UVM Installs E. Thomas Sullivan as 26th President
- By Lee Ann Cox
In an afternoon of academic pageantry that both honored the long tradition of the University of Vermont and looked forward to an invigorating future, former Vice President Walter Mondale of Minnesota delivered the keynote address before the ceremonial investiture of his longtime friend as the university’s new president.
The job ahead, according to Mondale, requires both a collaborator and a person who can make tough decisions. “A president… must unite imagination and vision with practical know-how and be ready to make progress the old-fashioned way: through hard work and determination,” he said. “I’m glad to announce that your new president, Tom Sullivan, is that kind of man. He is brilliant; he is a scholar; he is a teacher. He is a fine, decent man.”
Before coming to UVM, Sullivan served for 15 years at the University of Minnesota, the last eight as senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, and a number of other prominent Minnesotans were here to speak in his honor, including university president emeritus Robert Bruininks, under whom Sullivan served. Bruininks called his former colleage a “bold, compassionate, very wise leader.”
Before a capacity crowd in Ira Allen Chapel, Senator Bernie Sanders, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and UVM board of trustees chair Robert Cioffi also offered remarks – extending a warm welcome to both Sullivan and his wife, alumna Leslie Black Sullivan ’77 – during the ceremony which was attended by dozens of delegates from institutions across the country including the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse and the University of Michigan.
In his presidential address, Sullivan called on historic words from Robert Kennedy that fired his spirit during his own college years and beyond: “Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” The president’s vision for the university is fueled by Kennedy’s challenge, to “lift expectations,” Sullivan said, “and aspire to yet unconsidered greatness.”
That goal for the president is centered squarely on academic excellence at UVM and he presented four “pathways” towards achieving success. The first and top priority, Sullivan said, is making education affordable through scholarships and financial aid. Second is “rebalancing priorities and investing in this university’s strengths to create a distinctive teaching and learning environment.” Choices, he said firmly, must be made.
Among the specifics he offered for improving student learning and success is to develop a new enrollment management plan that would lower the student/faculty ratio, decrease class size for undergraduate enrollment and grow graduate programs.
The third pathway the president identified is to improve facilities and support creativity and “breakthrough” research in order to attract and retain the highest quality faculty and staff, noting that our faculty have – and must continue to – generate preeminent scholarship and artistic work of major consequence. Providing competitive, first-rate facilities and research infrastructure for engineering, science and medical laboratories, Sullivan said, is an immediate priority.
Fourth, and central to the mission of the state’s university, is outreach throughout Vermont to further economic development, health, civic life and environmental sustainability. “At UVM,” Sullivan said, “teaching, learning and 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.”
Fostering relevance and trust; passionate and independent-minded students; and research discoveries that benefit society for a lifetime are the achievements that Sullivan set forth for the university. It is a mission, he says, that will require everyone’s support. He called for a campus community that works together as well as listens, learns and supports each other. Sullivan also plans a bold, creative and comprehensive campaign.
Any skeptics need only listen to the former vice president. “I thought he was out of his mind,” quipped Mondale, an alumnus and benefactor of the University of Minnesota Law School, where President Sullivan, a nationally recognized authority on antitrust law and complex litigation, was dean for seven years. He was recalling Sullivan’s announcement that he would raise $30 million for a decaying law school in five years. “He went to work, he pulled everybody together and he raised $52 million,” in just three or so years Mondale said, rebuilding not only the physical structure but the school’s stature and quality of faculty and coursework.
“It was truly transformative,” Mondale said. “And he did it by getting together with the community, leading, listening, performing the kind of leadership that every higher educational institution needs... Tom believes in the power of raising aspirations and setting ambitious goals. And the power of his beliefs are contagious.”
Sullivan’s address was followed by a choral performance from the University Catamount Singers and celebratory remarks from award-winning author and poet Patricia Hampl, Regents Professor and McKnight Distinguished Professor of English also from Minnesota’s flagship university.
Hampl drew laughs – along with knowing nods of recognition – as she confessed the “crabby lot” of English professors who may feel squeezed out by engineers and applied mathematicians. “Not so long ago from our point of view, that is to say, the Middle Ages, “ Hampl said, “our work – rhetoric and the arts of language – were… the foundation of why universities came into existence. But unfortunately those big rhetoric research dollars began to dry up several centuries ago.” Now she reassures faculty in the humanities. “Tom has proved himself to be an extraordinary supporter of the arts in relationship to their public presence… you got the right guy.”
Hampl closed with a beloved poem by a most beloved Vermont poet, ending with Robert Frost’s lines, “'Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.'
Tom," she said, "I know you’ll make all the difference here.”