You can’t outwork Teresa A. Sullivan.
For our interview with the departing University of Virginia president, we managed to snag an 8 a.m. slot, and we weren’t her first appointment. She had already completed a 7 a.m. meeting to discuss the upcoming capital campaign.
After our conversation, she took a three-hour meeting with her senior staff. That afternoon, Sullivan hopped a flight to visit with the Atlanta UVA Club. By nightfall, she had arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a conference the next day.
All in a day’s work, where workdays run from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and workweeks run into weekends. That work ethic helps explain why Sullivan hardly, if ever, missed a Saturday meeting of the Alumni Association’s Board of Managers, even though she could have designated someone else for ex officio weekend duty.
So it was, in tribute to Sullivan at an awards dinner in March, that UVA School of Nursing Dean Dorrie Fontaine could get a knowing laugh by asking, “Who attends every event, including wrestling?”
Hard work defines the Sullivan presidency, both her dedication to the job and the reality that it hasn’t always been easy.
“She’s the most responsible person I know,” said Larry Sabato (Col ’74), head of UVA’s Center for Politics, in his remarks for that dinner. “Just look at the news. Whenever anything goes wrong, somehow Teresa Sullivan is responsible.”
She’s rightly responsible for a lot else. Several people we interviewed say Sullivan’s greatest legacy will come from her efforts to reconcile UVA with its racial past. She formed the President’s Commission on Slavery to uncover a hidden history, including restoration of an unmarked slave cemetery. She put forward plans for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on the green between the Rotunda and the Corner. Earlier this year, she announced plans for a second president’s commission, this one to address the fresher history of UVA during the segregation era.
Sullivan accomplished a cultural shift of a different kind. She has fostered genuine collaboration among UVA’s different schools. Increasing UVA’s focus on research, Sullivan created a series of interschool collaboratives (“pan-University institutes,” in administration parlance), starting with Data Science in 2013.
Earlier this year, the schools of undergraduate commerce and graduate business, McIntire and Darden, announced something once unthinkable: that they’d team up and offer a joint master’s degree. Says former Alumni Association CEO Tom Faulders (Col ’71), who served on Sullivan’s cabinet for seven of her eight years: “She made the University work better together.”
Sullivan’s most stunning accomplishment is the newly restored Rotunda. Plans had been in the works prior to her August 2010 arrival, and the Board of Visitors greenlighted the project during her first several weeks of getting settled. Where Sullivan made a difference was in legislative bridge building and helping UVA secure some $25 million in state funds for the estimated $58 million undertaking.
Those are just a few examples from an extensive list (see President’s Letter). Even so, and as alluded, the Sullivan years haven’t been all ribbon-cuttings and bows.
Fortune magazine in spring 2015 famously dubbed Sullivan “the unluckiest president in America.” The profile, written by Pattie Sellers (Col ’82), recited a familiar litany of unhappy, sometimes tragic, UVA events: the murders of fourth-year lacrosse player Yeardley Love (Col ’10) a few months before Sullivan’s arrival and of second-year Hannah Graham (Col ’17) four years later; Rolling Stone’s discredited “A Rape on Campus” story; the violent white-on-black arrest of Honor Committee member Martese Johnson (Col ’16) on the Corner; and, of course, Sullivan’s goodbye-and-hello ordeal in June 2012.
Later, post-Fortune, would come last summer’s Hitlerite torch rally around the Rotunda (see timeline below).
When we sat down with Sullivan one morning in April, we talked about the highlights of her tenure, both the achievements and the challenges, not so much to catalog them as to get a more personal sense of what it has been like to be the woman in the arena.
In fact, we talked about gender. In the Q&A edited and condensed below, Sullivan took the question in a different direction, away from the nature of bias and focused more on credentials. Then she shared more personal insights.
Sullivan is an interview subject who prefers not to be the subject of the interview. She’s more comfortable sharing credit or assigning it in entirety to others. In our discussion of racial reconciliation, for example, she says any other president would have done the same. On establishing those “pan-University” initiatives, she wants to make clear the idea came from the faculty up, not from Madison Hall down.
Sullivan’s style favors nuts-and-bolts and nuance over bold strokes and bold pronouncements. During the June 2012 contretemps, defending against a charge of strategic slow-footedness, Sullivan proclaimed, “I have been described as an incrementalist. It is true.”
Senior reporter Jack Stripling, who covers leadership for The Chronicle of Higher Education, calls that “probably the most telling line of any college presidency.” Says Stripling, who has reported on Sullivan throughout her tenure: “She branded herself as the slow, sober, risk-averse academician, and she seized upon that as an identity.”
(Fittingly, though not fitted in below, when we asked Sullivan to name that one big thing she most wishes she had achieved, if only she had had a little more time, she didn’t wait a beat to answer: improved financial reports for the deans.)
Frank M. “Rusty” Conner III (Col ’78, Law ’81), the UVA rector, offers: “Success really is dependent upon, for the most part, day-to-day execution, putting one foot in front of the next. She’s had the perseverance and the energy to do that. She has done that on so many different fronts at the University. It’s not glamorous. It doesn’t catch the headlines, but that is what builds the foundation for future greatness.”
Another Sullivan trademark is civility, an ethic to which she has remained true even as civic discourse has steadily coarsened in more recent years. It’s why, in addition to her significant accomplishments, she will always be remembered for the poise with which she overcame the voteless coup that briefly deposed her from office in 2012.
Sullivan recalled for us what it was like that moment in University history when she, as the just-reinstated president, emerged from the Lawn side of the Rotunda to address the cheering community. She focused on her text, not the crowd, she told us, and on the job that lay ahead, not the intrigues just past.
That day, June 26, 2012, she offered remarks of gratitude, humility and moving forward. She struck similar notes in our conversation, but she also allowed us a look back and, in the Q&A that follows, some personal reflections.
Several people credit as your foremost achievement the way you’ve led UVA to confront its complicated racial past.
I lived in Little Rock in 1957. We moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963. I saw a lot of the civil rights movement, and the reaction to it, pretty much up close and personal. And I had to make a decision in my own mind about where I thought the right lay. And because I’m a sociologist, I also understand the kind of resistance to dealing with that, and the sense of shame.
It makes you a stronger institution to be able to look at something in your past and say, but we have turned away from that now. Instead of it being something that made people ashamed of the University of Virginia, in the world of universities it has added to our luster, because we were willing to look at it and talk about it.
Is this a case in which it almost had to be a president from the outside [Sullivan, the eighth president, is one of only three without previous UVA ties]?
I’m inclined to think it is more a matter of the century in which we live. If somebody else had been president here, I think the same thing could have happened. I don’t think it’s particularly me.
Another area that people cite is what you’ve done with the financial operations of UVA, starting with the budgeting process. It’s not the most glamorous achievement to talk about.
I think it will have a big impact. It’s not quite zero-based budgeting, but it’s a little bit like that. But no, it’s not glamorous. Who wants to talk about budgeting?
When I first came here and met all the different deans, each of them, unprompted and independent of one another, talked about collaboration with other schools within the University. That was a major cultural change, yes?
I think so. The idea actually was born among the faculty. The Data Science Institute was born in part from this grassroots effort by faculty members. And actually in every one of the pan-University institutes [newly created interschool research collaboratives], there is at its heart a grassroots effort by faculty.
What other major achievements should we note?
On the academic side, the most important achievement is sustaining and replenishing the faculty at a time of generational turnover. Thinking about how to deal with retirement and rejuvenation is a big institutional issue. And instead of forcing each dean and department chair to face it individually, we tried to talk about facing it together.
On the clinical side, I believe the reorganization of the health affairs under a new executive vice president for health affairs [Richard Shannon], and then the deployment of the Be Safe [patient and workplace safety initiative] in the hospital, have far-ranging and important consequences. The health system needed to move ahead.
Do you think, at least in your early years here as UVA’s first female president, there was some gender bias in how people responded to you?
I think that there was some skepticism. But I did come here from the No. 2 position at a very large public university [as University of Michigan provost], where I was also the chief budget officer and we were running a budget of $7 billion. I think there was concern that I might not appreciate the University of Virginia tradition. And I do.
Has it made you consciously act tougher in the role to discourage gender comparisons or biases?
I think I was always pretty tough.
Women pioneers in whatever field they’re in in the academy had to have pretty tough skins to make it through tenure, to become a department chair, basically to take any role in administration. So you know, I was the first woman in lots of positions at [the University of] Texas. That was in some ways a tougher environment than here.
People load expectations on you of what you will be like and what kind of leader you’ll be. And women come in as many different leadership styles as men do. That’s a mistake, to think that women have one particular style, for example, that they always seek consensus. That’s a kind of stereotype of women leaders. And it’s probably true of some women leaders, not necessarily true of all of them. And so you do have a certain number of stereotypical expectations that you end up trying to escape.
One of them was that I wouldn’t like football. I actually do like football.
Everyone we’ve talked to admires your grace during the June 2012 presidential crisis, through what had to be so personally traumatic.
My father was a criminal attorney, and he once told me about another lawyer who was going to have dinner at our house that evening, about what a bitter battle they’d had in front of a judge that week. And I said, you know, how can we have him to dinner? My father said, no, that’s what lawyers do. That’s advocacy, but outside the courtroom, we can still be friends.
That made a deep impression on me, that you could disagree with people, but the disagreement didn’t have to carry over into everything else about your life. I think we’ve forgotten that in a lot of American public life.
What was foremost in my mind was, whatever happened to me, good or bad, I wanted the University of Virginia to come out in good shape on the other side of this. And therefore I was determined not to do anything that made it worse, or that made it about me, because frankly, the media attention and so on, it floored me. I had no idea it was going to get the kind of attention it got. I certainly didn’t intend it to, and I didn’t do anything to foster that. But that made me more determined that the University had to come out of this on the other side in good shape and without long-lasting bitter disputes about things going on.
Why didn’t you just say, “Adios folks, I’m out of here,” with what you had been through?
Well, basically I’d made a promise. At the time the board hired me, they said, how long are you willing to stay? I said, seven to 10 years, and I had served two years then. I felt I had at least five years of a promise left to fulfill. And so if the board wanted me to fulfill that promise, I was going to do it.
So what was it like on June 26, 2012, after the Board reinstated you, and you appeared on the south steps of the Rotunda to the cheers of students and faculty? What was going through your mind?
Well, in some ways, of course, it was pretty overwhelming. But the idea uppermost in my mind was, this is the moment to bring us all together, that ultimately this isn’t about me. It’s about the institution. These are people who want the University of Virginia to be strong. I might be the emblem of that at the moment, but somebody else will be the emblem of it someday. And the message I have to give now is one of, let’s come together. I suppose it’s trite to say forgive and forget, but that’s basically the attitude I wanted to convey to people. Let’s go forward.
More personally, was it hard to focus and get through the remarks?
I was laser focused. In fact, in some ways, I probably was not attending as much to the crowd as you might think, because I was really focused on what I thought needed to be done and what needed to be said. I was pretty conscious that my family was there, and as much as anything, I regretted what they had been going through. It was very tough on them, and I hope they felt that was the moment that made it worth it for them. I was conscious of the board members who were there, who had done something remarkable. They had reversed themselves, and that’s not easy to do.
When we send out our quarterly reader surveys, no matter what questions we ask, we often get a comment back that says something to the effect that Terry Sullivan is anti-Greek and her first reaction to Rolling Stone was to shut down the fraternity system. Correct the record for us.
The night the Rolling Stone story came out, there was an attack on the Phi [Kappa] Psi house. … The [Inter-Fraternity Council] decided to shut down their social events that coming weekend, which was the weekend of the last football game. And there was a protest march that evening, but there was no physical attack on any house.
But I was concerned about the safety of the houses and so I said to the Greek system, I’d like you not to have social events for the next two weekends. Well, the next weekend was Thanksgiving weekend; no one was here. And the weekend after that was the middle of exams. Just, let’s let this die down a little bit.
And I said, but I do think this is an opportunity for you to go and look at the agreement you have with the University in terms of, are guests safe in your houses and what about alcohol use? In fact, the IFC had been talking about these very issues. And the IFC officers came back with a draft of changes that they proposed to [Dean of Students] Allen Groves and me. We talked about it on several occasions with them. We didn’t write it. We didn’t force it on them. But we suggested that this was a good time to do that.
Some of the criticism during the Rolling Stone crisis was that you weren’t strident enough when you initially responded in condemning sexual assault. Something similar happened with the hate rallies last summer, where the messaging was considered a little too careful, maybe a little too nuanced.
I’m not a particularly strident person. I’m an academic, and we tend to be nuanced. I also think the notion now that if your discourse is not outraged it is somehow not righteous, is not true and not necessarily good for the country. I think that we’ve had plenty of outrage expressed, but sometimes that’s not the only way to go forward.
But you’re right. In both those cases I did try to come out with fairly nuanced but principled statements, and the criticism was, principally, there weren’t enough adjectives and adverbs in there. Really, that was it.
You know, I work with a communication team on doing this. I know what I want to say. They may help me with the phrasing of it, but basically, the message you’re getting is my message. And so if it’s not strident enough, well, that’s kind of who I am.
During the June 2012 events you famously called yourself “an incrementalist.”
When you think about how change is made in a lasting way, it can be disruptive or revolutionary. That leaves a lot of hurt feelings which come back eventually in other ways and disrupt the institution on their own. Whereas change that is made a little bit more slowly, maybe less visibly and with a little less attention drawn to it, in the long run creates less pain and therefore, I think, becomes more effective.
That doesn’t mean that there’s not change happening. But it may mean I’m not bragging about it all the time. That is what incrementalism means.
Now in the case of sexual assault, that’s not something that you’re incremental about. Sexual assault is not something you tolerate. I don’t think there’s anybody out there who really thinks I’m OK with sexual assault.
In their farewell tributes, many well-wishers have made reference to all the crises you’ve had to deal with over your term. We’ve talked about a few of them. When you look back at these eight years, how do you put things in perspective?
Those obviously have been difficult. Crises come in any leadership position. What’s more important is, are you still able to get done the things that have to get done? Did we restore the Rotunda? Did we get ready for the bicentennial celebration? Did we finish the capital campaign? Did we hire great people to leadership positions here at the University? You know, all those things, I think, are the really lasting achievements.
Nothing is worse than losing students, no matter how it is they die. You never get over that, whether it’s an accidental death or in the case of Yeardley [Love] and Hannah [Graham], a murder. That’s not something you’ll ever get over.
But to balance that, there’s the joy at every final exercises of so many students. I have my first group of advisees graduating this year and had dinner with them last week, and talking with them about where they’re going and seeing how they have changed since they were 18. That’s the reason you go into the academy, because you’re making a bet on the next generation. And I was happy to make that bet on the next generation of UVA alumni, and I think that bet’s going to pay off pretty well.
We started at 8 a.m., and we’re not even your first appointment. Give us an idea of your day, the crazy hours you work.
Seven in the morning until maybe 9 o’clock at night. At 9 o’clock, I have to start winding down or I won’t go to sleep. So I essentially unplug, except obviously for emergencies.
Do you get a day of rest?
You know, Sunday morning there’s usually nothing scheduled. That gives me a chance to go to church and catch up with my husband [UVA law professor Douglas Laycock]. But yeah, pretty much, Sundays are work days, too, at least in the afternoon and the evening. But for me, going to athletic events is not work. If I spend the afternoon at a baseball game, that’s relaxing.
They say the greatest job in any organization is past president. What are you most looking forward to in being a past president?
A lot of things have happened in my field, which is demography. I’m looking forward to having a chance to actually audit some classes [at the University of Texas] and getting my own courses back into shape to teach [at UVA].
What part of your job will you miss the most?
Oh, the people, I think. Yes. I’m very proud of my leadership team. I think they’ve done a great job through thick and thin. I’ll miss the daily interaction with them.
And what part will you miss not at all?
Some of the angry emails that are written at two in the morning after an athletic team has suffered a loss.
Timeline of the Sullivan Presidency
Sullivan lays the groundwork for a new budget model that will give deans more direct influence in their operating units.
UVA announces completion of the $3 billion capital campaign begun in 2006.
Sullivan creates the President’s Commission on Slavery.
BOV approves in principle Sullivan’s Cornerstone Plan, a strategy that will put new emphasis on student advising, research, interschool collaboration, faculty recruiting, affordability and operational efficiencies.
Second-year student Hannah Graham (Col ’17) is abducted downtown, her body discovered five weeks later. A local taxi driver will plead guilty in 2016 and receive life without parole.
With prompting from the administration, leaders of the Greek system come up with a set of stricter safety and alcohol rules. A few initially balk, and Sullivan draws criticism from some fraternity alumni.
White ABC agents on the Corner arrest and bloody Martese Johnson (Col ’16), an African-American member of the Honor Committee, prompting student protests in the wake of a series of white-on-black police incidents around the country.
The BOV approves the Strategic Investment Fund, a plan to put income from $2.2 billion in pooled reserves toward research, the student experience and college affordability.
Citing the accomplishment of much of her Cornerstone Plan, Sullivan announces she will step down in July 2018.
Aug. 11, the night before deadly downtown demonstrations, neo-Nazis march up the Lawn colonnade carrying lighted torches and shouting anti-Semitic slogans, then scuffle with counterprotesters on the Rotunda’s north terrace.
The Deans Working Group, a task force Sullivan appointed to address issues related to the previous month’s violence, releases a report showing shortcomings in the administration’s handling of events. An outside study for the city will later do the same in greater detail.
Sullivan announces plans for a President’s Commission on UVA during the segregation era.
The end of Sullivan’s presidency. After her term, Sullivan, a sociologist, plans to spend a few semesters at the University of Texas and then return to teaching at UVA.