A new leader for a new University era
Teresa A. Sullivanís experience in academia should bolster ongoing campaign efforts, institutional growth, Wynne says
The search for president-elect Teresa A. Sullivan - who will succeed John T. Casteen, III and become the eighth president in University history - began with questions not only from students, faculty and staff, but also from senior administrators at private and public universities nationwide.
A surprising transition
President and CEO Jan Greenwood, whose consulting firm Greenwood/Asher and Associates, Inc. has conducted more than 1,000 searches for leaders in business and academia, said though she was not involved in the search, she fielded multiple calls from potentially interested candidates who asked about the commonwealth's financial health, the effects of its gubernatorial change and, most frequently, why Casteen planned to step down in August.
"There were a lot of questions in the market about the reasons for President Casteen's departure," Greenwood said, noting that it was unusual for a leader like Casteen to leave during a massive fundraising campaign, which has raised just more than $2 billion since its conception in 2006.
Casteen, however, will remain active in the present capital campaign after Sullivan takes the reins. He will travel internationally to help the University achieve its goal before Dec. 31, 2011, the date by which officials expect to reach the campaign's $3 billion target.
"We are grateful for what has been during these 19 - soon 20 - years, and eager to applaud what comes next," Casteen stated in the June 12, 2009, University press release announcing his plans to step down.
The Board of Visitors unanimously elected Sullivan Jan. 11 following a five-month search conducted by the Special Committee on the Nomination of a President. She signed a five-year contract at $680,000 per year. After gathering input and vetting candidates from across the country, University Board Rector John Wynne said he and other search committee members have "never seen anybody that had her level of experience in so many areas of higher education."
Sullivan's capacity to move forward will depend a great deal on her ability to assimilate with the culture of the University and gain the respect and trust of the University's wide range of constituencies, Greenwood said.
Search for a Successor
Last August, Wynne named the 19 members of the Special Committee on the Nomination of a President and tapped Leonard Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer, as the Committee's secretary.
The committee listened to input from a wide sector of the University at six public forums - five on-Grounds and one at the University's College at Wise - where attendees could speak openly about foreseeable challenges at the University during the next 10 years, the qualifications the next president should possess and other considerations the committee should factor in during the search process.
The committee also received reports from each of the University's main constituencies - faculty, staff and students - that outlined the characteristics each group sought in a president.
Early on in the search, a report from staff members was compiled by seven representatives from the Executive Committee of the Employee Communication Councils, an organization that advocates for staff issues at the University. The group expressed dissatisfaction with the state of the current relationship between staff members and the administration.
"Staff often feel like they are not an integral part of the University due to the focus on students and faculty," the report stated. "This feeling is currently reinforced by the lack of a staff representative on the Presidential Search Committee."
June Jones, co-author of the report and administrative office specialist for Facilities Management, however, said the report sent to the search committee does not represent the views of all the authors on the EC-ECC. Rather, they simply are a collection of the views of a variety of staff members.
Staff member Brad Sayler, a civil and environment engineer at the University, also criticized the makeup of the search committee - which comprised nine members of the Board of Visitors, six faculty members, two former rectors and two students, but no staff members - during an Aug. 25 forum at Newcomb Hall.
"I think [Wynne] made a major oversight in leaving staff members off the Search Committee last summer," Sayler said. "There are some real issues here at the University with regard to staff, staff salaries, parking and things like that, and we need a president here that's going to address these issues."
Despite these concerns, Sandridge was "the leader of the staff for the whole process," actively participating in debates about the candidates, Wynne said.
Sandridge stated in an e-mail that he stays informed about staff issues through his involvement with the EC-ECC, adding that he hopes he is "always a good representative of these groups" and is confident staff members were well-represented in the search.
Sayler noted that in the end, the search committee "probably has done a very good job with their choice of Teresa Sullivan as the next president."
'No Stone Left Unturned'
In addition to handling the concerns of staff, students and faculty at the University, the committee also met with dozens of leaders in higher education around the country, seeking additional opinions about what qualities an effective president would possess. During these conversations, University spokesperson Carol Wood said, committee members received a number of nominations for candidates.
Committee members narrowed down the list, eliminated candidates one-by-one and then began conducting interviews with the candidates. This step was the beginning of the vetting process, which became more and more focused as the Committee started to narrow in on the University of Michigan provost.
"No stone was left unturned in this process," Wood said.
Additionally, Wynne stressed that the vetting process was meticulous and all members of the search committee were selected to represent the well-being of the University as a whole: they were expected to put aside their own needs and the needs of their departments as they selected the next president.
Nevertheless, the criticism continued as some worried about the committee's lack of transparency throughout the process. University community members had no way of knowing who the candidates were or how thorough the vetting process actually was. This lack of transparency made it unclear whether the search committee actually examined candidates from all angles, particularly from the perspective of the staff, Sayler said.
Wynne and committee members, however, repeatedly emphasized that confidentiality was crucial for the search process.
"The whole reason you have the confidentiality is you want to maximize the candidate pool," Wynne said.
If the search process for a given position is public, candidates may withdraw or never apply because they fear losing their current jobs. In fact, there have been several recent incidents in which presidents and provosts have been let go from their posts after being publicly linked with openings at other institutions, Greenwood said.
Some public university presidents who applied for other positions have even lost funding from state legislatures, she added. In these cases, lawmakers feel they can simply wait until the next leader takes the reins before passing funds.
"Presidents get very concerned about not wanting to do any harm to their institution, and losing significant dollars or destabilizing the environment on campus," Greenwood said. "As a result of that, what has happened in the market is that if a university [that is looking for a new president] wants to have sitting presidents in the mix, it's become more of a norm" to make the search confidential.
Hiding the names of those being considered, though, only changes the composition of the candidate pool and does not always alter the quality of candidates universities can choose from, Greenwood said. Candidates currently employed at the time of the search, however, often possess the most valuable experience, she said. Because this quality is the easiest for search committees to review and evaluate, those committees risk overlooking potentially strong candidates if proceedings are made public, she added.
"[Our firm] did a search for a presidency that was confidential, and that board interviewed 18 sitting, successful presidents," Greenwood said. "None of those presidents would have been involved if [the search] had been public."
The end result of the University's search, however, is that Sullivan seemed to be "a wonderful fit" for the University, Greenwood said, adding that staff, faculty and students alike are optimistic that her tenure will be as fruitful and successful as Casteen's 20-year run in office.
'Like a Kid in a Candy Store'
Because of Sullivan's passion for the college experience, her career in higher education as a scholar and administrator has involved a wide range of roles, she said. This passion started from her very first day as an undergraduate student at James Madison College at Michigan State University, she said.
"When I went to college, I was like a kid in a candy store," she said. "There were so many wonderful things to do ... you really just don't know how fast that time will go by."
After completing her undergraduate degree in 1970, she then moved on to the University of Chicago, where she completed her doctorate in sociology in 1975. She still performs research and conducts classes, even as she balances her tasks as an administrator at the University of Michigan. One of those tasks involves efficiently allocating $1.5 billion of the university's budget. Her background controlling the finances of a large public university was one factor that impressed committee members.
"She's an expert on the matter," said Robert Fatton, search committee member and associate dean of graduate academic programs.
Her renown as a scholar also impressed faculty, who, in a report to the search committee prior to Sullivan's selection, said the University needed a president with "substantial academic credentials" and a "close acquaintance with the rigors of building and sustaining academic research programs."
In addition to her career as an administrator, Sullivan has written six books, several journal articles and is internationally recognized as a scholar in labor force demography.
She also won the prestigious Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association for her book, As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America.
"From the faculty's point of view, [her background as a scholar] indicates an understanding of the academic life," said Nursing Prof. Ann Hamric, who was also a member of the search committee and is the current Faculty Senate chair. "We see this as important because the academic enterprise is the core of what the University is about."
Sullivan serves on the University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers Executive Board, which she said has helped her understand some of the health care issues she will tackle as president at the University, where the University Health System plays a prominent role in the Charlottesville community.
"I think I was really fortunate in that the institutions I was at were great and aspired to be greater still," she said.
Student Council President John Nelson, who was one of two students on the committee, agreed that the breadth of Sullivan's experiences turned heads. Students will not be overlooked during her term as president, he said.
"Teresa Sullivan is someone who does care about students and does care about student issues," Nelson said. "She wants to make time for student issues in conjunction with her tremendous responsibilities in that position."
Sullivan's greatest challenge moving forward at the University may very well be the task of following Casteen, whose 20 years as president have been widely regarded as one of the most transformative periods in the University's history. Greenwood warned that presidents who follow such a successful and accomplished leader often struggle to find a strong footing upon their arrival.
"The general rule of thumb is that the president who follows a long-term president is a short-term president," Greenwood said.
Many factors play into this trend, Greenwood said. The president's and Board's agendas often differ from day one, and problems only emerge from there.
"The dynamics of the situation really get into how well-prepared that person is for the culture, the environment and the changes that are specific to the university they're going to," she said.
But Greenwood, who has consulted for Sullivan in the past, said she sees the University's eighth president as someone who could effectively transition and enjoy a successful term.
Wynne and others have also noted Sullivan's past experiences in which she capably transitioned into new environments. For example, the University of Michigan recruited her from the University of Texas, Austin in 2006, resulting in the first external hire that the university had made for provost since 1948. Committee members examined Sullivan's time at Michigan closely, Wynne said, and her successful assimilation into that environment helped convince them that she would adjust well to her role as president at the University.
"She fit into Michigan perfectly and did all the things a person should do if they were changing venues," Wynne said.
The First Day
Sullivan spent her first morning as president-elect at a January Term class titled, "The American Health Care System." She listened in on the class as Medical Prof. Robert Powers explained the ins and outs of ethical dilemmas impacting American medicine today.
The rest of her first day, Wood said, was filled to the brim with meetings, as Sullivan learned about the day-to-day operations of the University from some of its highest movers and shakers. Sullivan sat down with the University's "Manager's Group" of Sandridge, Senior Vice President for Development and Public Affairs Robert Sweeney, Athletic Director Craig Littlepage and other high-ranking University officials. The group met for 45 minutes, and Sullivan spoke with each member, explained her own philosophy of leadership and took questions from the group.
Sullivan also met with the EC-ECC, the same group that had expressed concerns to the search committee four months earlier about lack of connection between staff and upper administration.
Jones, who attended the meeting the day of Sullivan's visit, said Sullivan spoke with each representative, listened to their concerns and appeared interested in the problems they faced.
"She wanted to hear those things, and that says a lot," Jones said. Sullivan's visit with the committee demonstrated, in many ways, "that she definitely wants to be hands-on and is concerned about our issues," Jones added.
Challenges on the Horizon
Still, Sullivan will face many challenges as she begins her term, not least of which is the dwindling state of financial support for University operations. In the current fiscal year, only six percent of the University's budget will come from the commonwealth and further cuts are anticipated, Wood said.
Search committee members have said Sullivan is largely considered to have effectively handled the finances of the University of Michigan, where state lawmakers have repeatedly slashed support amid the tumultuous financial crisis. This experience will prepare her for challenges at the University, committee members said. Nevertheless, Sullivan agreed that financial issues may be one of her greatest and most immediate obstacles as president.
In the meantime, she plans to return to Charlottesville one weekend each month until her term as president begins.
"She makes it her job to learn the institution, to learn the culture and to become part of the University," Wood said.