After about 100 days on the job and visits to all 14 Vermont counties, University of Vermont President Tom Sullivan offered some first impressions, along with his vision for the UVM’s future, in a one-hour exchange with members of the Burlington Business Association on Thursday.
Sullivan, who became the university’s 26th president in July, said he wants to create synergies, promote partnerships and cultivate “a very entrepreneurial, forward-looking atmosphere.” To do that, however, more revenue streams will be needed, and UVM will “simply have to make a better case in the Legislature.”
Asked about the need to increase revenue, he pointed out that the State of Vermont supports the university “rather modestly,” mentioning that about $40 million allocated represents less than 6 percent of UVM’s total budget. “We’re grateful,” Sullivan said, but that still makes Vermont “last in the country in support for the public university per capita.”
As a result, the UVM president expects to spend about half of his time “out making the case” for investment to donors, alumni and anyone else who will listen.
BBA Director Kelly Devine opened the breakfast meeting, which was hosted on campus and attend by about 50 members, with the announcement that her board has voted to support the $9 million fiscal stability bond on the Burlington city ballot next Tuesday. The bond is designed to reduce Burlington’s reliance on short-term debt.
Before introducing Sullivan, Devine added that the business group wants to increase collaboration with UVM and the Fletcher Allen Health Care. In remarks that lasted about 40 minutes, Sullivan stressed a related issue – UVM’s “fabulous partnership”with Fletcher Allen – and its relationship to research, one of his four “primary pathways” to success.
Joint appointment of most College of Medicine faculty at the hospital is a key factor, Sullivan noted. In October, U.S. News & World Report designated Fletcher Allen a “Best Regional Hospital” for the second year in a row.
Reiterating a theme expressed during his installation as president in October, Sullivan argued that breakthrough research, improved facilities and support for creative work can make the university a “talent magnet.” In addition to research, Sullivan’s pathways include affordability, rebalanced priorities and civic engagement.
During the BBA talk, officially titled “What’s Next?,” Sullivan frequently marshaled statistics and rankings to make his points. For example, he reported that UVM brought in $130 million from outside grants last year, mostly for research, and that the College of Medicine ranks first among all public medical schools in research money. It is also first in providing primary care physicians per capita, he added, and fifth in clinical trials.
When discussing UVM’s overall impact on the state, he mentioned $1.6 billion in direct and indirect economic activity. About 30,000 school alumni live in the state, he added, and annually bring in $1.7 billion. “People with degrees invigorate communities,” he said.
Expanding on benefits of synergy, Sullivan mentioned the university’s programs for preserving and protecting the lake, connecting emerging entrepreneurs with alumni, and innovative businesses that began with a student’s creative thinking. Vermont also ranks first for patents and innovations per capita, he noted.
In discussing priorities and investments, he mentioned that $405 million has been spent on construction projects during the last eight years. In addition to “revitalizing much of our campus,” Sullivan stressed the jobs created and the employment of “Vermont talent.”
Although much of this talk focused on the crucial role of the university in the Vermont economy, Sullivan also spent some time on his increasing awareness of neighborhood issues since relocating to Burlington. To get a direct sense of noise and other problems described by residents he recently went on evening patrol with Police Chief Michael Schirling, who attended the BBA meeting.
“I wanted to see what our neighborhoods are like after dark,” Sullivan explained.
The questions from his audience covered the cost of living in Vermont after college, UVM’s “green profile,” progress on a projected $13 million renovation of a fraternity house for use as a future alumni center, and the university’s strategic focus on “spires of excellence.”
While aware that many residents would like more students to live on campus, he argued that UVM has been making a serious effort. It is one of few universities that require freshmen and sophomores to live on campus, he noted.
“We’re open to continuing a close working dialogue with Burlington,” Sullivan added. However, he also stressed that more than 1,300 on-campus beds have been added in the last decade, and 61 percent of undergrads live on campus, a level not reached by other schools.
The questions from his audience covered the cost of living in Vermont after college, UVM’s “green profile,” progress on a projected $13 million renovation of a fraternity house for use as a future alumni center, and the university’s strategic focus on “spires of excellence.” The three spires are complex systems, food systems and neuroscience. Sullivan, who was hired after the approach was defined, said that the focus might be expanded to include the environmental and humanities.
He was also asked about the prospects for building a new sports arena on campus. Preliminary planning is under way for a “multi-purpose events center,” Sullivan revealed, a structure that would host not just athletics but also social, cultural and academic events.
This type of facility “is desperately needed on campus,” Sullivan said. But it will likely cost at least $65 million, and that, like many other projects, will require a “major private donor effort.”