University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

UVM Exceptionalism

President Sullivan delivering UVM and Future of American Higher Education speech
Photograph by Seth Neary


UVM Exceptionalism

The following is an excerpt from a speech President Sullivan delivered at a special program, “UVM and the Future of American Higher Education,” on May 28, 2014 in New York City.

I want to share with you a vital vision for the University of Vermont, a University as old as the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. This vision is rooted in the University’s values and driven by what we will become, a community of minds that shapes the future landscape of higher education in the United States. It is a vision of UVM’s exceptionalism, present and future, and its stature as a Public Ivy.

UVM is a talent magnet that attracts curious, self-starting, engaged students, who are motivated to achieve.  Our graduates are ready for the financial district of New York, the high rises of Hong Kong, nonprofits in many sectors and Burlington’s flourishing technology community. I want to address the challenges of the future of higher education and how UVM will thrive in a competitive world and then make the case for why UVM needs you and your support to continue our trajectory toward distinguished leadership in higher education.

The University of Vermont is and must continue to be a leader among American higher education institutions. You are here because you care deeply about the University of Vermont. We all want the same things for UVM’s future: undergraduates with financial access to a top-rated education; a campus that continues to offer the stellar student experience we are known for; and faculty who tackle global problems, while educating our future leaders.

Imagine walking through our campus several years from now where you may cross paths with a faculty member who has developed an accurate computer model for predicting natural disasters. East of Williams Hall, you will see the complex for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), its classic architecture belying the cutting-edge science housed inside. Beyond our STEM Lab Complex, you will see the growing campus of our partners in the health sciences at Fletcher Allen Health Care, where UVM-trained physicians and nurses are building new models for high quality healthcare. You may meet a first-year student who declined admission at Dartmouth in favor of UVM because of our outstanding Honors College. You will sense anticipation on campus for that evening’s men’s basketball game when 6,500 fans will fill the new Multipurpose Event Center to see UVM defeat Duke University’s Blue Devils.

The University of Vermont campus was carved from a wilderness hilltop more than two centuries ago in the optimistic early days of this country. Now UVM stands at another moment of challenge and radiant opportunity. With shrinking public fiscal support for education and scientific research, the challenges faced by all of American higher education are formidable. Our colleges’ and universities’ success or failure in meeting those challenges will have a critical impact on American society as a whole and on whether we will see the advancement of democracy and civilization as we know them. I believe it is imperative that we advance UVM to a place where it can compete with the nation’s finest universities by combining world-class research with distinguished undergraduate teaching.

First, let me be clear: UVM is not and will not be in the mass higher education market. Our mission and vision are focused. We are an institution of liberal education emphasizing a strong undergraduate experience with five professional colleges and graduate programs that are central to our growing status as a small, but important research university. Our core mission continues to include teaching, learning, education, research and engagement. Our quest is for creating and discovering new knowledge and information and advancing understanding through critique and analysis. Importantly, our defined learning and development outcomes for students include:

1.    The ability to acquire a body of knowledge through a specific discipline and major;
2.    Critical thinking and analytical skills;
3.    The integration of qualitative and quantitative knowledge;
4.    Decision making and problem solving skills;
5.    The ability to communicate and collaborate with others to reach just and ethical results.

Our laboratories, classrooms, and offices are filled with faculty in search of answers to the most pressing questions that face our country and our world. As we address opportunities to flourish in the future, allow me to point to a few shining examples of our faculty’s work. Professor of Sociology and former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Eleanor Miller was awarded a Fulbright research grant to study the success of decriminalizing drugs and the use of treatment programs for addicts at Universidade Nova in Lisbon, Portugal. Cardiologist and College of Medicine Professor Peter Spector and physiologist Jason Bates have co-developed a virtual human heart, software that models the organ’s electrical activity to vastly improve the interpretation of diagnostic tests and guide treatment. In April, UVM Geology Professor Paul Bierman’s work appeared in the Wall Street Journal, on National Public Radio, and on late night TV with Jimmy Fallon. Professor Bierman is researching changes in landscapes over millions of years by studying Greenland’s ice sheet, leading to a new understanding of climate change. Imagine how, with support from you, these great minds might help to power an economic engine that soars within and beyond the borders of Vermont. 

Taking these research efforts to the next level at UVM will mean continuing to draw the best and brightest faculty to campus with endowed professorships and state-of-the-art facilities. When I arrived as president nearly two years ago, we had 53 endowed faculty positions. We now have 84 endowed positions committed by our generous donors, an addition of 31 in 23 months, and we plan to double our endowed faculty positions by 2019.

While we continue to grow our research and creative efforts, the University of Vermont remains dedicated, first and foremost, to our core mission: undergraduate education. We must provide “access to success.” These words signify our commitment to doing all we can to keep higher education affordable through essential scholarship support to ensure that all our students thrive and succeed. I recall what the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote about education, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” My promise to you is that we will continue lighting this fire, student by student.

Let me tell you about two of our glowing embers. Inspired by research with College of Medicine professors, Christopher Veal ’14 now plans to earn an MD/PhD in immunology. In Chris’s words, “It is amazing how life can lead you in a direction that you would have never dreamed possible.” Alexandria Hall ’15, a first-generation college student from Vergennes, Vermont, was recently awarded a highly competitive Beinecke Scholarship. She is a gifted poet and musician who has thrived at UVM under the mentorship of poet and Guggenheim Fellow, Professor Major Jackson.

While the work of our University will reach all corners of the world, we hope that all corners of the world also will reach our University.  The diversity of our campus community has grown a good deal over the past decade. But we still must make a great leap ahead to increase significantly domestic and global diversity, so that students from New Delhi, Beijing and Melbourne study side by side with students from New York City; Ridgewood, New Jersey; Hardwick, Vermont; New Canaan, Connecticut; and Denver, Colorado.

That thought brings us back to the historic core of our University, that swath of green at the top of the hill.  I am sure many of you are struck by the  transformation of our campus across the past decade: the residential learning communities of University Heights; the plant science labs and classrooms of Jeffords Hall; the athletic facilities at Winder and Virtue fields and Livak track; the innovative green renovation of the Aiken Building; and, of course, the Davis Center, the new student hub on campus. 

We are poised now for a number of projects that will dramatically impact the life, culture, and work of the campus: the completion of the Alumni House, a physical and symbolic center for our alumni family; the historic restoration of Billings Library, the intellectual home for the library’s world-renowned Silver Special Collections, the important Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies, and the Center for Research on Vermont; designing the Multipurpose Event Center, a home for our basketball and hockey teams, fitness and wellness facilities for our entire student body, and a space for social and cultural events; and, very importantly, the completion of our new STEM facility. As a new teaching and learning hub, the STEM Complex will help us to integrate qualitative learning from the important liberal arts and quantitative analysis from the fields of science and engineering. It is time to move forward and finish each of these projects.

In the midst of all the challenges facing higher education, we have a clear vision of where UVM stands and where it is headed. This is our moment to step confidently into a future as a Public Ivy. We are poised to continue as strong leaders in higher education and to seize future opportunities that will ensure the University of Vermont is a national institution of consequence. With your commitment and engagement, you embody the very finest support we could ever hope for in alumni and friends. Now, more than ever, your stalwart support is critical as we bring the University to the next level of excellence and recognition. In the years ahead, I look forward to working with all of you as we move mountains to transform our vision into reality at the University of Vermont, your University!

—Tom Sullivan

After the event, guests gathered at the home of alumnus Jack  Silver ’64 and his wife Shirley for a reception where Tom Sullivan announced a $5 million gift from the Silvers. For more on that story,

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