While many university presidents surround themselves with handlers, Sullivan preferred to act alone. She paid visits to university students in the hospital and met one-on-one with reporters. She often held meetings with university leaders and colleagues in the sunroom off her kitchen.
Sullivan campaigned for transparency at U-Va.
The day after Graham Spanier was ousted as Penn State president amid a child sex-abuse scandal, Sullivan told her governing board she wanted to create a culture at her university that tolerated questioning authority and even whistleblowing.
The tone should be “bad news can rise to the top of this organization without any messenger being shot for bearing it,” she said.
Sullivan arrived shortly after the May 2010 death of Yeardley Love, a lacrosse player killed by her former boyfriend,George Huguely V. When the next school year was underway, Sullivan hosted a Day of Dialogue, opening up discussion on how students, faculty and others could better care for one another.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is real empathy,’ ” said Robert O’Neil, a former U-Va. president and friend of Sullivan’s.
Sullivan is married to U-Va. law professor Douglas Laycock; they have two grown sons. She has few detractors in Charlottesville. But recently she issued a rebuttal to a blogger’s account of accusations from 1990, when a reviewer alleged scientific misconduct in a book Sullivan wrote with Elizabeth Warren, now a Democratic candidate for Senate in Massachusetts, and another co-author.
At the time, Sullivan was on the University of Texas faculty. The University of Texas investigated the allegations and found them to be false, as did the National Science Foundation, which funded the research, said U-Va. spokeswoman Carol Wood.
Sullivan was born in Kewanee, Ill., an only child. Her father died of a heart condition when she was in sixth grade, after extracting a promise from his wife that their daughter would go to college.
Sullivan grew up in Little Rock and Jackson, Miss. Her Catholic high school was the first in the state to integrate. The experience fed her career choice: She entered Michigan State as a budding sociologist.enthralled by the social structures behind Jim Crow.
Sullivan went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Chicago and join the sociology faculty at the University of Texas. There, she rose to executive vice chancellor. of the Texas system, overseeing nine campuses.Then she went to Michigan.
“There are aspects of administration, they’re like a chess game,” Sullivan said in a 2010 interview. “You’re looking forward three or four moves.”
Staff writers Anita Kumar and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.