University of Vermont President Tom Sullivan lifted a theme from President Obama’s State of the Union speech, telling lawmakers Thursday that his top priority is improving the affordability and value of a college degree.
“A smile came to me as I heard him [Obama] say that because those are exactly the same themes and very much a core part of our strategic action plan that I have begun to talk about here in Vermont during my first six months,” said Sullivan, who took office as UVM’s 26th president in July.
Obama called on colleges to “change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.” The president also unveiled a “Race to the Top” proposal that would distribute $1 billion to colleges that successfully contain their tuition costs.
Sullivan reassured the House Education Committee that UVM is ahead of the curve in containing costs, and Vermont students, in particular, are shielded from the brunt of tuition hikes.
The committee congratulated Sullivan for overseeing what will be the smallest uptick in UVM’s tuition in 36 years — an increase of 2.9 percent.
Some 87 percent of Vermont students receive some financial assistance and 45 percent get a full ride, according to Sullivan. Half of the state’s appropriation to UVM goes to financial aid for Vermont students.
Sullivan also borrowed a mantra from Gov. Peter Shumlin — high schools need to upgrade their math requirements to increase the number of Vermonters going on to higher education.
But he strayed from Shumlin’s educational emphasis in a key regard. Whereas the governor spent a good portion of his State of the State address talking about tailoring postsecondary education to meet the immediate workforce demands of Vermont employers, Sullivan delivered an impassioned plug for the liberal arts learning model.
“One can hardly pick up a newspaper where there isn’t someone being quoted, about our higher education system needs to do a better job of finding jobs for our kids. … I think the focus shouldn’t be on the first job.”
“I think we need to focus on the balance of counseling students to take a major or minor … in an area that excites them, that creates a yearning, a passion for learning. I think the better approach is to think about how can we create a curriculum that will increase the total student maturity, academically, socially, culturally,” Sullivan said.
“Yes we want our students to do well in the job market and to succeed … but I think there is more balance in life than that. I think we also ought to be thinking about creating individuals who have great problem-solving skills, analytical skills, communication skills.”
Sullivan also outlined several schemes for bringing new revenue to the university. He wants to expand master’s programs for working professionals — “I see a big growth area in that and our deans are right now thinking of how to marshal new programs” — and he wants to continue to develop UVM’s “distance learning” curriculum, bringing in more money through online courses.
Sullivan, a veteran in higher education leadership, previously was senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Minnesota and is a nationally recognized authority on antitrust law and complex litigation, having authored 10 books and more than 50 articles.