President Sullivan Ushers In a New Era at U.Va.

August 1, 2010 — The siege of steamy July weather broke on Friday, just in time for a moving van emblazoned with "Cavalier Football" to back its way up Carr's Hill Drive.

With that, a new era began at the University of Virginia as Teresa A. Sullivan  took up residence in Carr's Hill and today became the institution's eighth president, succeeding John T. Casteen III. On Monday morning, she will make the short walk from Carr's Hill to her new office in Madison Hall.

Although Sullivan has visited the University for six long weekends since she was elected president in January, "This is different because I realize it's for real now."

She came to U.Va. from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she was provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. She is a noted scholar in labor force demographics.

Her husband, Douglas Laycock, is a well-known legal scholar and one of the nation's leading authorities on religious freedom and on the law of remedies. He is now on the law school faculty.

Sullivan will spend her first morning at U.Va. immersed in matters of compliance and the first week in "executive intake" – learning the nitty-gritty of presiding over the University of Virginia. She expects to be in about 8:15 that first day. Usually she begins earlier, staying at the office until about 6 and working out after dinner if no event is scheduled.

In the first week she'll travel to Richmond to meet with Gov. Bob McDonnell, and during the first month she'll go to Roanoke for an alumni gathering and to the U.Va. College at Wise for its convocation.

She will deliver a welcome address in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium on Aug. 21, during move-in weekend. She plans to attend the year's first Faculty Senate meeting, along with faculty meetings in each of the University's 11 schools. There will be visits with alumni; local, state and federal officials; and members of the community – representatives of every University constituency she can fit in during her first months on the job.

She feels welcome and comfortable, Sullivan said. "People have just been really nice in terms of giving us good wishes" and entertaining the couple in their homes. "It's been delightful."

And she is heartened to have a strong leadership team in Leonard W. Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Dr. Arthur Garson, executive vice president and provost.

"I feel like I've known Leonard a long time," she said.

Sullivan has made few additions to her Madison Hall office. U.S. and Virginia flags flank the fireplace, and a map of the commonwealth is up on one wall. Of the map, Sullivan said, "I've always done this. What I like to do when I talk to students is ask them where they grew up. It helps me learn the geography, and it gives me a link with students."

There is also an aerial view of the Grounds. "It helps me visualize things in a way a map doesn't do."

At the annual Board of Visitors retreat earlier this month, Sullivan outlined some of the issues she intends to address during her first year. One is the transition in senior leadership, with Sandridge planning to retire and Garson leaving for the University of Texas at Houston.

Another Sullivan priority is implementing enhanced and more transparent systems to allocate financial resources, with a resulting increase in entrepreneurship, efficiencies, effectiveness and achievement in each of the University's schools.

The greatest challenges, she acknowledged, will be financial.

During her preparation for office, Sullivan said, "I think I heard pretty consistent feedback about what people have on their minds." She even received a few anonymous letters with criticisms and complaints about U.Va. 

"Big institutions leave a big trail behind them," she said. "No matter how well it's run, there is friction between an institution and people, and when times get tough, people get angry at institutions.

"I will do everything I can to run an institution with integrity, but as soon as you make a decision, somebody's unhappy with it."

Looking ahead to her term as president, Sullivan cautioned that managing expectations is an issue. "I am an experienced administrator, but I am not a wonder worker," she said.

Making the choices and decisions of a University president can be very tough, said Sullivan, who turned 61 on July 9. "Actually I think my age helps. I kind of take things in stride in ways I didn't before." 

Earlier this month, Sullivan attended a sort of presidential boot camp, the annual Harvard Seminar for New Presidents.

She and about 50 others heard from experts as well as former presidents about how to build a strong team, work with a governing board, handle financial issues and manage the 24/7 life of a university president – as well as how to care for a presidential residence.

As for Carr's Hill, Sullivan didn't ask for any major work to be done. The couple will mingle some of their own things with the University furnishings in the upstairs family quarters, but otherwise the only differences are fresh paint, some attention to the floors and a deep cleaning.

“Carr's Hill is a comfortable and gracious home," Sullivan said. "It has been meticulously cared for, and all the furnishings and colors have been done with such taste that there is very little I would want to change.”

She and Laycock are trying to sell their Ann Arbor house and will be storing the furniture they didn't give away in the Carr's Hill basement. One thing in particular Sullivan was eager to keep: a pecan dining room set that belonged to her mother. "It's beautiful and I love it," she said.

They brought the everyday dishes they acquired when they were married 39 years ago, and Sullivan has her mother's silver and other inherited pieces tucked away in a Carr's Hill cupboard. "Maybe at Christmas when my children are here I'll get to use it again," she said.

Carr's Hill will retain its role as a hard-working house, welcoming about 15,000 guests annually. Visitors during August and September will include new medical residents, local clergy, deans, local legislators, vice presidents, new faculty and Sullivan's and Laycock's academic colleagues in sociology and law. Every first-year student is invited to a reception following the opening convocation on Aug. 22, and there will be the traditional social events before every home football game.

If the entertaining schedule, the nonstop pace or the day-to-day challenges of being a university president begin to weigh her down, Sullivan can use a nonclassroom lesson she took away from the Harvard Seminar.

Her roommate was Tori Murden McClure, who is not only the new president of Spalding University in Louisville but also the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic.

"You think you've handled problems – she had a 40-foot whale," Sullivan said. "I haven't encountered anything like that."

— By Elizabeth Wilkerson