Correction to This Article
The article about Teresa A. Sullivan, who was chosen to be president of the University of Virginia, incorrectly said that she was recruited to apply for the job in August 2008. It was in August 2009.
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Teresa Sullivan is the first female president to lead University of Virginia

"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.

"I wasn't prepared for how separated things were in Jackson," she said. "I made social mistakes. I drank from the wrong fountain. I was 13. It was a good time to say to myself, 'Why is it like this?' "

Her Catholic high school sat two blocks from the state capitol and was the first in the state to integrate. Sullivan recalls immense television cameras skulking outside the doors.

"I guess there were people who would try to ignore it," she said. "But I didn't try to ignore it. I went the other way."

Sullivan entered Michigan State as a budding sociologist, curious about the social structures that had ensnared good Mississippians into bad behavior. On her second day on campus, she joined the debate team.

"She was fun, she was pretty, she was sexy and she was smart as hell," recalled Laycock, the debate team president who would become her husband.

As a senior, Sullivan was chosen as a presidential fellow. It was an initiative of Clifton Wharton, the first African American president of any major public research university, who wanted to groom future college presidents. Of 13 fellows who served between 1970 and 1972, Wharton said, Sullivan is the fourth to attain that goal.

"I was giving them exposure, and giving them an opportunity," said Wharton, now retired and living in New York. "They were able to see what I was trying to accomplish, and how I went at it."

Sullivan followed Wharton around campus, attending board meetings, watching the president manage his staff and make hires. "She asked very probing questions, as only Terry could do," Wharton recalled.

At the end of the fellowship, Wharton told Sullivan: "If you want to do anything in higher education, you'll need a PhD."

His was from the University of Chicago. She enrolled there that spring.

Sullivan joined the sociology faculty of the University of Texas in 1975 and made her name as a pioneer in the study of consumer bankruptcy.

She and two colleagues traveled the nation, lugging a portable copier so large that it required a separate airplane seat. They sketched an analytical portrait of middle-class families driven into insolvency by lost jobs, automobile accidents and divorce.

"There is an edge of the middle class that is fragile," she said. "They're right up at the edge. And just about anything can push them over."

'It was time'

After 27 years at Texas, Sullivan's two sons had left home and she had gone as far as she could in that university system. She applied to the University of Michigan and became its provost.

The job completed her portfolio of management experience, with duties as chief academic and budget officer under President Mary Sue Coleman. It placed her at a university known as a pipeline for college presidents; more than 40 sitting presidents are former Michigan administrators or students.

At Michigan, she acquired a reputation as "provost on the prowl," she said, visiting virtually all of Michigan's schools and colleges. She convened a Prudence Panel to cut costs amid recession. She led an effort to preserve diversity in admissions after Michigan voters banned race and gender preferences in 2006.

Last summer, nearly four decades after the conclusion of her fateful fellowship, Sullivan "began thinking that maybe it was time for a presidency," she said. A recruiter approached her about Virginia in August 2008. She applied. A week ago, she was offered the job.

Greeting the university community Monday inside the Rotunda, a structure designed by Jefferson as the heart of his academic village, Sullivan pledged to be a careful steward "of these magnificent grounds."

Privately, she grappled with the scope of the job.

"It will be a daily challenge to me to do my best to live up to the expectations," she said. "But then, that is the same challenge we pose to our students every year, to be worthy of the legacy they are inheriting. In that sense, the students and I have similar burdens, and perhaps I can be an example for them. I hope it will be a good example."

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