Sullivan headlines commencement as outgoing University president

Student reception was mixed to Sullivan’s role as commencement speaker

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At Final Exercises on Saturday and Sunday, University President Teresa Sullivan delivered two commencement addresses. Eliza Haverstock | Cavalier Daily

Outgoing University President Teresa Sullivan addressed the graduating Class of 2018 as the commencement speaker at Final Exercises Saturday and Sunday, where the University awarded 7,072 degrees to undergraduate and graduate students. Sullivan’s speeches both centered on a core theme of resilience by using historical examples. 

On Saturday, Sullivan drew upon the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a 19th century explorer who attempted to complete the perilous journey to Antarctica and persevered despite numerous setbacks. Sunday, Sullivan used the story of Meriwether Lewis, the Charlottesville native who explored the Western United States after it was acquired in the Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

Saturday’s event was held for graduating students of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, while Sunday was for all other degree-earners.

“Knowledge and training are not enough. You will need to be resilient,” Sullivan said in her speech Saturday. “Resilience is a survival skill.” 

Sullivan also brought up the series of traumatic events that the Class of 2018 has faced during its time at the University, including the death of Hannah Graham and the Rolling Stone article in 2014, the wrongful arrests of Martese Johnson and Elizabeth Daly, the imprisonment and death of Otto Warmbier in North Korea and the white nationalist rallies last August.

“In the glare of the national spotlight, you proved you were no snowflakes,” Sullivan said on Sunday. 

Each year, the commencement speaker is chosen by a committee of faculty and students, which creates a list of recommendations for potential speakers. However, the Office of the President ultimately makes the choice. 

The University has a longstanding tradition that the president delivers the commencement address in his or her final year. As Sullivan is stepping down as president this summer and returning to University faculty as a professor, she was chosen to speak at commencement.

Jon Bowen, Sullivan’s chief of staff, said she was excited to take part in the tradition. 

“President Sullivan was honored to deliver commencement remarks to this year’s graduating students,” Bowen said in a email to The Cavalier Daily. “It was especially meaningful because this is her last Final Exercises as President. The President’s speeches, which focused on the theme of resilience on both days, were intended to recognize the significant challenges that the members of this class have faced while celebrating their spirit of resilience and tenacity.” 

Despite this protocol, the announcement that Sullivan would be the headlining act during the Commencement ceremonies was met with a variety of reactions from students — some of whom expected a new guest speaker. 

Last year, Prof. Deborah McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, was a commencement speaker. The year prior, then-Dean of the School of Law Paul Mahoney spoke.

“I wasn’t too excited before — I was hoping we could have a keynote speaker of political importance. But I know it’s tradition, so I was neutral,” said Andrew Roberts, a graduating College student. “I thought that she tried to use a very dry analogy, and had very little to offer.” 

Graduating College student Caroline Bray, who protested against the torchlit white nationalist march on the Lawn last August, said Sullivan has not behaved in a manner coherent with her speech.

“I find it ironic that she acknowledged resilience at all,” Bray said at a press conference Saturday. “When I asked the days following August 11 where she was that night, she snapped at me. She had no compassion and asked me why I didn’t tell her that the Nazis were coming.”

Some graduating students were more positive about Sullivan’s speech, and were happy to honor Sullivan’s legacy in this way. 

“I think it’s exciting and cool to have someone who’s given service to the university and her thoughts,” said Robert McCarthy, a graduating Batten student. “Maybe not the most glamorous speaker but I’m sure it will be exciting and insightful.”

Jamie Albert, a graduating McIntire student, said the speech was in places nonspecific, but she didn’t fault Sullivan.

“It was really neat to have the president who has been with us all four years speaking, just because she’s been there with us through everything we’ve been through as a class,” Albert said. “I thought some of the phrases she used, about resilience and things, seemed a little vague and generic … but then again, you have to write a speech for a big university’s graduation so I see where she’s coming from, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to hear her speak one last time.” 

Despite students’ mixed reactions, both speeches were met with a standing ovation.

Sullivan will be succeeded by James E. Ryan in August. Following her presidency, Sullivan and her husband, Law Prof. Douglas Laycock, will take a research leave in Texas. Sullivan, who is a sociologist, plans to teach demography at U.Va. when she returns. 

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