Sullivan begins work as UVM president with transparency pledge

Tom Sullivan, the former senior vice president for Academic Affairs and Provost at the University of Minnesota, was named president of UVM on Feb. 22, 2012.

University of Vermont President Tom Sullivan says that he wants to have an “open, robust conversation” about the values and direction of the state’s largest educational institution. Meeting with reporters in his office on Monday morning, his first day on the job, Sullivan announced that his two “key areas” for work, in the short-term at least, will be enhancing the school’s “value and reputation” and keeping it affordable.

A legal scholar who has been Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Minnesota for the last eight years, Sullivan was chosen to succeed Dan Fogel last February. He arrived in Burlington last weekend after a cross-country drive with his wife Leslie, a 1977 UVM liberal arts graduate, and their Australian shepherd Harry Potter.

Sullivan described UVM’s current condition as “very solid and strong” and said “constituents can be very confident.” But he acknowledged that it cannot be “all things to all people,” a point also made recently in a report to Gov. Peter Shumlin on the relationship between UVM and the State of Vermont.

Sullivan called the report “thoughtful” and said that it asked “the right questions.” But he declined to comment on several of its main recommendations, including whether to change the composition of the board of trustees and a legislative rule that says in-state tuition for Vermont residents (excluding medical students) must not exceed 40 percent of out-of-state tuition.

“The governor wants a full, robust discussion” of the findings, Sullivan said.

The report proposes that UVM “should set its own tuition with a mechanism in place to provide access and affordability to Vermonters according to ability to pay, while still maintaining an advantage for Vermonters and their families.”

Sullivan will look closely at tuition issues, he pledged, “to make sure we have the right balance between the tuition rate and our ability to assist students.” The goal is to “remove the anxiety” that families and students feel and minimize their debt, he said.

Asked about another recommendation from the governor’s committee that calls for a doubling of UVM’s engineering program, he argued that such a change would require a “significant increase in state support.”

Describing himself as a collaborative leader who likes to listen, the new president provided a brief glimpse of how he plans to proceed. First, he will develop a 1,000 day plan with clear objectives and priorities. Then he will “get out of town” to reach taxpayers, business leaders and other stakeholders across Vermont and beyond. The goals are to convince them that UVM continues to deserve their financial support, and to raise enough private dollars “to make sure we have the financial ability to invest in those priorities.”

“We have to be focused and understand where our strengths and weaknesses are,” Sullivan added. While not eager to list any specific weaknesses he did provide a description of what he thinks UVM should be – a “small public research institution,” with an emphasis of the importance of its public responsibility. This differs somewhat in tone from the governor’s report, which noted that UVM was originally private and would benefit from more private representation on the Board of Trustees.

Sullivan insists that his vision is “not inconsistent with the report.” However, his emphasis on Monday was transparency, along with a process that sets goals in line with the school’s mission and “aligns the budget to these priorities.” That said, UVM’s new CEO also cautioned that “some decisions may differ from the path others think we should take.”

Greg Guma

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