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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.
Teresa Sullivan is the first female president to lead University of Virginia

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; B01

The University of Virginia's first female president got an early look at how to run a school as a college senior when she won a coveted internship in the president's office at Michigan State University.

Teresa A. Sullivan, chosen Jan. 11 to lead Virginia's flagship public university, has punched her ticket at some of the nation's top public and private institutions. But it was that first step observing the inner workings of a major state school that launched her career as a highly regarded scholar-administrator, capable of juggling senior administrative posts while pursuing research on the sociology of financial ruin.

"There are aspects of administration, they're like a chess game," she said. "You're looking forward three or four moves."

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 ranked second only to the University of California at 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 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, in keeping with 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 needs of low-income students without using 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 president's 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 artilleryman, had guarded prisoners of war in Jackson, Miss.

She grew up in Little Rock and in Jackson. Her father died of a heart condition when Teresa 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.

"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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