University of Vermont

University Communications

Interview: President Tom Sullivan

"I am a product of a liberal arts tradition," President Tom Sullivan says, "...and I credit my education for my own path in life." (Photo: Sally McCay)

UVM’s new president has been on the job for nearly three months, but the position was formalized, to say the least, on Friday, Oct. 5 with an installation ceremony that included the university police services honor guard, a processional led by the pipes and drums of St. Andrew’s Society of Vermont, visiting dignitaries, among them former Vice President Walter Mondale and the presentation of the insignia of the office – the president’s medallion and memorial mace – both of which, Tom Sullivan says with a laugh, were heavier than any of the 850 or so people in attendance could have imagined. But he stayed on his feet and, with the pomp and pageantry behind him, UVM Today wanted to check in about some of the even weightier matters coming across his desk.

UVM TODAY: How are you feeling after the ceremony? Do you think it gave you an even greater sense of your role and responsibility?

President Tom Sullivan: I had said that I wanted to spend my first 100 days meeting people and listening and learning on campus and throughout Vermont, and we really did do that in large measure, and it gave me lots of ideas for the speech on Friday. I think the ceremony validated that, and we can hopefully start rolling out the vision articulated in the speech. I came in to work on Monday morning with this sense of, okay, now we’re ready to proceed. Let’s go.

In your speech you called on the university to think about Robert Kennedy’s question “Why not?” and to expand the thinking about what UVM can be into the territory of “unconsidered greatness.” Can you offer a sense of where you want to take UVM? How big is that dream?

As I said, this is already a very distinguished university. I have the opportunity to continue with the momentum, hence my theme of raising expectations and aspirations to really push through and be better at what we do – and be recognized for that. But first it’s important to have a context of who are we, what are our strengths and weaknesses, and that leads to a strategic vision and plan to actually move us forward. So a large part of the visioning is about imagining and dreaming. The Kennedy refrain. And why not do that? Because if we don’t, we will fall behind.

We compete in a very global society for faculty, for staff, for research grants, and we simply have to keep pushing the frontiers of new knowledge and discovery if we’re going to be in the front ranks. That’s what I was referring to. And that takes not only visionary thinking but also strong, effective, timely implementation. I frequently say that all the great ideas in the world are not particularly meaningful unless you actually implement them.

In what company do you see UVM in terms of other institutions?

I think UVM is unique, quite frankly, and that is its strength. It also makes it more difficult to be in the ranking game. We are at our core a great liberal arts center, and around it are some very strong professional and graduate schools. And we are a research university, though small, which gives us the advantage of having this intimacy between faculty and students as well as undergraduates who have the opportunity to be involved in serious research projects with senior faculty. We have great strengths that a lot of institutions don’t have when it comes to our scale, scope and mission.

But right now we also don’t have all the resources that we need to realize the dream. So we have to be thoughtful and fairly assertive about how we identify and acquire those resources, both public and private, for us to be successful as we raise expectations and aspirations. I see those as not only challenges but as real opportunities. And I’m going to focus on the opportunities.

Research funding right now is about $130 million, more than half of that in the College of Medicine. Do you have a target of where you’d realistically like to see that?

It’s too early because that will be part of a strategic plan, but clearly we’re in an environment where we’re seeing flattening or decreasing national grant dollars. That means that we have to be more agile in getting those grants, and we have to maintain and create facilities and infrastructure that support and enable our very talented, creative faculty to be quicker, smarter and more successful. So it’s too early to be putting numbers on that, but every year we should be doing better even in the face of greater competition.

Your speech emphasized lowering undergraduate enrollment. Can you talk about goals for where you’d like to see those numbers?

We were at a high-water mark at about 10,500 undergraduate students. I think we ought to bring those down to about 9,600 and at the same time increase the faculty so we can lower the student/faculty ratio and lower the average number of students in a class. That goes back to one of our strengths that I mentioned above: we have the breadth and sweep of a research university but also the advising, mentoring and teaching that can be so meaningful. We have it all. So I think by rebalancing with a new enrollment management plan we can enhance strength and quality for faculty and students. Now there are some resource tradeoffs there that we’re going to have to offset. I understand that.

Conversely you mentioned graduate program growth. What can be done there, and do you see that as primarily growing existing programs or do you think there may be new areas of strength to develop?

When I arrived I saw, given our vision statement to be a preeminent small research university, that we needed to look at the size, scope and quality of our graduate programs because graduate education and research impact are inextricably linked. It struck me, intuitively, that our graduate programs may be too small or too few in number to really reach the impact that we want in research and scholarship.

I don’t have targeted numbers, it’s too early for that too, but I would like to have a thorough review, including which areas should be increased and which should stay the same or be reduced. All of that will be part of the conversation. Where are there real strengths and comparative advantages and opportunities? Where is the demand in the marketplace for students and for jobs?

And certainly there’s a growth market right now in a number of professional, terminal master’s degrees that don’t lead to a Ph.D. program. And I think we can play a significant role there. So you could envision a lowering of enrollment for undergraduate students while at the same time incrementally increasing graduate education, a rather modest rebalancing.

The vision and the opportunities are exciting and inspiring, but as you said emphatically in your speech, choices must be made. What can you tell the campus about that process?

One of the real opportunities is to identify where our great departments and our great colleges can showcase themselves. And if compelling cases can’t be made, then the question is raised: well, should we continue? Are we up to the task of making this program better? Those are tradeoffs and choices that we simply have to make. But we are a data-rich and data-informed institution so I’m confident we can do that with a good conversation.

Do you feel that TRI and SIP, which were in place before you were arrived, were good places to start?

I think the priorities that were identified with regard to complex systems and food systems and neuroscience were all well considered proposals, as I understand them, and are well suited for this university, broadly defined. I think there are a couple of additional areas that we need to make investments in that fall somewhat outside those, for example, in the environment – after all, our vision statement talks about us being preeminent in the environment and we are very strong there, but if we’re going to be faithful to that vision statement then we’ve got to make investments in that very broadly defined area, the environment, from basic science, to applied science, to public policy, to regulation. This is a university that has great comparative advantage in this area, as does the state of Vermont, and I think it would be a real lost opportunity if we did not continue to invest significantly in it.

Another area that is consistent with our great liberal education tradition is investment in the humanities, fine arts and social sciences. Those are areas that tend, particularly the fine arts and humanities, not to have many opportunities at the national granting agency level – and sometimes not in the marketplace for private dollars. So we’ve got to make sure that those continue to be strong and preeminent at this university as we say in our vision statement.

Those are the opportunities that we face. And I think they are quite compatible with each other, but choices along the way will have to be made. And that’s going to be based upon quality, comparative advantage, and market factors, our capacity versus demand. It’s a multifaceted analysis and I see four categories to focus on when thinking about that.

First, identifying where we are really distinguished. Obviously we should continue to invest in those, no question. Then, category two, where are we nearly distinguished but not quite and with reasonable investments in a very short period we can in fact be distinguished. The third category may be areas or programs that we are not distinguished in but that are absolutely foundational or fundamental to the university, frequently where courses are required, all students must take them, they really are essential to a university education. These have to be invested in, even if not distinguished from some national ranking perspective.

Then there’s the fourth category: programs that don’t fall into one, two or three. Those are the ones we will have to look at very carefully to see if we should or shouldn’t be in the business of offering. So really focusing on what’s core. As we get further outside of that core, there has to be greater analysis about whether or not new investment should be made in these areas.

The world we live in is all about making choices and setting priorities. The timeline that I would hope for establishing this is roughly three years – I’m putting together a thousand day plan. My experience in administrative strategic planning suggests that a three- to five-year time horizon is about as good as we can get. That’s why I’m focusing on the three because outside, beyond five, no one has a crystal ball. I know universities that do ten-year and twenty-year plans. I don’t think those are realistic. This is a fast-moving dynamic culture. So I’m more comfortable with a thousand day plan, with review and analysis along the way as it evolves, with adjustments if necessary. Then at the end look retrospectively: were we successful or not and why not and what adjustments needed to be made and what didn’t we know then that we know now? It’s a very dynamic process. Nothing in the academy can really be static because if you think the status quo is  acceptable you are falling behind.

It’s clear that you are a great supporter of arts and humanities – and a fan of public art we understand. How might those interests play out at UVM?

Well, I am a product of a liberal arts tradition. I concentrated my coursework on political science, history and economics and, of course, went to law school, which is a category of the social sciences, and I credit my education for my own path in life. I couldn’t do what I do or try to do today without that great liberal arts education -- the analytical skills, the communication skills, the problem-solving orientation. Part of that liberal arts education was an introduction to and an appreciation of the important role art can and should play in our lives and in society at large. I continue to have these interests and passions, and I’m particularly supportive of public art because it is part of our landscapes and so many more people can enjoy it and through that can have an appreciation and education about the significant role art plays in understanding life itself.

Next week I’m going to have a very thorough walking tour of the campus both in terms of our buildings and infrastructure as well as our landscape. I would like us, because we are stewards here for a given period of time, to make sure that UVM continues to be an inviting community and campus. We can do that with a beautiful landscape of trees and shrubs and flowers and art all around in public spaces so everyone can enjoy it. I want the campus to be inviting, safe and distinctive – not only to draw that talent magnet that I’ve talked about, but also because it gives us energy to think those big dreams and big thoughts, to raise our expectations and aspirations and say we can do this better. Look at this magnificent place where we have the privilege of working.