University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan on Sunday welcomed first-year students at Opening Convocation, encouraging them to get fully involved in life on Grounds with a spirit of curiosity and exploration.
As Sullivan begins her sixth academic year as president, she paused to assess the coming semester, the University’s position on key higher education issues, and to share her hopes and expectations for the class of 2019.
Q. Between your time at U.Va. and elsewhere in your career, you’ve seen plenty of incoming classes. What keeps this annual ritual interesting and energizing?
A. The Honor Induction is a formal focal point that marks “the beginning” for the new U.Va. students. At other schools, the formal beginning was simply the start of whichever of one’s classes met first.
Q. How is U.Va. different for the Class of 2019 compared with those students who arrived during your first year in August of 2010?
A. Each is different because of the many different personalities that make up each class. For example, this year’s first-year class includes a licensed airplane pilot, a certified beekeeper and one student who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro! Each new class comes to us with a vast range of talents and passions.
The common denominator is that incoming U.Va. students, year after year, are very smart. In this year’s first-year class, 89 percent of the students were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class, and that number has held steady around the 90 percent mark for several years.
From a financial standpoint, because of our new Affordable Excellence program, Virginia students in this year’s incoming class will face less loan debt. We have reduced the maximum indebtedness for Virginians by $10,000, from $14,000 to $4,000 for low-income students and from $28,000 to $18,000 for all other Virginians.
Q. How have you changed?
A. I know the answers to more of the questions that students ask, whether it is the renovation schedule of the heritage residence halls or what parents should bring for move-in (answer: a Phillips head screwdriver and duct tape). I have learned that I can rely on a team with many skills and talents and a strong devotion to U.Va. On a day-to-day basis, U.Va. is a great place because of many great people.
At a more abstract level, I’ve learned the structural issues that affect our freedom of action. Some of these issues are demographic, such as the age structure of our faculty and the projected stagnation in the number of high school graduates. Some are political, and some are merely that “we haven’t done it that way.” Learning my way around these issues has let us come up with creative solutions, to push against “rules” that aren’t really rules, and in other ways advance the University.
Q. You mentioned the student debt issue earlier, and it is a national concern. Another is sexual assault and safety, a topic that our community knows well after the tragic loss of Hannah Graham and the Rolling Stone debacle. How would you assess U.Va. on this front?
A. We’re making progress, and we are committed to make more. We have put several new programs and initiatives in place this fall to make U.Va. as safe as possible, and these safety efforts are having an impact on crime. U.Va. Police report a 5 percent decrease in crime compared to the previous year, and Charlottesville Police report a 2 percent decrease in crime in the area near The Corner.
Q. Much attention has also been focused on graduation rates and the ability of today’s graduates to get good jobs. How does the University of Virginia compare here with other top institutions?
A. Our six-year graduation rate of 94 percent is the highest for any public four-year institution in America. For 22 years, we have led in graduation rates for African-American students, now at 86 percent, and we have one of the best graduation rates for low-income students, at 90 percent for Pell Grant recipients. As far as our graduates getting good jobs, a recent Gallup survey showed that 85 percent of our alumni are in the workforce, which is a higher proportion than our national peers. So we’re meeting one of the basic measures of value for our graduates, which is gainful employment and financial security.
But liking your job and being engaged in your work is more important than just having a job. The survey results also showed that 47 percent of our alumni feel engaged in their work, compared with 42 percent for alumni from all [Association of American Universities] schools.
We feel good about these results, but getting every student well-prepared for success in the labor market is still a priority, and our new U.Va. Career Center is leading the charge on that front.
Q. Obviously, cost of an education is a huge issue. When you are talking with parents or prospective students, how to you tackle questions about whether a degree from U.Va. is worth the money?
A. U.Va. rates high on measures of return on investment. That’s one value, but I always emphasize other forms of value. A college degree is about more than getting a good job or earning a big income.
Researchers who compare college graduates with those who have only a high school diploma have found many advantages of higher education. The research shows, for example, that adults with a college degree have greater openness to new ideas; better exercise and dietary habits; greater satisfaction in their marriages and better relationships with their children; higher voting rates; and higher ratings in many other measures of well-being.
The Gallup survey results for U.Va. showed that we’re contributing to the well-being of our graduates in many areas. Gallup reports that 90 percent of U.Va. graduates are thriving in one or more of the five categories of well-being described in the report, which include purpose, social, community, financial and physical well-being. In each of these elements of well-being, our alumni are more likely to be thriving than all alumni nationally and all AAU alumni. Many of our alumni said that U.Va. contributed a great deal to their personal maturity, judgment, integrity, leadership and self-understanding.
U.Va.’s honor code and our system of student self-governance are probably two of the key factors that shape those qualities in our students. These results provide pretty good evidence that a U.Va. degree is worth the investment.
Q. What other big issues are on your radar for 2015-16?
A. Hiring a group of terrific, diverse, cutting-edge faculty who love to work with students is the top task. Second, we are pushing to improve the research environment for faculty researchers, and also encouraging more of our students to participate in research, innovation and entrepreneurship. Third, I have been working on a diversity plan and will be seeking feedback from our community. And we will be planning for the beginning of our bicentennial.
Q. Any final words for our new students as they head off to their first classes and begin their academic careers as Wahoos?
A. Have a great year. And Wahoo-wah!