Installing the president: Sullivan outlines vision for UVM at colorful ceremony

Shumlin greets the procession and presidential party. Photo by Greg Guma.

Shumlin greets the procession and presidential party. Photo by Greg Guma.

It was a lovely day for a procession, agreed Gov. Peter Shumlin. He was standing on the steps of Ira Allen Chapel with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on a sunny Friday afternoon as they waited for 250 people to accompany Thomas Sullivan to his “installation” as president of the University of Vermont.

“It took a while to get comfortable with installation,” according to UVM Trustees Chairman Robert Cioffi. But Sullivan preferred the word to “inauguration,” and once Cioffi considered various definitions he saw the point. Among the meanings he found are establishing a person in office and inducting someone with ceremony.

Both definitions certainly applied, so “installation it is and here we go,” Cioffi announced in an upbeat welcome to faculty, students, deans, senior administrators, visiting dignitaries including former vice president Walter Mondale, and members of Vermont’s extended community who had tickets for an Oct. 5 event steeped in pomp, circumstance and academic tradition.

“Let’s enjoy this moment of pride,” Cioffi suggested with a smile.

Sullivan, the object of all the attention, was focused on the future, and, for the first time, outlined his vision for Vermont’s leading post-secondary institution. UVM should encourage curiosity beyond “how things are,” raise expectations and support big dreams, argued Sullivan, a legal scholar and former provost at the University of Minnesota.

His personal aspirations as president are high indeed; as defined in his address, they are “to advance UVM to the next level of excellence and international recognition” and “move this already distinguished university further into the first ranks of higher education.”

Sullivan is the 26th president of the 221-year-old university, the fifth oldest in New England. In 2011, former President Daniel Fogel stepped down amid personal controversy and criticism about his severance and compensation package. In early February 2012 the trustees revised the compensation policy for top executives and made final arrangements to hire Sullivan for $417,000 a year, plus $30,000 in deferred compensation for the first three years.

Sullivan arrived in July with his wife Leslie, a 1977 UVM liberal arts graduate. They will live in the presidential residence, Englesby House, which is seeing $1 million in renovations.

Ritual and symbols

Ceremonies like this rarely take place in Vermont. The UVM Concert Band, Catamount Singers and University Organist Marion Coe provided a musical prelude and accompaniment for the National Anthem. The university’s Police Services Honor Guard led the procession, along with the pipes and drums of St. Andrew’s, banners, marshals, representatives of honor societies, and the presidential party.

Introductory speeches were delivered by Vermont’s governor, one of its two U.S. senators, and Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president and a presidential candidate in 1984, who reminisced about Sullivan’s fundraising triumphs in Minnesota. “No one had ever seen anything like it,” Mondale recalled.

The most ritual-laden moment came after the introductions and testimonial remarks, when a half dozen student, faculty, staff and board leaders presented Sullivan with UVM’s “symbols of authority” during a brief “investiture” ceremony.

The symbols include a Presidential Medallion to be worn at various ceremonies, a vase that dates back to 1927, and a Memorial Mace, a 47- inch black ebony staff topped by a silver-plated sculpture. The mace is carried by the university marshal at most ceremonies. The sculpture at the top symbolizes UVM’s founding, along with learning, spiritual guidance and friendship. One side shows the Old Mill and Mount Mansfield. The others depict three students reaching toward a lamp, Ira Allen Chapel, and a group of friends.

Many attending the event wore academic regalia — a tradition at universities that dates back to the Middle Ages. UVM was one of the first schools to experiment with academic gowns, first required at the 1806 graduation ceremony. The hood on UVM gowns is lined with green and has a gold chevron, representing the school colors.

Impressions and praise

In his testimonial remarks, Shumlin recalled meeting with Sullivan for the first time. “I was struck by two things,” he said. “He listened better than most people I’ve met.” The governor was also impressed by Sulllivan’s “intellectual humbleness.”

UVM’s new president “gets it,” Shumlin said, referring specifically to the need to increase equality of access. Vermont has not “moved the needle of breaking the link between income and higher education,” he admitted. But Shumlin also expressed optimism that Sullivan can help to make UVM accessible and affordable for all.

“We got very lucky with this guy,” he said.

Sanders had less to add about Sullivan and more to say about the challenges that face higher education and “our great and troubled democracy.” Mentioning student debt and the role of higher education in preparing people for “meaningful jobs,” Sanders called on Sullivan to be aggressive on behalf of students and the state.

“How do we not waste potential because kids can’t afford college?” Sanders asked. “Our state can lead this nation.” However, to do that he says it needs the help of the UVM Medical School and other departments.

Sullivan colleagues from Minnesota gave the cavalcade of appreciation a more personal touch. Robert Bruininks, president emeritus of the university, described him as a bold, compassionate leader who had encouraged a “high rate of retention,” improved the school’s reputation, and launched new colleges and programs in Minnesota.

Patricia Hampl, a creative writing professor, provided some final “celebratory remarks” before a group sing of UVM’s alma mater, Universitas V. Montis, and a catered, open-air reception for several hundred. She confided that some people thought Sullivan would eventually become president of Minnesota’s university rather than Vermont’s. The poem Hampl selected – Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” – casually implied that the decision could make “all the difference” for people in both places.

After a standing ovation, Mondale described his friend as “truly transformative.” When faced with the task of raising $30 million in five years, he recalled, Sullivan found $52 million in just three. He is also a brilliant scholar, teacher and administrator who “believes in the power of raising aspirations and setting business goals,” Mondale added.

Primary pathways and rebalanced priorities

In his application last October, Sullivan provided a sense of how he viewed the challenges of the job, at least before winning it. He mentioned “new economic realities” and argued that the next university president would have to lead “disciplined discussion and resulting actions concerning cost containment, cost avoidance, and prudent budget cutting.”

After several meetings with the candidate, Cioffi came away impressed by Sullivan’s thoughtfulness. Cioffi said he showed an abundance of common sense and chose “just the right words.”

During an interview in July, Sullivan was careful to stress that the university cannot be “all things to all people,” a point also made in a recent report to Gov. Peter Shumlin on the relationship between UVM and the State of Vermont. Asked about a recommendation from the governor’s committee that UVM’s engineering program should be doubled, Sullivan argued that such a change would require a “significant increase in state support.”

The installation speech was more expansive and less cautious, a reflection of his interest in instilling high spirit and raising expectations. There was no reference of cost containment and budget pressures. In fact, Sullivan insisted that UVM “cannot simply cut costs if we are to achieve relevancy, trust and impact.” Instead, one of his “primary pathways” to success will be to “improve facilities and support creative endeavors and breakthrough research.” This will make UVM a “talent magnet,” he forecast.

The examples offered were author Emily Bernard and mathematician John Voight. But Sullivan’s point was to call for investment in “faculty research and the restoration of our campus to ensure that our facilities and research infrastructure are first rate, for example, in engineering, science, and medical laboratories. These fields represent great strengths at the University that need immediate attention!”

Sullivan also described UVM as “an integral part of the economic and political ecosystem of Vermont,” and promised to foster strong ties to community groups and state agencies that “help invigorate the state economy.”

The procession approaches.

The procession approaches. Photo by Greg Guma

The other three pathways are affordability, rebalanced priorities and civic engagement.

“College is no longer the privilege of only the elite,” Sullivan said. However, he also pointed out that only 41 percent of Vermont high school seniors go on to college. The national figure is 68.3 percent.

Sullivan’s affordability strategy is therefore to increase financial aid and scholarships “that support a high achieving and diverse student body.” In July he also stressed finding “the right balance between the tuition rate and our ability to assist students,” with the goal of removing anxiety and minimizing their debt.

His installation speech related the idea of balance to a new enrollment management plan that will “result in lower class size for undergraduate colleges and perhaps higher graduate student enrollment.” Sullivan also said he would hire faculty in selected departments and colleges where enrollment is increasing.

Another pathway involves “targeting priorities” and making choices. “Given the constrained resources we live with, we will do our best to make the right choices,” Sullivan promised.

One priority is to build on a “rich curriculum from basic science to applied research” that promotes discovery. Another is liberal arts education that prepares students “for the demands of a booming world population, instability in the global marketplace, environmental challenges, rapid technological changes, and the need to work closely together with other nations and cultures to solve local as well as global problems.”

His main example in this area was Alex Wilcox, a 1994 UVM graduate and JetBlue executive who has launched a luxury airline, Jet Suite. At JetBlue Wilcox created a program that provided free flights for inner city families to visit Vermont from the Bronx, and $50,000 a year in scholarships. Sullivan cited Wilcox as someone who, “while doing well, is doing good in and for his community.”

The fourth pathway is to encourage public service and engagement. Sullivan noted that UVM already has a high number of Peace Corps Volunteers. He praised the university’s support for veterans in crisis and the ongoing work of UVM Extension and Continuing Education.

How will Sullivan’s ambitious goals be achieved? He posed the question himself near the end of the speech. The answer was brief, and also largely a matter of aspiration. “We are planning a bold, creative, new comprehensive campaign,” he explained. But the entire community needs to work together, listen and learn to make it a success.

Returning to a famous remark by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. he used to begin the inaugural address – the quote about how some people “see things as they are and say why” – Sullivan called on those in the chapel and throughout the university community to raise their expectations and dream big. “As Robert Kennedy would say, why not?”

Greg Guma

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