University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Welcoming Tom Sullivan, UVM's twenty-sixth president

Tom Sullivan at welcome ceremony
Tom Sullivan being welcomed at the Davis Center. Photo by Sally McCay

The Green

Welcoming Tom Sullivan, UVM’s twenty-sixth president

One 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. On February 22, Sullivan was introduced as UVM’s next president.

Robert Cioffi ’90, chair of both the Board of Trustees and the Presidential Search Committee, said the university is fortunate to have attracted the strong leadership abilities that Sullivan will bring to the job. “Tom Sullivan clearly possesses the academic credentials, the extensive leadership experience at both public and private universities, the demonstrated accomplishments in the implementation of strategic plans and major fundraising, and the personal energy and enthusiasm we need to take UVM to the next level of success,” Cioffi said.

Sullivan is a veteran in higher education leadership, most recently serving as senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Minnesota for the past eight years. He also served Minnesota as dean of the law school from 1995 to 2002.

Sullivan is a nationally recognized authority on antitrust law and complex litigation, having authored ten books and more than fifty  articles. Before joining the faculty of the University of Minnesota, Sullivan served for six years as dean of the University of Arizona College of Law and as associate dean at Washington University in St. Louis. He began his career in higher education as a faculty member at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

A native of small town Amboy, Illinois (about 100 miles due west of Chicago), Sullivan earned his bachelor’s degree at Drake University in Iowa, followed by his law degree from Indiana University in 1973.

Before entering academia in 1979, Sullivan clerked for a federal judge in Miami, Florida, and thereafter was a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice in the Attorney General’s Honors Program. His legal career also included work as an antitrust litigator with the New York and Washington, D.C., firm of Donovan, Newton, Leisure and Irvine.

 “I am very excited both personally and professionally about this tremendous opportunity,” Sullivan said when his appointment was announced. “I think my background, experience, values, and my aspirations are compatible with those of UVM. I find the university at a very important juncture in its history, and I whole-heartedly welcome the challenge to work with the faculty, staff, and students into the next phase in the pursuit of greater heights of academic excellence at UVM.”

A crowd of several hundred people filled the Davis Center’s Silver Maple Ballroom on the morning of February 22 to welcome Tom and Leslie Sullivan to the university.

In introducing Sullivan, Cioffi shared his sense of when he came to feel this particular individual 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 workforce needs throughout Vermont—through its teaching and research. In my view, these are the four core purposes that are central to a great land grant university.”

Governor Peter Shumlin was among the well-wishers who took the podium, presenting the Sullivans with a Vermont atlas and an invitation to travel the state’s back roads.

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


Leslie Black Sullivan '77

Leslie Black Sullivan '77

We are family

In his closing remarks at a forum during his candidate visit for the presidential search, Tom Sullivan quipped, “If this were to happen, Leslie and I have seventeen nieces and nephews, a very large extended family. I know they would come to visit your beautiful campus, and that, quite frankly, might help the Vermont economy.”

Well, come July 15 when Tom Sullivan assumes the UVM presidency, the couple should probably ready the guest bedrooms in their new home in Englesby House on the UVM campus.

On the whirlwind day when her husband was introduced as UVM’s next president, Leslie Black Sullivan ’77 took a moment to outline the family ties to the university. Older sister Lynn Black ’74 was the first to venture north to Vermont from Long Island for college. “I followed in her footsteps,” Leslie says. “I came up and really sort of fell in love with the place.” Another sister, Lisa Earle, attended but didn’t graduate from UVM. And a second generation followed when Benjamin Black Barash ’11, the son of Lynn Black and David Barash, both doctors in Boston, graduated with his degree in mechanical engineering last May.

Leslie Black Sullivan, who earned her Vermont degree in political science, worked for thirty years in institutional money management, 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 on a hike with their Australian shepherd, Harry Potter.

Leslie Sullivan says she has long remembered Vermont fondly, and her husband loved Burlington on his first visit for last May’s graduation. “As the presidency came up as a possibility, our eyes lit up,” she says. “We thought this could be just wonderful to come east—for me, to come back home, and for Tom, to come to an environment and a university that shares so much of his interests.”


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