New U-Va President Teresa Sullivan more than ready for the challenge

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; 10:56 AM

The University of Virginia's first female president started down the path to leadership at 21, with a coveted fellowship that put a self-possessed college senior inside the president's office at Michigan State.

Teresa Sullivan, chosen Monday to lead Virginia's flagship public university, has punched her ticket at some of the nation's top public and private institutions. She has built a reputation as a scholar-administrator, capable of juggling the provost's job at the University of Michigan while simultaneously pursuing research on the sociology of financial ruin.

Now, at 60, Sullivan is about to assume her first college presidency, and colleagues say she is more than ready. But this is no ordinary job. Mr. Jefferson's University, as many call it, is perhaps the preeminent public institution of higher learning on the East Coast, a place brimming with history, and consistently ranks second only to Berkeley in academic prestige among public universities. She replaces John T. Casteen III, who is concluding one of the most successful college presidencies in recent memory. She starts Aug. 1, amid a statewide economic crisis.

When a recruiter for U-Va approached her last year, Sullivan was widely regarded as one of the most qualified university administrators not already serving as a president. She was in her fourth year as provost at the University of Michigan, a "public Ivy" in the same academic tier as Virginia. She had spent the previous four years as executive vice chancellor of the University of Texas system, with nine campus presidents reporting to her. She was also a working scholar, with six books and several dozen articles to her credit, an authority in her field, and still teaching a class every year.

"She's the full ticket. She has it all," said Mark Yudof, president of the University of California, who promoted Sullivan through the ranks while serving as chancellor in Texas.

Sullivan will be only the eighth president of U-Va., a school that opened in 1825 but resisted installing a singular leader for nearly a century, per Jefferson's wishes. The first seven were men. The school didn't admit women as undergraduates until 1970.

She has the unenviable task of following Casteen, who led U-Va. for 20 years, shepherding the school into an era when public universities must rely on private dollars to thrive. His accomplishments include two of the largest fundraising campaigns by any public university, creating AccessUVa, a groundbreaking aid program that meets the full need of low-income students without loans, and seeing the school's endowment grow from $445 million in 1991 to $4.3 billion today. He maintained Virginia's academic currency and built its global reputation, as state support dwindled from one-quarter of the university's budget to 7 percent.

Casteen received total compensation of $797,048 in 2007-08 and ranks among the highest-paid public university presidents, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Sullivan will receive a $680,000 package in her first year. She and her husband, law professor Douglas Laycock, will occupy Carr's Hill, the Colonial Revival presidential residence. Laycock will move from Michigan's law school to Virginia's.

'Smart as hell'

Teresa Ann Sullivan was born in Kewanee, Ill., an only child. Her mother, a military nurse, had been posted to a forward evacuation hospital in France after D-Day. Her father, an artillery man, had guarded prisoners of war in Jackson, Miss.

She grew up in Little Rock, Ark., and in Jackson. Her father died of a heart condition when Sullivan was in the sixth grade.

"Before he died," Sullivan recalled in a telephone interview, "he made my mother promise that I'd go to college."

Sullivan grew up under Jim Crow -- milder in Arkansas, harsher in Mississippi.

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