U-Va. president brings real world into the classroom

(Cole Geddy/ U.VA. PUBLIC AFFAIRS ) - Second-year student Caroline Sednaoui (center) reacts to a question from University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan.

(Cole Geddy/ U.VA. PUBLIC AFFAIRS ) - Second-year student Caroline Sednaoui (center) reacts to a question from University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The syllabus calls the University of Virginia class the “Sociology of Work,” but it might as well have been called “Everything You Need to Know About the Real World That’s Not Usually Taught in College.”

For two weeks this month, 17 students gathered to discuss the jobs market, employable majors, standing out in an interview, building a social network outside of Facebook, navigating workplace politics and raising a family while working.

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Many of them signed up for the class not knowing what to expect, and some admit that they were just looking to fulfill a class requirement before graduation. But they were all intrigued by the professor listed for the course: U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan .

“I figured it would be a good way to meet her,” said Priscilla Chong, 20, a fourth-year student from Lynchburg who is studying elementary education. “I don’t even know what I expected. But when she came into class and started lecturing, I didn’t fall asleep.”

For four hours a day, class members gathered in Sullivan’s conference room with their laptops and coffee cups. As she introduced the class to her staff and folded personal stories into her lectures, the students got a rare window into how their university runs.

Although the demands of leading a university continue to grow, several presidents in the region still carve out time to teach. It seems almost gimmicky: The university’s top executive standing before a class of students, leading by example and learning from doing. Sullivan’s syllabus says the course “reflects my conviction that teaching and research are closely related.” But it’s also an opportunity to indulge in what got school officials into higher education in the first place.

Shenandoah University requires all of its senior administrators to teach. Catholic University President John Garvey, a former law school dean, teaches a constitutional law class twice a week. The University of Richmond’s Ed Ayers, an American history scholar, teaches a freshman course. St. Mary’s College of Maryland President Joseph Urgo, a Faulkner scholar, leads a weekly literary seminar. And each fall, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, who has a PhD in philosophy, teaches a freshman seminar about globalization.

“Last year was the first year that I hadn’t taught since I came into the academy,” said Sullivan, who became president in August 2010. “I missed it.”

One morning last week, the class discussed juggling work and family. Sullivan, who has a PhD in sociology, told them that when she was pregnant with her first child, she took her department chair out for lunch: “I said, ‘Bill, I’m pregnant.’ And he choked on his hamburger. I thought we would have to do the Heimlich,” Sullivan said, with a laugh. At the time, she was one of two women in her department, and no one was sure how to handle maternity leave.

That was decades ago, long before many of these students were born. So Sullivan had one of her senior assistants, Sean K. Jenkins, stop by the class and talk about his 1-year-old son, Coleman.

“So, tell us about how life with Coleman has changed life on the job,” Sullivan said.

Jenkins told the students about how he and his wife went into parenting having heard about “the joys and the magic of it.” They were surprised by their son’s exhausting feeding schedule, the stress of relatives wanting to visit too often and the fierce negotiation required to snag a quality nanny.

“The first few months of parenthood are very, very difficult,” he said. “When you hear that you don’t sleep, that means you don’t sleep at all. . . . It’s cruel and unusual punishment.”

It’s important for 20- and 30-somethings to think carefully about who they marry, Jenkins said, because they have to make joint decisions about their careers, child care and parenting. And it’s important to have an employer who values the responsibilities of both parents.

“It was a very simple conversation here. They said, ‘Take all the time you need,’ ” Jenkins said. When he returned, Sullivan’s chief of staff recommended that he take a day off each week until he fully got used to his new life. “It made a huge difference.”

Sullivan also walked the students through laws regarding maternity leave and how some companies now offer flexible scheduling and child care.

When the class broke for a three-hour break, Sullivan caught up on meetings and phone calls — including one to her husband, Douglas Laycock, a U-Va. law professor who had just learned that he won a case he had argued before the Supreme Court.

“It’s a big day on the home front,” she said.

In the afternoon, the class discussed how Google and other companies pose creative thinking problems in interviews, sexual harassment and building social networks that are diverse. There was a quiz, and Sullivan reminded them about dinner at her house on Friday, the last day of class.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I feel like I hardly know you guys. We just got started.”

 
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