A Study in Green and Gold

From lawyer to university president

by Will Lindner

uvm_tom_sullivanSince 2012 when Tom Sullivan was named president of The University of Vermont, he has launched two major initiatives: 1) a strategic action plan to attract high-caliber students, ensure affordable tuition, attract and retain talented faculty and staff, and modernize buildings and classrooms; and 2) a $500 million comprehensive campaign.
Photo: Andy Duback

Thomas Sullivan’s job — the presidency of The University of Vermont — is an extraordinarily heavy lift. He gives no hint of that in conversation: His tone is one of enthusiasm and a profound commitment to higher education. He does, sometimes, impart a sense of urgency.

The university is an anchor for the state, a repository for Vermont’s social, cultural, democratic, and, very importantly, economic aspirations. Yet it navigates in stormy seas. The northeastern United States, and especially New England, Sullivan explains, is the most competitive environment for colleges and universities.

While, as an institution governed by the Land-Grant College Act of 1862 (authored by Sen. Justin Morrill of Vermont), its foremost duty is to provide an educational resource for the sons and daughters of Vermont — steadfastly remaining, the act says, “accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil, where all of needful science for the practical avocations of life shall be taught …” — there is a dwindling pool of those students.

“In the mid-2000s, the state was graduating about 7,000 students from its high schools each year,” Sullivan says. “Now that figure is closer to 5,000, one of the lowest totals in the country. And it’s been going down for 18 years.”

Thus, the university’s viability depends upon recruiting students from other states, other regions, other nations. Facing competition from so many other excellent schools makes that difficult. Further ratcheting up the pressure for recruitment is the comparatively scant financial allocation UVM receives annually from the state. Sullivan addresses this subject diplomatically, but it’s a reality UVM contends with.

“Only 3 percent of the UVM operating budget comes from the State of Vermont, which is 49th in the nation in educational appropriations per student full-time equivalent. Only New Hampshire is below us.” Half of that allocation is set aside for scholarships and financial aid for Vermont students. Sullivan is on board: UVM is a land-grant university with a duty to equalize educational opportunities for the state’s citizens. Nevertheless, half of 3 percent is a somewhat forlorn 1.5 percent.

Sullivan arrived at UVM in July 2012. In a comparatively short time, he, with the support of UVM’s trustees, has launched two major initiatives responding to these challenges. The first is a strategic action plan. Its four “pillars” flirt with academic jargon, using terms like “Promoting a culture of ... excellence,” but the detailed bullet points more candidly identify the university’s needs. An example is improving the infrastructure for scientific research. While the plan is a tempered, professionally worded document, Sullivan is more direct in conversation.

“Our facilities in the college of engineering and in the physical sciences are not acceptable,” he says. “Some of the labs are substantially worse than labs students are coming from in high school.”

For this problem, the remedy is already underway. UVM has broken ground on the largest capital project in its history: a “STEM Complex” of state-of-the-art facilities for science, technology, engineering, and math. The buildings are to open in stages, concluding in 2019.

In summary, the steps outlined in the plan are designed to attract a high caliber of students, while ensuring an affordable tuition, particularly for the Vermonters among them; similarly attract and retain talented faculty and staff to enhance the university’s appeal; modernize outdated buildings and classrooms; and identify savings and efficiencies to help make these things happen.

As president and chief executive officer of The UVM Health Network and chief executive officer of The UVM Medical Center, John Brumsted, M.D., appreciates this approach. “I have found Tom Sullivan to be a great partner with whom to explore a wide range of opportunities that are possible because of the strong relationship between the UVM Medical Center and Health Network and the university,” he says.

The second major initiative of the Sullivan administration is a $500 million, fund-raising “comprehensive campaign.”

“You can put the strategic action plan and the comprehensive campaign right up next to each other,” says Sullivan. “One is the vision and goals, and the other is the mechanism to finance it. In our situation we have to have private philanthropic support. We are late to that game, quite frankly.”

UVM was founded 225 years ago, in 1791, and its generations of graduates represent a relatively untapped resource. Yet the campaign’s early success is impressive: $270 million raised so far. “Our goal is to close the campaign in the summer of 2019,” says Sullivan, “so as I remind my friends and colleagues: ‘Three and a half years to go, and we’re gonna get it done!’”

Karen Meyer, a veteran of government service, having worked for then-Rep. James Jeffords and in Madeleine Kunin’s gubernatorial cabinet, says what Sullivan won’t. “He has a huge job; an enormously complex job.”

Meyer’s resume also includes 10 years of employment at UVM in top-level executive and community relations posts, under three former presidents. (A 1970 UVM graduate, she refers to herself as “a little girl from Virginia, who came and never left.”) Serving now on the UVM Foundation board, Meyer is closely involved with the comprehensive campaign. These experiences provide her a perspective on Sullivan’s duties.

“UVM is a big corporation with about a $630 million budget, a very involved faculty, 10,000 adolescents camped in your backyard, and whopping financial responsibilities.”

In Meyer’s estimation, Sullivan is the right person at the right time for the university. His lengthy administrative resume, a distinguished 25-year teaching career, and a curriculum vitae that lists scores of academic publications and honors, earn him persuasive cachet, she believes.

“The fact that little UVM undertakes a $500 million comprehensive campaign, which we all absolutely know we’re going to be successful in reaching, is absolutely due to Tom’s style,” she says. “He’s comfortable with a really wide range of people, and he has a quiet confidence that instills confidence in the rest of us.”

Sullivan was raised by parents who expected high achievement. Born in 1948, he grew up in Amboy, Illinois, where his father had played high school football against another local youngster named Ronald Reagan. Thomas was the youngest of five children, all of whom were expected to become doctors or lawyers. “My father was a trial attorney,” he says, “so that was my path, too, from college into law school.”

Yet Sullivan was captivated from an early age by teachers who revealed to him the power, the importance, and the adventure for the mind and spirit of education. He dutifully attended Drake University in Iowa, and then Indiana University Law School. But he had a plan: He would practice law with commitment and passion, and then take that experience into a career in education.

After earning his law degree (magna cum laude, 1973), he clerked for two years in Miami with Federal District Judge Joe Eaton, whom he considers an important mentor. That service brought him extensive experience in antitrust and complex litigation, which he took to the U.S. Department of Justice, where he tried corporate and security fraud cases in federal court. After two years, he switched sides, becoming a litigator for a Wall Street law firm.

Then, in 1979, he made his move, becoming an associate professor (and eventually a professor) of law at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “I thought I would do that for the rest of my life,” he says.

But in 1985 he moved on to Washington University in St. Louis, where he soon got his first taste of administration, accepting an offer to serve as associate dean at the law school. From 1985 to 2012, when he came to Vermont, he held deanships at Washington University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Minnesota — including an eight-year provostship at Minnesota. For the most part, he kept his hand in the classroom.

The appeal of academic administration, he explains, is that “you are called upon to be more visionary and really shape and define and move an institution forward.”

Sullivan was enjoying a sabbatical at New York University in 2012 when he came into UVM’s sights as a candidate for the presidency. Coincidentally, he had recently visited UVM for a nephew’s graduation in mechanical engineering. And there was another link: Sullivan’s wife, Leslie, a native of Long Island, was a member of the UVM Class of 1977.

“She was wildly enthusiastic about the possibility of returning here,” he recalls.

Leslie enjoyed a 30-year career in institutional money management in New York City and Minneapolis, where she met Sullivan, who had lost his first wife to cancer in 2001. They were married in 2008.

Now, the two, and their companion Sully (part Australian shepherd/part border collie) are fixtures on the UVM campus, where the university provides them with a house. Leslie serves on the boards of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Burlington City Arts, and the Humane Society of Chittenden County. They are both, Sullivan says, patrons of the arts — and dedicated bikers and hikers.

Vermont is struggling to keep its young people in the state, training them and supporting businesses and industries that need that next generation of educated, well-prepared employees. Sullivan believes the university is at the very nexus of that effort; he cites recent innovations at the university specifically crafted to promote those objectives. There’s a lot riding on their success, he says, before closing his door and getting back to work. •