Although Teresa Sullivan is no stranger to Michigan’s harsh winters – she completed her undergraduate education at Michigan State University – it will take much more than donning maize and blue to prove herself as a true Wolverine. University President Mary Sue Coleman announced Tuesday that she will name Sullivan, currently the University of Texas system’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, as the University’s new provost, the number-two position in the administration. Provided the University Board of Regents confirms her appointment this month, Sullivan will begin on June 1, nearly one year after former Provost Paul Courant stepped down. Sullivan will inherit Courant’s struggle to maintain the University’s academic quality and improve its accessibility in the face of shrinking state appropriations.
Sullivan comes bearing experience, but her status as a newcomer may present her with additional challenges beyond those Courant faced. Courant’s long experience at the University as a professor and administrator, including a stint as the chair of the Economics Department, no doubt aided him in his duties as provost.
Because her introduction to the University will come while serving as its chief academic officer – overseeing all the University’s deans and reporting only to the president – Sullivan will have a steep learning curve. She will have a key role in determining the University’s budget, particularly how to allocate its already squeezed resources between colleges. After years of declining state funding paired with rising costs, even this year’s 12-percent tuition hike only provided the University with enough revenue to get by with $20 million in budget cuts.
With the state’s failure to maintain even constant funding, the University faces increased pressure to turn its attention toward generating revenue. Although programs to encourage alumni donations may be successful, the temptation also arises to increase revenue by putting research before education. Too much emphasis on seeking grants, for example, could crowd out efforts to provide high-quality education for undergraduate students. Sullivan must ensure that the brunt of the state’s neglect does not fall on colleges that land fewer lucrative research grants.
In addition to ensuring the University offers students in all its colleges the highest-quality education possible, it must ensure this education is not out of low-income students’ reach. Although the University has committed to meet the financial need of all its in-state students through loans and grants, the 2004 freshman class brought more students from families earning more than $200,000 than from families earning less than the national median income. Courant played an important role in launching the M-PACT program, designed to increase need-based grant aid to undergraduates, and it will take Sullivan’s backing to not only continue M-PACT, but also expand its scope and boost its publicity.
It took a $340,000 annual salary – nearly $50,000 more than Courant’s outgoing pay – to lure Sullivan out of Texas. And Coleman’s winter-break reading for students – a page-long e-mailed summary of Sullivan’s life and achievements – shows that she stands firmly behind her choice. But it will be Sullivan’s actions – not her high salary nor Coleman’s glowing endorsement – that prove her worth to students and administrators. Her performance will not only determine whether she’s worth the money, but it will set the University’s course well beyond her tenure.