major research institution. But peculiarities of UVa and unexpected crises, Sullivan said, sometimes gave her pause, and her own background gave her the impetus to push hard.

When she arrived, black community members told her UVa was afraid to face its past, she said. On the other hand, some alumni told her it was too soon to study the role of slavery at the university. But Sullivan positioned research in UVa’s history of slavery and segregation as part of the duty of the university.

Sullivan, born in 1949, was living in Little Rock, Arkansas, when nine black students attempted to integrate Central High School. She moved to Jackson, Mississippi, the day Medgar Evers was assassinated. Her high school was the first in Mississippi to desegregate.

“I was an eyewitness to (the civil rights movement),” she said. “My eyewitness is not particularly important to the scope of history, but there are eyewitnesses here (in Charlottesville) whose view is important, and that’s what I think we need to try to capture.”

Events such as the now-debunked Rolling Stone article about an alleged rape or the Aug. 11 white supremacist march on the Lawn can become all consuming, Sullivan told her successor, Jim Ryan, soon after he accepted the position. She told him to stay balanced.

“She has just a wealth of knowledge,” Ryan said in a June interview.

Ryan said he would say Sullivan’s achievements have been her preservation of the Rotunda, expansion of overseas programs and appointment of a majority of the current deans: the fundamentals of keeping a modern university running.

“She has weathered a lot of storms,” Ryan said. “But oftentimes the real story, at least in trying to understand the trajectory of an institution, are the things that don’t grab the headlines.”

Sullivan kept the delivery of a posthumous diploma to Otto Warmbier’s parents out of the newspapers last year. Warmbier died in June 2017 one week after North Korean authorities released him from 17 months’ captivity; he was the third high-profile student, after lacrosse player Yeardley Love and second-year Hannah Graham, to die tragically.

During Warmbier’s captivity, Sullivan said, she worked with senators and U.S. State Department officials to open a channel to North Korea, but with no success.

“In part, we felt a responsibility to our student to do what we could do,” said Sullivan, her voice catching. She talked to foreign service alumni and even flew to China to make contacts there. “I just thought somehow, somewhere we might be able to find a connection that might help.”

Sullivan embodied, in some senses, a time of transition for college presidents, said Peter Lake, professor of law and higher education at Stetson University. Higher education advocacy and a new campus protest culture came of age during her tenure, he said, and he uses her as a case study in leadership and governance classes.

“Her presidency will be looked at for years to come,” Lake said. “It’s a tougher world than it used to be, and I think she walked exactly into a moment between the past and the future and sat right at the center of the teeter totter.”

Substantial changes were made, Sullivan said, to the school’s Title IX policy after the Rolling Stone controversy. Similarly, she said, she believes changes to the university’s free speech policy are a substantial change in the right direction, determined after a lot of effort.

“I think we learned last August that it was maybe too light and we needed to have more than we had. We had basically almost no prohibitions at all, and that left us wide open,” she said.

But she is firm that the free speech policy remains content-neutral, whether encouraging discussion and protest in the normal scope of opinion or regulating neo-Nazi demonstrations.

“I also think that those of us who have taught for a long time we know what it’s like in a classroom to try to encourage people with other views to feel they can safely say those views, because the class needs to hear them,” she said. “It’s good for the class to hear opposing views. But you’ve also got to create a situation in the class in which we respect one another, even if we don’t agree with something that was said. And I think that background informs the way I view people who want to demonstrate or say things — very often the things I don’t agree with — but you get to do that, that’s America, we get to do that here.”

Famously, during 18 days in 2012 when the Board of Visitors ousted Sullivan — she maintains that she still doesn’t know why — Sullivan was described as an “incrementalist.” The term meant to tag her with all the negative stereotypes of female leadership.

But in a 2012 speech, she claimed the label, and six years later, she says she still does.

“I think that incrementally you can make very important changes. The advantage of making change incrementally, generally speaking, is that you are more likely to get buy-in and less likely to get backlash,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not committed to change. There were obviously things that we needed to change and I think we’ve done that.”

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