Meet the Press: Sullivan's First Press Conference Focuses on Financial Issues

August 6, 2010 — Less than a week into her tenure as the University of Virginia's eighth president, Teresa A. Sullivan displayed an impressive command of the issues facing the University on Friday in a wide-ranging meeting with local reporters.

Sullivan nimbly fielded nearly two dozen questions in an hour-long, get-acquainted session. More than a dozen local media representatives filled a Madison Hall conference room, and two more joined in by phone.

Topics ranged from financing the University to student safety, the legal drinking age and how she's been spending her evenings in Charlottesville.

Unsurprisingly, many questions dealt with financial issues. In her opening remarks, she said that revising the internal budget allocation process and reviewing the University's external funding sources were two of her three major objectives for the coming year. The third priority is finding replacements for her two executive vice presidents, Chief Operating Officer Leonard W. Sandridge and Provost Dr. Arthur Garson, both of whom plan to leave at the end of the academic year.

The state's financial support for higher education has been waning for decades, with the recession only steepening the downward trend. Sandridge said that state funding accounts for just 11 percent of revenues for U.Va.'s Academic Division and 6 percent of revenues for the University as a whole, including the Medical Center. State support amounts to just $8,400 per in-state undergraduate student, which Sullivan said compares to $17,600 per student at the University of Michigan, where she was provost before coming to Grounds.

Asked about the perception that Virginia does not value higher education, Sullivan said she met Thursday with Gov. Bob McDonnell and state education secretary Gerard Robinson, a U.Va. Curry School of Education alumnus, and found them to be very supportive of higher education. The competing budget priorities that Virginia faces are no different from other states, she said.

Cutting the University's spending is one option, and Sullivan said that she had plenty of experience in that area. But she said she found that the University "has been pretty aggressive in cutting costs already," and noted that U.S. News & World Report ranks U.Va. as the 23rd-best University in the nation, despite being rated 63rd in resources per student, which she said was an indicator of its efficiency.

"I can’t tell you right now that I have a silver bullet" for quickly reducing spending, she said.

Layoffs aren’t an answer, she said. "Not being able to predict the economic future, I don't want to be committed to a policy of 'never,' but I would say in general that above all a university is an institution of human capital.

"When you get rid of some of your human capital, you haven't just reduced your operating budget, you've reduced your balance sheet, because you have gotten rid of what's most important to you – your human capital," she said. "So I view layoffs as a very last resort."

She did not rule out small reductions that could result from reorganizations.

With the state unlikely to ride to the rescue and few budget-cutting options, attention turns toward other revenue sources.

Sullivan said she has been in touch with several major donors, but noted the effect the recession has had on giving. "A lot of people who used to feel rich don't feel rich anymore," she said.

Nonetheless, they remain very loyal to the University. "They might not be able to make the size of gift right now that they would like to make, but they have not left us," she said.

With many signs pointing to further tuition increases, Sullivan sought to reassure families who wonder whether they can afford higher education.

Referring to the University's AccessUVa financial aid program, rated second in the nation this week in the new  Princeton Review guide, Sullivan said, "I would say, 'Don’t just look at the sticker price, because that may not be what you end up paying.'"

She also pointed out that the federal government offers tax credits to middle-income families paying tuition. She suggested parents help their students become better money managers, noting that the University offers resources to help with personal finance.

One move that Sullivan said the University would not make is going private, a status she said is defined more by an institution's mission than its sources of revenue. "No matter where our money comes from, I don't see the University of Virginia ever failing to be public, in the sense of being dedicated to and interested in the welfare of the commonwealth and of the larger country. We'll always be public that way. It's in our DNA."

She said she does not foresee changing the current ratio of in-state and out-of-state students, and said her chief of staff, Nancy Rivers, will lead a task force to explore issues raised by the governor's commission on higher education, which include enrollment growth.

Sullivan touched on many other topics, including:

• Student safety and violence prevention: Sullivan said she closely monitored the events surrounding the slaying in May of fourth-year student-athlete Yeardley Love, allegedly at the hands of a fellow student, George Huguely. "I was deeply affected by it in Ann Arbor, but, of course, unable to do anything," she said.

She said U.Va. has increased its emphasis on student safety issues in summer orientation programs and in communications with students' families. A student-led effort, called "Get Grounded," is also seeking to educate students to act when they see unhealthy or dangerous situations, with a Universitywide event scheduled for Sept. 24.

In addition, when they log in to NetBadge for the first time this fall, students will be asked whether they have been arrested. Giving an untruthful answer may result in an honor violation. Previously, students were required to report arrests, but such reports often depended upon student initiative.

Huguely had failed to report a previous out-of-town arrest before Love's slaying, a revelation that almost certainly would have led University authorities to intervene.

• Faculty and staff compensation: In her opening remarks, Sullivan labeled as a major concern the fact that faculty and staff have not received pay increases in three years. She said that retaining faculty – who she likened to "free agents" in the pro sports world – may become difficult if they can find better deals elsewhere.

"Those are issues we have to look at," she said.

• Graduate student support: Likewise, Sullivan said she is aware that support of graduate students is an issue, "one that I care about." She said grad students are sources of future faculty and a key component of a university's research and development operation, and serve as role models for undergraduates and recruiting tools for faculty members.

• Finding successors to Sandridge and Garson: As she spelled out in an e-mail greeting to the University community earlier in the week, Sullivan said finding replacements for her two executive vice presidents was a top priority. She reiterated that Sandridge's responsibilities appear to be too extensive to be handled by any one person, and she wanted to review them before launching a search for his successor in October.

"I advisedly use the word 'successor' rather than 'replacement' because I don't think he can be replaced," she said.

Sandridge has agreed to postpone his retirement until the end of the academic year and to serve as a part-time consultant thereafter, she said.

A search for Garson's replacement will follow after the chief operating officer search, she has said.

• Drinking age: Sullivan declined to take sides on the Amethyst Initiative, a project launched by a group of college presidents to lower the drinking age to 18 – thus affording universities more options for alcohol education.

She said that when she attended college in Michigan – "back when the Earth's crust was still cooling," she quipped – Ohio had a drinking age of 18, which she remembered as leading to tragic highway accidents as students crossed the state line.

She suggested a practical approach would be to closely examine the drinking culture, and why people abuse alcohol. She noted that Europe's more permissive drinking laws mostly lead to alcohol consumption being viewed there as a convivial element in dining, and thus closely aligning alcohol and food consumption – a healthy contrast to some Americans' habits, in which "too often the objective is to get drunk," she said.

"That's a bad objective," she said, no matter what the drinker's age.

• The single sanction: Asked whether she supported the honor system and its single sanction for violations – expulsion – Sullivan said the Board of Visitors has long delegated administration of the system to the student-run Honor Committee, and said that students have upheld the single sanction in multiple referenda. She said the honor system is one of the University's distinguishing features, and makes U.Va.'s graduates attractive to employers.

• Staff representation on the Board of Visitors: Sullivan declined to take a stand on whether faculty or staff should have a vote on the University's Board of Visitors, saying that the composition of the board is beyond the president's purview.

Pressed as to whether she would support a change, Sullivan said she would present pros and cons to the board if requested.

• Breaking new ground on Grounds: Asked by a female student editor about the significance of being the first woman president at U.Va. – a school that did not fully admit women until the early 1970s  – Sullivan said, "I am of the age that in most of my academic appointments, I was the first woman to do them.

"What I would say is terrific is that for women of your generation, that won't be true. It won't be an issue anymore. And I think that that's a real sign of progress for us."

She said she appreciates the symbolism in her appointment. "Universities work best when they are most open and most inclusive of talent, wherever that talent occurs," she said.

On a personal note, Sullivan said she and her husband, newly appointed U.Va. law professor Douglas Laycock, have felt welcomed in their new Charlottesville home.

"It's been better than I expected," said Sullivan, who noted that she had been stopped four times Friday morning in her 200-yard walk from Carr's Hill to Madison Hall by well-wishers. "Everybody we've met has been welcoming and wonderful. The staff has done everything to make this transition as easy as possible."

Besides unpacking – she said she just located her hair dryer Thursday morning – she and Laycock have spent several evenings strolling the Grounds, she said.

On Thursday, they enjoyed the Heritage Theatre Festival's production of "A Tuna Christmas," and they planned to attend a U.Va. Art Museum opening reception on Friday.

On Saturday night, they hoped to take in the Albemarle County Fair. "We love county fairs," she said.

As the questions dwindled, she invited the reporters to tour her office. She pointed out that she has added just a few things to the existing furniture, though the office was rearranged a bit and received a fresh coat of paint.

She pointed out the flags of Virginia and the United States that she had placed in the corners.

"When I walk in, I want to remember to whom my allegiance is owed," she said, "and that's the people of Virginia and of this country."

— By Dan Heuchert