Teresa Sullivan


Teresa A. Sullivan is current President of the University of Virginia, serving from 2010 until 2018. She is the first female president of the University. Before becoming President, she was a Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Michigan.

During her time as President, she shepherded the University through numerous challenges, including the discredited Rolling Stone article, and numerous racially charged incidents. She is the 8th President of the University.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.


Alex Hendel (Interviews Editor): Thank you, President Sullivan, for coming to this interview with the Virginia Review of Politics. We’re really honored to have you here today. Let’s get started! Eric?

Eric Xu (Founder and Editor-in-Chief): President Sullivan, we wanted to ask you what your best experience as President has been so far?

Pres. Teresa Sullivan: Well, I have to say every year that Final Exercises is always hugely exciting and satisfying. I’m really proud of our graduates and what they go on to do. In kind of a different vein, reopening the Rotunda was a huge thrill this year. I was so worried about the deterioration of the Rotunda; we spent some pretty hard work for a couple of years raising the money for it, then you worry whether the restoration would be good enough. I think it’s good enough, and the other thing I worried about was, “what if we open it up for study and no students come?”

The students came!

Eric: Certainly worked on that front.

Alex: So you’re known for having a long and distinguished career as an academic, and particularly as a sociologist. In your career you’ve focused on, among other things, debt and bankruptcy, demography, education, and labor. How has your training as a sociologist shaped your decision-making approach and outlook regarding the University?

Pres. Sullivan: Well, I think maybe my most important skillset was on the quantitative side of sociology. I’ve always been comfortable with budgets and budget sheets; that’s really been essential for a job such as this one. There are really two important things in University administration. One is finances, the other is policy, and I do think my background prepared me for both of them.

When I came to the University as a demographer, I saw two very important things. One was that the number of 18-year-olds graduating in Virginia was going to decline, and the other was that our faculty was pretty old, with a lot of folks near retirement. That told me that we had a big generational shift coming and that we needed to get ready for it. I think we’ve done a good job of preparing for it, getting out ahead of it, hiring the new faculty that we’re going to need and in anticipation of retirements, as well as thinking about what we do in terms of being attractive to applicants. So far, that plan is working pretty well!

Eric: Yeah, that sounds fantastic! Moving on from that, what role do you personally see universities playing in our society today?

Pres. Sullivan: Well, I think that universities in general are places where knowledge is developed and conserved, and I think that the conserving part of it is particularly important. Universities, in a way, are the extension of the monasteries during the Dark Ages that preserved what learning there was. Universities do much the same thing today, and part of the way we do that is through our research and the more important part is the students that we educate and then who go out and are really our most important product.

In this particular university, we also have an important clinical care responsibility. The University hospital and clinics together have more than a million patient visits a year, and that’s not accidental! The major improvements in medicine in the United States were typically done in academic health centers such as ours.

Eric: That’s a really good point. From our perspective at the Virginia Review of Politics, we were wondering how you manage to balance a commitment to educating students with the further obligation as a state university to serve the state and the broader community. It seems like a hard line to balance, at times.

Pres. Sullivan: Well, our most important contribution is our graduates. We did an economic study last year which showed that UVA alumni have created businesses in Virginia that employ 331,000 people. Ultimately, one out of every eighty jobs in Virginia, in the Commonwealth, can be traced back to the University of Virginia. That’s a pretty impressive impact on the community all by itself, but beyond that, we provide a lot of other resources to the community. Again, students and faculty volunteer work is an important part of that.

Think of the Charlottesville Free Clinic, for example. Not all of its staffing, but a lot of its staffing comes from University professionals who volunteer in their own spare time, and a lot of its funding comes from University employees through the Commonwealth Campaign. I don’t really think you can find a board of directors of a non-profit in Charlottesville or Albemarle County that doesn’t have UVA people on it in a significant way! So we hope that our students also see from this volunteer activity of our faculty and staff that that should be an important part of their lives once they graduate.

Alex: Great! So building on that, relating this back to 2012, with your infamous conflict [with the Board of Visitors], a lot of that arose from your, quote, “unwillingness to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive”. Instead, you were quoted as saying “a university that does not teach the whole range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university”. Like you just said about the value of university students in a society, what role do you see for programs such as classics and languages over more marketable majors at the University such as commerce?

Pres. Sullivan: So what is marketable now might not be marketable in the future. It’s hard for us to say what jobs will be automated and will ultimately be in the realm of robots as opposed to the realm of human beings. But, I do think that disciplined approaches to learning are one of the things that should uniquely distinguish the college graduate from other people. I think you can learn that in a lot of different ways: the discipline of foreign languages is a very good way to do it. What’s marketable about foreign languages, however, is not necessarily just translation or the ability to do international business and so on. There are deeper things about the structure of language which inform how we do artificial intelligence, how we build computer programs, and so on.

We have a research program right now among people trained in religious studies and in foreign languages trying to monitor social media posts posted in other languages to see if there is a linguistic shift that marks radicalization. That is an interesting approach, which you couldn’t have done if you didn’t have a deep understanding of the language and literature, as well as the ability to build the algorithms to do the analysis.

There are a lot of ways of approaching disciplined thinking, and the arts and sciences should give you one of those. For most students, the major is only a quarter of their total curriculum! So it’s not just the major you take with you out into the business world, or whatever world you go into once you leave here. You’re taking your full college experience.

Alex: Just quickly following up on that, you were talking about the skills imparted by things like languages and classics. Do you think that the value of these things is more in the skills that you can get from them, such as the story you mentioned about the artificial intelligence researchers? Or do you think that it’s more of an inherent acculturation from these subjects?

Pres. Sullivan: What will last with you is certainly the disciplined habits that you form, even if the actual content of what gets studied in your major in ten or fifteen years is different. It would be amazing if those things didn’t change – there’s new knowledge developed all the time – but what we hope to do is to give you the habits and patterns of learning so that that new knowledge is something that you can access later on. Or, if it turns out that your job is getting automated, you don’t despair and you’re able to turn your talents to something new.

Alex: Great! So moving on to more specific questions about the University, it’s well known that the University has a checkered past with the Charlottesville community. In light of its history with slavery, contribution to gentrification of local neighborhoods, and failure to pay many employees even the Charlottesville minimum wage, what steps do you feel that the University can and should take to address this tension with the greater community?

Pres. Sullivan: Well, I think that one of the things that we’ve done is to be forthright about addressing our history. In 2013, I appointed a President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, and they’ve done a great deal of work, some of which is pretty visible and some of which is better known to the scholars, but I think all of which has been appreciated by the Charlottesville community. There are people in the community who have been engaged with this Commission and have been meeting with it. This June, we’ll be presenting to the Board an architect’s depiction of a memorial to enslaved laborers. That’s something that students, faculty, and the community have worked on for a while. Given the controversy in the city about the Lee and Jackson statues, I think that this is an alternative way of approaching it.

Obviously, the University plays a big role in the city because we are a big employer and because our research capabilities in particular have been growing. The other thing which has happened is that many of the other major employers in Charlottesville have left, and so we’ve come to play a bigger role, not because of who we are but because of what else has happened. So some of the issues that the City faces is this loss of other employers. We see our role of spinning off new businesses, and indeed, new industries as a way we can help offset that. Something like 53 new businesses have spun off the University in the last six or seven years, so that’s one way that we can help, but there’s no question that we play a bigger role in this community than we used to.

With regards to wages, our minimum wage in the Commonwealth, as it is around the country, is $7.25 an hour. The University’s starting salary is about $12.38, I think, and we’ve raised that minimum every year I’ve been President. In addition, because of our benefits, the actual cost to the University and the benefit to the worker ranges from $21 an hour to $25 or $51 an hour depending on the health plan you pick. Now if you go to today’s Charlottesville job posting site for the City, you’ll see that a lot of those jobs start at $11.41. So I think we’re certainly competitive with the City, particularly when you consider the fringe benefits.

The other thing that I would say is that our employees get benefits that go beyond what many workplaces offer in the Commonwealth. If our new employees take our Essential WorkSkills program, that’ll permanently increase their base pay by $600, and they’ll also have a $450 supplemental benefit if their annual salary is at or below $42,000 a year. We also have an educational benefit for our faculty and staff, which many of our employees have used to further their education. It can be used at PVCC; it can be used here at the University or at another place.

Alex: Thank you. Moving on to students, specifically in the application process, how do you think UVA can better reach under-represented students in that process, as well as better address their concerns while they’re at the University?

Pres. Sullivan: Good question. Well, first of all, we begin with research because we like to be evidence-based in our approach to doing this. Ben Castleman in the Curry School of Education has done a lot of work with this, in which he has found that frequent reminders to students make a difference. I also advocated in Congress to reform FAFSA so that students could complete it earlier in their senior year and use their parents’ tax returns from their junior year. We saw this year what a difference that made.  We support the Virginia College Advising Corps; that’s a program in which we place recent graduates in high schools. I met with a group of them this week, and they were telling me what a difference the early FAFSA made, because they could get the senior class working on it much earlier and then we can package much earlier.

We believe we will have an uptick in the percentage of minority students this coming fall. I think part of that is a result of deliberate outreach to, particularly, Virginia high schools. 70% of our undergraduate student body is from Virginia, so we’re paying particular attention to those Virginia high schools that have not been sending us applicants. In some cases, it’s because their college counselors falsely believe that nobody can get into UVA. That’s not true – in fact, your objective odds of getting into UVA, if you’re an in-state applicant, are pretty good – but also because they don’t understand about AccessUVA and other things.

We’ve begun a program of bringing in those counselors, at our expense, to come to Grounds and, in some cases where their school districts can’t afford it, financing trips for their juniors to come and look at the University and to begin to think about it. We also run a number of summer camps; many of these are directed at students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that they can come here and get the experience of computer science or robotics or some other field that they might not get exposed to at their high school otherwise. We also completely redesigned our application materials to make it more user-friendly and – candidly – more attractive to high school students. I daresay flashier, but…

Eric and Alex: * laughs *

Pres. Sullivan: I think that that has helped too. You know, we unrolled AccessUVA and we patted ourselves on the back because we knew how great it was, but we forgot to keep telling high school students how great it was. We have to remember to do that every year, because for them it’s a new process. Every senior class faces it all over again: how am I going to pay for college?

So those are some of the things we’ve been doing. We’ve had good conversations – candid conversations, I think – about how to make our application process easier.

One more thing I’ll tell you about our transfer students. Most of our transfer students are from Virginia. We were the only 4-year school in Virginia that required the SAT [scores] of transfer students. Now, let’s say you went to the military for a couple of years and then you went to community college. That means your SAT score is too old for the College Board to report it, and you would have to take the SAT over again to transfer to UVA. That was a barrier, so we removed that barrier because we know from our own studies that your college grades are a better predictor than your high school SAT was. So we hope that that’s something that will make us more attractive to people getting their associate arts degree and thinking about where they want to complete their degree.

Alex: Well, thank you. Last question; I know you’re very busy. In what ways do you believe that the University must improve moving forward, particularly with regards to its curriculum and its racial and socioeconomic inequities?

Pres. Sullivan: Well, I think that with respect to curricula, the goalposts on that keep moving. That’s not surprising, because you’ve got both technological advance and advances in knowledge and science. Every curriculum has to make an effort to keep up with that.

We will be launching a program next year to create more of a culture of writing in our students. Writing is one of the skills that employers are most frequently looking for and most frequently disappointed in. Now there is not a single student at this University that cannot write a compelling, 5-paragraph theme, but your employer is probably not going to be asking you to write a 5-paragraph theme. There are other genres of writing that we need to think about and be able to teach. Some of that is simple expository writing, some of that is persuasive writing.

We will be rolling out a program which is aimed first at our faculty – many of whom in their graduate training were not trained to grade writing – to help them develop better ways of giving writing assignments and grading those assignments to give useful feedback to students. That is something that affects every part of the curriculum. One of the things that our employers value in our engineering graduates is, for example, that they do a capstone or a thesis project. An employer who wants to know if you can write can look at that thesis and make a judgment about that. Well, not every student has the capability of doing that, but we can more purposefully integrate writing into a lot more of what we’re doing. So that is one thing that I think we need to do.

In terms of integration, the University is not a bubble separated from the rest of its community. There aren’t any walls here and there aren’t any gates, and it’s not surprising that our students will bring with them many of the difficulties and prejudices you find in the larger, outside society. It’s also not reasonable to think that we will create a utopia at our universities. But it is reasonable to think that we can talk about the values of respect, and how diversity makes us better learners and better thinkers.

So Eric here took a class with me, and it was a pretty diverse class! I think that one of the benefits that we had in class discussion was that people came at things from all different perspectives, and it was good for us to learn from one another that way. If you have a completely homogeneous class, that doesn’t happen. There have been a number of pretty good studies that show that more diverse groups make better decisions. That’s an important thing for the United States going forward. Whether we like it or not, the United States is a very diverse community, and now a demographer is talking to you: we will become more diverse in part because of differential fertility in the future. Even if immigration stops today, our public schools will continue to shift towards more minority groups that have been traditionally underrepresented.

So that is not something that’s optional for us: it is something that we simply must embrace and deal with. If there were an easy solution to it, we’d be implementing that already, but there aren’t any easy solutions – we ran out of easy solutions a long time ago. What we have to do now is the more painstaking work of thinking in everything we do and in every class, “are we supporting all the members of this community in the way that we do it?” That’s a hard job, and it’s far from complete, but there’s a lot of goodwill in this community. I don’t think there’s anybody here who thinks that hatred is a good way to conduct your life, and we will disagree with one another and it’s perfectly OK to disagree with one another, but there’s a whole lot of learning that goes on here too, and not just in the classroom.

Alex: President Sullivan, thank you so much for being here.