University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

The Path to a Presidency

President Tom Sullivan

I’ve asked Tom Sullivan to tell me about his childhood, his family, his hometown. Precisely twenty-six words later, he has left Amboy, Illinois, completed his undergrad years at Drake University, earned his law degree at Indiana University, and gotten down to work with a federal court clerkship in Miami.

Efficient is a word that friends and colleagues turn to without fail when describing Tom Sullivan, and I have just gotten a keen sense of that efficiency. While Sullivan will graciously fill out the finer details of his youth later in the conversation, it’s clear that talking about himself is not a top priority.

The moment UVM’s twenty-sixth president genuinely gets rolling—no prodding necessary—is when the subject turns to teaching. He excelled in his work at the front of the lecture hall in decades of teaching law at the University of Missouri, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Arizona, and the University of Minnesota, where he received the law school’s top teaching award. During his years as law school dean, Sullivan made continuing to teach a priority.
He loves the environment of a steeply pitched law lecture hall, a hundred-plus students in a semi-circle. As Sullivan describes his teaching style, one envisions a kinder, gentler version of Professor Charles Kingsfield from The Paper Chase. “I taught like I was taught in law school, Socratically. Question, answer, question, answer, question, answer. I walk around, I get close to students, and we have a conversation,” Sullivan says. “And I would really try to focus on individual students, try to bring that student out and give him or her confidence and a comfort level that they can feel free to have a conversation with me in front of a hundred other students. When you build that confidence level and that comfort level, it’s amazing how dazzling those young minds are.”

Talk to colleagues, friends, former students, and many will touch on this aspect of the teacher in Tom Sullivan’s personal and professional style. A picture emerges of a man with high standards for himself and others, but one who is patient, persuasive, and collaborative in his way of working toward them.
Barbara McFadden Allen, executive director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium of the Big Ten member universities plus the University of Chicago, worked with Sullivan during his years as Minnesota’s provost.

“I’ve worked with probably thirty different provosts from our member universities over the years,” she says. “One distinctive thing about Tom that he shares with the very best of our leaders is they can help you see where you should be going. Sometimes he has to do that by showing you where you’re falling short. But he can help you see what is possible and then he will roll up his sleeves and work alongside you to make it happen.”

If you’ve lived in, driven through, or flown over the American Midwest, you have a picture for Amboy, Illinois—a crossroads of flat two-lanes and Illinois Central rail tracks, a small, leafy town set amidst a grid of corn and soybean fields stretching to the horizon. Those railroad tracks brought many Irish to the town one hundred miles west of Chicago in the nineteenth century, says Sullivan. His own Irish heritage and Illinois roots trace to his great-grandfather, a farmer who came to America during the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, settling in Rochelle, twenty miles northeast of Amboy.

Tom Sullivan was the youngest of Edward and Loraine Sullivan’s five children. As he describes a happy, fulfilled 1950s childhood, Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers come to mind. Catholic grade school was a block from home; the future university president was a high school class president and three-sport letterman (football, basketball, track); and a parent-instilled work ethic meant mowing lawns, baling hay, and hot summer days on a highway construction crew.

His father’s generation of siblings were all either doctors or lawyers, and Tom Sullivan had a sense from an early age he would follow his father’s path. “Going to law school was an anticipated, expected, almost natural thing for me,” he says. That interest was furthered by occasional trips to the courtroom with his father, where it’s clear Edward Sullivan influenced his son not only with his professional direction, but more deeply with his character. “He was very much a gentleman, always well-prepared, a prudent person,” Sullivan says.

Campuses around the country were hotbeds of dissent—rarely gentlemanly or prudent—when Tom Sullivan entered Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, during the Vietnam War era. An effort was made at Drake to give students a structured voice, and Tom Sullivan took a lead role when he was the first student elected to sit on the school’s Faculty Senate.

President Tom Sullivan and wife Leslie Black Sullivan President Tom Sullivan and his wife, Leslie Black Sullivan '77, lead the procession at the 2012 Convocation ceremony.

Don Adams, now a forty-some-year veteran of higher education student affairs, was a newly minted VP for student life at Drake in 1970, the year of Kent State and when he first met Tom Sullivan. Adams recalls the electricity—“a university community really trying to understand what was happening”—that marked the atmosphere of Drake at the time. 

“Student leaders brought about a lot of change in sixty-nine and seventy. Tom pushed hard; he could listen carefully, could stand up and have an opinion, but didn’t have to win every time,” Adams recalls. “You don’t like to put on the shoulders of a twenty-one or twenty-two year old that they were ‘mature beyond their years’ in a way that people don’t believe it. But if I described Tom in any other way, I’d be lying.”

While Sullivan was developing his leadership skills in the halls of administration at Drake, he was also growing in the classrooms. He wasn’t learning solely about political science, his major, but more broadly about the power of liberal arts education and inspired teaching. While his interest in the law ran deep in his blood, Sullivan had long been impressed by teachers.

“I always wanted to teach, even before I went to law school,” Sullivan says. “I had great teachers and mentors all along the way. I had the impression, ‘Boy, would I like to do that. Would I like to be in a classroom making a difference in students’ lives as it was for me.’” With a near sense of wonder, Sullivan recalls an eighth grade English teacher who spent an entire semester diagramming sentences, an exercise that many recall with something other than wonder. “We really learned how words related to one another, the whole relationship, structure, and great craft of writing.”

Those communication skills would serve Sullivan well in his work as a lawyer, years spent as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice and as an antitrust litigator in Washington, D.C. After his move to the academic world, Sullivan has been a prolific legal scholar, the author of eleven books and fifty articles, and a nationally recognized authority on antitrust law and complex litigation.

Teaching, writing, and administration—Tom Sullivan counts them as the three loves of his years in higher education and says the three pursuits have balanced and fed one another throughout his career. No one knows Sullivan’s skills as an administrator better than Bob Bruininks, past president of the University of Minnesota who selected Sullivan to be his second in command as provost.

Bruininks defines his colleague’s leadership with a story from when the University of Minnesota struggled with a decision whether to add a satellite presence in Rochester at a time when budgets were already stretched. Bruininks was academic vice president at the time; Sullivan, law school dean.

“Tom had the least to gain of any dean around the table, yet he was the first to say to me, ‘It’s difficult, it’s an extraordinarily difficult time to do it, but it is consistent with our academic mission and public responsibilities. It is the right thing to do and we should do it,’” Bruininks says. “I’ve told that story a few times because it exemplifies Tom’s commitment to mission, to excellence, to principle, to doing the right thing.”

Former Vice President Walter Mondale has been a close friend of Sullivan’s for years and they’ve worked together on fundraising initiatives for the University of Minnesota Law School (housed in Walter F. Mondale Hall). Mondale notes today’s critical need for private support in higher education, Sullivan’s skill in fundraising at Minnesota, and the focus he has already put on it in his first months at the University of Vermont.

“He knows how to do it,” Mondale says. “You know, some of these people full of goodwill haven’t done it before and spend a couple of years learning. Tom knows exactly how to start necessary financial efforts.”

Both Bruininks and Mondale also give high praise to Leslie Black Sullivan ’77, noting her personal warmth, professional accomplishment, and the Sullivans supportive relationship. “They are a wonderful couple and it shows; people like being around them,” Mondale says. “Your university got a ‘twofer.’ It was an inspired choice by the board.”


“Tom had the least to gain of any dean around the table, yet he was the first to say to me, ‘It’s difficult, it’s an extraordinarily difficult time to do it, but it is consistent with our academic mission and public responsibilities. It is the right thing to do and we should do it.’”

On a cool September evening, Tom and Leslie Sullivan stroll across Redstone Campus. As the new president is eager to show off the “snappy new dining hall” in Simpson or the light-filled, graceful renovation of the Wing-Davis-Wilks lobby space, his alumna spouse reminisces about the more basic accommodations she knew during her days living at Wilks in the seventies. As a group of undergrads bustle past, Leslie Sullivan says, “And the students seem to have gotten younger,” then laughs.

Try as we may to guide them, life and career paths have moments where they seem to chart their own course. While Tom Sullivan’s trajectory from lawyer to law professor to provost are central to bringing him to this role as a university president, his wife’s own history and affinity for this place played a part in bringing him to the University of Vermont. Colleagues and Sullivan himself outline the appeals that attracted him to take on this challenge: the alignment of UVM’s land grant mission and place in higher education with his own principles, the current strength of the university, the appeal of Burlington and chance to be closer to family on the East Coast, and Leslie’s high regard for her alma mater.

After earning her UVM degree in political science, Leslie Black had thoughts of a legal career, thought otherwise after a stint as a paralegal, then went to work in the financial industry. She built a successful thirty-year career that began on Wall Street and continued with work in institutional money management in Minneapolis. More recently, she’s been involved in non-profit board work, particularly with an organization called Artspace that builds and restores buildings to provide living/studio space for artists and revitalize urban neighborhoods.

Married in 2008, Tom and Leslie Sullivan first met on the board of the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum. They share a love of visual art (abstract expressionism, New York school of the 1920s–1950s, in particular); good books (he’s reading Kofi Annan’s Interventions: A Life in War and Peace; she has Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed on the nightstand); good movies (latest, Farewell, My Queen about the last days of Marie Antoinette); the energy of big cities and the quiet of the outdoors. (Bob Bruininks jokes that he knew the Sullivans were truly a good match when he witnessed them canoe  a tricky passage of Minnesota’s St. Croix River without an angry word.)

And, if you talk with any of their friends, the subject of Harry Potter, the couple’s famously named Australian shepherd will come up. Sadly, Harry passed away in September from kidney failure. But, testimony to their love of the dog and his breed, the Sullivans assert there will be another Aussie in their lives when the time is right.

Tara Norgard, one of his law students at Minnesota and a longtime friend of Tom Sullivan’s, recalls when Tom first met Leslie and her dog also became a part of his life. “Harry had run of Tom’s car and house in ways that were shocking to some of us, just a head-scratcher to those who knew him in his more buttoned-down capacity,” she says.

Leslie Sullivan gets a laugh when I share Norgard’s take on when Harry met Tom.  “It is so true, just the most wonderful thing about Tom,” she says. “Tom is flexible when it comes to things that are really important. He had not been around dogs. But from the get go, if the carpet got dirty, the carpet got dirty. This is a dog, we love him, that goes with the territory.”

There will be tests and challenges ahead for President Sullivan, but let us not underestimate an early one when the Vermont Lake Monsters asked him to throw out the first pitch on UVM night at Centennial Field. No surprise that a man who learned prudence from his father and built a career being well prepared to step in front of a courtroom, a classroom, or a university boardroom realized his rusty right arm needed some practice before taking the mound in front of a couple of thousand minor league baseball fans.

So, with Harry at the ready to fetch the balls, Tom Sullivan stepped outside on a few evenings this summer, stared down the trunk of a backyard locust tree that served as his batter, and worked on throwing strikes.


President Tom Sullivan speaking at Installation

President E. Thomas Sullivan's
Installation speech
Ira Allen Chapel, October 5, 2011

Good Afternoon!  It is my privilege to join the leaders of this venerable institution and to welcome you here today as the new president of the University of Vermont.  Many thanks to everyone for being here today to celebrate with us.

When I was in college contemplating what I would do next in my life, I heard Robert Kennedy speak and his historic words live with me to this day.  He observed, “Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?”  And while my intent today is not to dwell on the politics of that time, Kennedy was challenging all of us to lift expectations and aspire to yet unconsidered greatness.

Over the course of my long career in the academy, I have learned how important it is to instill that spirit and drive in the hearts of our students, faculty, and staff.  It is part of the reason I am honored and so grateful for this opportunity to serve this beloved institution with all of you and to advance quality and excellence at this crucial juncture in the University’s 221 year history.

A large part of our responsibility is to encourage students to stretch their imaginations and push their curiosity beyond “how things are,” to raise expectations and aspirations, and to dream the big dream.  We need to help them set forth lofty goals, to ask AND answer… “Why not?”  We want the UVM experience to inspire in them a lifetime of achievement and contribution.  And, we expect our students to make a difference in the lives of others after they graduate.

Together, we can all raise our expectations and aspirations to create an academic experience of the highest quality.  In my view, there are four pathways to ensuring success for our students, faculty, and staff – and they all have to do with investing in people.

First we must provide our students access to success through scholarships and financial aid.  Affordability must be our top priority! 

Second, we must advance academic excellence by rebalancing priorities and investing in this University’s strengths to create a distinctive teaching and learning environment. 

Third, we must improve facilities and support creative endeavors and breakthrough research for our faculty and staff to attract and retain talent of the highest quality.

Fourth, central to our mission are public service, civic engagement, and outreach throughout Vermont to further economic development, health, civic life, and environmental sustainability.  We seek to inspire students to apply what they learn here and to build vibrant communities wherever they live. 

Before I explain why these pathways are absolutely crucial to our success, I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to my friends and family who came from near and far to make today’s ceremonies so special and especially to my wife Leslie, who is my full partner on this wonderful journey.

I am delighted to have our governor Peter Shumlin and Senator Bernie Sanders here to celebrate with us.  It is a special honor to have my dear friend Vice President Walter Mondale here today and my colleagues and friends President emeritus Bob Bruininks and Regents Professor Patricia Hampl from the University of Minnesota.  

I am grateful to Rob Cioffi, chair of the Board of Trustees, for his dedicated and long-term guidance and leadership of the University, and the Board of Trustees for their confidence in me and for their careful and loyal attention to the needs of the University.  I also want to thank former President Dan Fogel for his visionary leadership and John Bramley for his invaluable stewardship of the University over 20 years and most recently as Interim President.

I want to extend my gratitude to faculty, staff, students, and members of the community – all of you who have given me and Leslie such an enthusiastic welcome and overwhelming support in the first months of my term. 

Leslie, as an enthusiastic alumna of UVM, was, of course, a dedicated recruiter and quickly convinced me that this was an exceptional and vibrant campus.  I have traveled over 1000 miles of this state and visited 12 of 14 counties since my arrival, and it has become clear to me that UVM is a well-loved institution and for good reasons.

A few weeks ago as the sun set over Lake Champlain, I participated in Convocation’s Twilight Ceremony for first year students, and it was truly inspirational.  Is there an environment more beautiful or one better suited to learning than this special place? I don’t think so.

I have come to learn that not only are faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors, and state and community leaders committed, caring stewards of this institution, but you also have the highest regard for what the University can become going forward.  I know you, too, are dedicated to promoting the highest standards to ensure quality education, innovative teaching, breakthrough research, and service to the community. 

I am asking you to join me on the path to get there.

First, if we are to accomplish our goals, we must provide access to success for all of our students through increased financial aid and scholarships that support a high achieving and diverse student body.

UVM has been recognized as a public ivy.  It is a University of independent and passionate thinkers in a distinctive community of engaged learners and distinguished scholars.  Our goal is to continue the mission of Justin Morrill, the U.S. Senator from Vermont, when he created the original land-grant statute that established affordable public universities across the country. 

Although UVM was a private school for 164 years from 1791 - 1955, it became a land-grant University in 1865.  And for the last 57 years, as a University that receives state funding, we have continued the tradition of striving to provide affordable higher education by drawing on both public and private resources. 

Since President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act 150 years ago in 1862, more and more Americans have access to higher education.  College is no longer the privilege of only the elite.  Before World War II only 7.5% of Americans leaving high school went on to college; by October of last year, the national average had increased to 68.3%.  In Vermont, however, only 41% of high school seniors go on to college. 

We need to encourage qualified students to seek educational training beyond high school, and we need to work closely with middle and high school officials across the state to accomplish this goal.  And we must ensure that talented Vermonters graduating from high school can afford this excellent University.  We want all of our students to have financial access, so that they can achieve academic success throughout their 4 years here as undergraduates.

Our mission should and must be about access to success for all our students.

Second, in order to create a distinctive teaching and learning environment that advances our students’ total academic, cultural, and social experience, we must build on our academic strengths: the liberal arts, the sciences, the environment, and healthcare.  That means rebalancing with agility and targeting priorities efficiently and effectively. Choices must be made!  Given the constrained resources we live with, we will do our best to make the right choices.

This University offers a rich curriculum from basic science to applied research that enables a practical, but important integration and application of new knowledge and discovery.  Our curriculum, which emphasizes liberal education, endows our students with the skills to solve complex contemporary problems over the course of their lifetimes.

The study of the liberal arts is based on free inquiry, open debate, and a culture that encourages the questioning of our most basic assumptions.  By definition, a liberal arts education is, in essence, the time tested method of instruction and learning that best enables us to create, to study, to critique, and to understand knowledge in order to advance society and, ultimately, civilization.

By fostering the passionate and independent-minded spirit of our University community in this special place, we can better prepare our students for the demands of a booming world population, instability in the global marketplace, environmental challenges, rapid technological change, and the need to work closely together with other nations and cultures to solve local as well as global problems. 

An exceptional example of a graduate in the liberal arts who has become both a business and a community leader is Alex Wilcox, a political science major and Student Government Associate President from the Class of 1994.  Previously, a leading executive at JetBlue, he now has created his own luxury airline, JetSuite.  When he was Director of Business Development at JetBlue, he created a program that provided free flights for inner-city students and their families to visit the UVM campus from the Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx.

This program also prompted JetBlue to contribute $50,000 annually to UVM in scholarships for students from Christopher Columbus.  Alex’s contribution is a great example of a liberal arts graduate who, while doing well, is doing good in and for his community.

Next, to improve educational quality and advance academic excellence, we must improve facilities in order to support breakthrough research and creative endeavors for our faculty.  Restoring infrastructure will ensure that we continue to be a talent magnet of the highest quality and that our faculty members continue to generate preeminent scholarship and artistic work of major consequence.

We already have top scholars making significant contributions to their fields across campus.  For example, Emily Bernard, associate professor in the English Department, has written two seminal books on the Harlem Renaissance, the first of which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.  John Voight, assistant professor in both Mathematics and Statistics and Computer Science, has received a National Science Foundation Career Award for his research in Geometry.

As these scholarly contributions attest, we must invest in faculty research and the restoration of our campus to ensure that our facilities and research infrastructure are first rate, for example, in engineering, science, and medical laboratories.  These fields represent great strengths at the University that need immediate attention! 

Further, central to our mission is increased public service, civic engagement, and outreach throughout Vermont to further economic development, health, civic life, and environmental sustainability

At UVM teaching, learning, & research are inextricably linked with serving the needs of the state, New England, and the nation as we play a leadership role in helping to solve local, regional, national and international problems.  For instance – very importantly – UVM ranks 5th in the country among its cohort universities in producing Peace Corps Volunteers.  Over 800 UVM graduates have served in the Peace Corps, and 42 alumni are present members.

UVM is also an integral part of the economic and political ecosystem of Vermont.  We look forward to continuing our work with leaders in state government and local business.  And we look forward to sharing with the community the good work we are doing from supporting veterans in crisis to teaching local farmers how to build their own websites through the Farm-to-Plate program.  We will continue to foster our strong ties with community organizations and state agencies as we coordinate our efforts to serve Vermonters and help invigorate the state economy.  Our excellent work in Extension and Continuing Education will continue to enrich these partnerships throughout the state.

In summary, UVM has all of the advantages of a small university with broadly defined emphasis in liberal education; however, and very importantly, we are also the flagship research University of the state.  As an institution committed to research and discovery that benefits society for a lifetime, we cannot simply cut costs if we are to achieve relevance, trust, and impact. 

In order to be a University of national consequence, we must invest in the future of this institution and the future of our state.  As Drew Faust, President of Harvard University, has argued, “A university is not about results in the next quarter…  It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia, learning that shapes the future.  A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must – that even ought to – conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands. Universities make commitments that are timeless, and these investments have yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure.”

Through the primary pathways I have outlined today, we will invest prudently in “learning that shapes the future.”  We will provide access to success to students through strategic investments that increase scholarships and financial aid.  Specifically, we are developing a new enrollment management plan to ensure the right balance between student enrollment and faculty size at both undergraduate and graduate levels and to achieve the highest quality of learning for our students.  This plan will result in lower class size for undergraduate colleges and perhaps higher graduate student enrollment.

We will create a distinctive teaching and learning environment through targeting and rebalancing priorities that advance our students’ total academic, cultural, and social experience.  Specifically, we plan to hire faculty in selected departments and colleges where there has been a substantial increase in enrollment to guarantee an even greater quality experience for all of our students.  Our goal will be to rebalance our student/faculty ratio and lower the average number of students per class.

We will invest in educational quality by improving facilities and infrastructure for our faculty and by supporting breakthrough research and creative innovation.  Finally, we will invest in our community by promoting public service, civic engagement, and outreach across the state.

“And how will we accomplish these ambitious goals?” you might ask.

We are planning a bold, creative, new comprehensive campaign to support these crucial investments and to foster quality and excellence at every opportunity.  To be successful we need to continue to work together, listen to each other, learn from each other, and support each other to advance UVM to the next level of excellence and international recognition. 

I call on all of us to raise our expectations and aspirations to move this already distinguished University further into the first ranks of higher education.  As Robert Kennedy would say, “Why not?” 

Thank you all for all that you do for UVM!

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