Thomas Sullivan has been formally installed as the 26th president of the University of Vermont. Sullivan presented his vision of the university’s future Friday during a ceremony at the Ira Allen Chapel on the Burlington campus.
It was an academic formality, full of pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns. Sullivan took office more than three months ago, but this ceremony made his tenure official. Speaking to students and faculty, he invoked the words of Robert F. Kennedy and asked them to raise their expectations and aspirations for Vermont’s flagship institution.
"I have learned how important it is to instill that spirit and that drive in the hearts of students and faculty and staff," Sullivan said. "It’s part of the reason I’m honored and so grateful for this opportunity to serve this beloved institution with all of you and to advance the quality and the excellence at this critical juncture in this university’s long 221 years."
And it is a critical juncture. UVM is at a crossroads. Sullivan will face a number of challenges, including a projected $120 million dollar shortfall. His predecessor, Dan Fogel, raised tuition while increasing enrollment. The perception has now grown that the cost of higher education has moved out of reach for many Americans.
So, Sullivan used his installation speech to pledge his commitment to making UVM more affordable.
"We will invest prudently in learning that shapes the future of this state and higher education," Sullivan said. "We will provide access to success through strategic investments that increase scholarships and financial aid."
Sullivan outlined a plan that he says will ensure the right balance between student enrollment and faculty size to achieve the highest levels of learning.
Sullivan comes to Vermont from the University of Minnesota, where he was provost and law school dean. And among the speakers who introduced him was Minnesota native and former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Mondale said when Sullivan arrived at the University of Minnesota the law school was in rough shape.
"The building was old. It was actually tacky; wholly inadequate," Mondale said. "The Legislature actually turned its back on lawyers, if you can believe that."
Then one day, Mondale says, Sullivan announced that he was going to raise $30 million in four years to transform the school. "I thought he was out of his mind. He went to work, pulled everybody together and he raised $52 million."
Sullivan’s supporters say such financial accomplishments have come as a result of his hard work and his vision.
Another top priority for the former law school dean will be racial diversity. In February, after he was selected as UVM’s next president, Sullivan told Vermont Public Radio he was deeply concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court could soon erode the national policy on affirmative action.
Sullivan said such a move could effectively strip public institutions like UVM of their right to take race into account when trying to boost their minority enrollment. UVM’s rate of entering undergraduate students of color is 10 percent.