The new president of the University of Vermont, Thomas Sullivan, has arrived from his previous job at the University of Minnesota with the dual task of learning about and leading the state’s flagship school.
At the outset he has articulated several priorities, and one of the most important is making UVM more affordable for Vermonters. In a recent conversation, he mentioned frequently the need to find a “balance,” and on the question of affordability, he said it was important to balance necessary investments with the costs facing students. He said one important goal was for Vermonters to graduate from UVM free of debt.
In recent years, Sullivan acknowledged, colleges and universities around the country have engaged in a competitive race to build ever fancier facilities in order to attract students. But fancy buildings are only one way to compete for students. Making the school affordable is another way.
Instead of new buildings, Sullivan wants to direct resources to upgrading the universities labs and other science facilities so UVM can compete more effectively in science, medicine and engineering. He emphasized the importance to the university of the College of Medicine and its affiliation with Fletcher Allen Health Care, which he said was a recognized national leader and a magnet for a high proportion of UVM’s research dollars.
At the same time, one of Sullivan’s highest priorities will be to initiate a capital campaign designed to raise big money for the university, which could be used both for necessary investments and also to provide the financial aid that would make UVM affordable and debt-free for Vermonters.
Sullivan portrayed himself as a dedicated fundraiser, a role that he has assumed happily at previous jobs. He intends to launch a fundraising campaign like those ordinarily associated with the private colleges accustomed to raising big money for their large endowments. UVM is a state university, but it receives only a small portion of its budget from state funds. It relies partly on out-of-state students who pay a tuition premium. A significant capital campaign would help keep costs down for Vermonters and boost the money available in order to ensure that UVM’s programs in science, technology, engineering and medicine are first-rate.
Sullivan was quick to add that the emphasis on science and engineering must not cause UVM’s commitment to the humanities to languish. Students in science and engineering must also be exposed to the virtues of a liberal education, he said. Critical thinking, cultural awareness and an ability to write and think are attributes of good citizens in all fields. The English Department may not bring in the same research dollars that the Biology Department does, but it provides an education in the life of the mind, the soul, and the culture that enhance the education even of biology majors.
Vermont depends on the University of Vermont. Increasingly, UVM is assuming a leadership role nationally, Sullivan said, particularly in the areas of health care and medicine. The nation is aware of the progress Vermont is making in health care reform, and he said UVM, combined with Fletcher Allen, are part of Vermont’s pioneering efforts in health care.
But beyond the high-level research and the policy innovations associated with UVM, the university remains a beacon for ordinary people hoping to send their children on to higher education. The state’s options are various — from the Community College of Vermont, to Vermont Technical College and the Vermont State Colleges at Castleton, Lyndon and Johnson. But UVM remains the focus of aspiration for Vermonters in communities from Pownal to Canaan.
If Sullivan can bolster financial aid to minimize student debt while burnishing the credentials of world-class programs that attract leading scholars, he will have done much for the university and for the state
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