University of Vermont

Campus Welcomes Tom Sullivan as Next President

Tom Sullivan, the 26th president of UVM, is welcomed to campus at an introductory ceremony. (Photo: Sally McCay)

One early morning last May, Tom Sullivan walked the UVM campus alone. In town for his nephew’s graduation from the university, he followed his love of college campuses to the top of the hill in Burlington and had a look around. “I was taken by it,” Sullivan recalls, “the sense of history and the sense of place.”

The notion that, as UVM’s 26th president, he might become a part of the place and its history wasn’t remotely on the radar of the longtime provost of the University of Minnesota at that point. But some three months later, he would become a candidate in the presidential search. Many aspects contributed to the match between UVM and Tom Sullivan — from the affection his wife, Leslie (UVM Class of 1977), has for her undergraduate years in Burlington to a tight mesh of Sullivan’s higher education vision and values with the university’s mission to, perhaps, that bond kindled on the quiet morning last May. 

The occasion was a good deal noisier and more public as hundreds of members of the University of Vermont community gave president-elect Sullivan a warm public welcome in the Davis Center on Wednesday morning.

Robert Cioffi ’90, chair of the Board of Trustees and the presidential search committee, thanked the many who contributed to the long search, a process recently praised on the Burlington Free Press editorial pages for its transparency. Then Cioffi shared his own sense of UVM’s next president and when he came to feel Sullivan was the right person for the job.

Noting that the search ran candidates through every sort of setting and meetings with a wide variety of constituencies, Cioffi said, “But for me it was in the smaller settings, a meal with just a few people when I came to realize what a thoughtful, genuine person he truly is. With a warm sense of humor and a keen awareness of others, an unusually good listener who welcomes and thrives on new ideas. He is a most trustworthy, believable, and real individual, with an aversion to drama and an abundance of common sense.”

Sullivan took the podium and spoke for fifteen minutes, a talk that shared his gratefulness and excitement for the opportunity to lead the university and gave a sense of his priorities in the role.

Sullivan said: “We will promote: 1) Financial access and affordability for students. 2) A rich curriculum that balances a first-rate educational experience for our students from the theoretical to the practical application of great new discoveries and ideas that advance and promote our communities and their citizens. 3) A research infrastructure that will enable our great faculty and researchers to discover and transmit new knowledge from both the theoretical and basic to applied and translational research. 4) And finally, the University of Vermont, as the economic engine of the state, will work closely with the political and business leadership of the state to promote economic development and to support work force needs thoughout Vermont — through its teaching and research. In my view, these are the four core purposes that are central to a great land grant university.”

Faculty, staff, student, and alumni leadership welcomed Sullivan with their words and gifts from a Dakin Farm sampler to a Vermont Encyclopedia to a “sweet V-Cat hoodie,” in the words of SGA President Julian Golfarini.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin was also on hand to welcome Sullivan with a copy of a Vermont road atlas and an invitation to travel the state’s back roads. He also offered his praise of Sullivan based on a meeting with him last week. “He is a person who, first of all, listens,” Shumlin said. “Secondly, he speaks eloquently when asked about the future of the university. But, most importantly, he clearly has a vision for how to bring all sectors of an organization to work together to accomplish the mission.”

Sullivan took the podium again at the end of the morning event.

“This atlas will never be far from us as we visit the small towns and communities in this wonderful state,” he told the governor and all gathered. And, his voice choking a bit with emotion, closed by saying, “This morning has been a great privilege, thank you.”

Following the morning announcement, Tom and Leslie Sullivan rolled into a full day of media interviews, meetings with various campus groups, and social events that would offer an opportunity to get to know the new president beyond his CV.

A quick sense of the personal side of UVM’s new first family emerged as they spoke with campus and local media. Leslie Black Sullivan worked for thirty years in the investment industry, including ten years on Wall Street following her UVM graduation. Over the past three years she’s been involved in non-profit board work, particularly with arts organizations. The Sullivans, who have been married for four years, met when both served on the board of the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum. Together, the couple enjoy good food, travel, the arts, and the outdoors via bicycle, canoe, cross-country skis, or a hike with their Australian shepherd, Harry Potter.