In First Full Day as President-Elect, Sullivan Visits Classroom, Lab

January 12, 2010

January 12, 2010 — A day after being elected the eighth president of the University of Virginia in a ceremony held in the stately Dome Room of the Rotunda, Teresa A. Sullivan faced a packed schedule of meetings with a variety of University leaders.

But at 10 a.m., she slipped unobtrusively into a nondescript Maury Hall classroom – as unobtrusively as she could with escorts, a reporter and a photographer in tow – and took in 45 minutes of a January-term course on "The American Health Care System."

For 45 minutes, she sat rapt in a student desk as Dr. Robert Powers, a medical professor, internist and emergency room physician, led his 14 undergraduate students through material on physicians' ethical dilemmas and later, racial, ethnic and cultural disparities in health care.

Clearly, Sullivan could have filled that block of time with more meetings. But she said the classroom visit was important to her.

"It's what we're all about," she said.

At one point in his very interactive lecture, Powers lamented the choice that he as a doctor faces when confronted by patients who have been injured in auto accidents due to uncontrolled epilepsy or alcoholism. Does he have an obligation to report unsafe drivers to the Division of Motor Vehicles, or must he maintain doctor-patient confidentiality? The law offers no clear-cut answer, he said.

"You've got this level of bad and that level of bad, and you've got to pick one," he said. "… I have to pick which headline I want to be in," between possibly being sued for betraying patient confidentiality, or remaining mum about someone whose risky driving later kills innocent victims.

When the clock all too quickly rolled around to 10:45, Sullivan apologized for the disruption and excused herself from the classroom. Outside, she raved about Powers' teaching, observing that he stimulated student discussion, listened to and encouraged disparate viewpoints and only later came in with the points that he had planned to make.

For their part, the students did not seem distracted by the visitors in the classroom, not even sneaking furtive glances toward the new celebrity.

"He had their attention," Sullivan said. "They were engaged."

Sullivan also planned a late-afternoon visit to associate professor Hilary Bart-Smith's mechanical engineering research laboratory.

The rest of Sullivan's itinerary was packed with meetings – with Leonard Sandridge, the executive vice president and chief operating officer, and other managers; with deans; with Robert D. Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs; with the staff of the president's office and Carr's Hill; with the executive committee of the Employee Communications Council; and with the full presidential Cabinet.

Sullivan and her husband, law professor Douglas Laycock, were due to return to Ann Arbor, Mich., late in the afternoon. She is still the University of Michigan's provost, executive vice president for academic affairs and chief budget officer, she pointed out, and has plenty of work to do.

She plans to return to Charlottesville at least one weekend each month until assuming office upon the retirement of President John T. Casteen III on Aug. 1.

— By Dan Heuchert