Grace and Civility—University President Teresa A. Sullivan’s Leadership

The eighth and first female president of the University of Virginia, Teresa A. Sullivan, is completing her last few weeks on the job.  It is hard to believe that an institution as old as UVA (founded 1819) has only had eight presidents; however, its founder did not see the need for the position. In fact, until the last century the faculty and Board of Visitors led the school.  And given the controversies this president has endured, that may not have been such an unwise decision for those early years.  An article by S. Richard Gard Jr., editor, the University of Virginia’s 2018 summer magazine issue, Virginia, explored Sullivan’s presidency and provided a timeline of all the newsworthy tragedies and difficulties she tolerated or presided over these past eight years.

I will admit my bias. I am a fan of Terry Sullivan.  I’ve followed her trials, tribulations, and successes.  I have read her letters, articles and those about her.  A self-described “incrementalist,” Sullivan explained in the article her definition of that descriptor:

When you think about how change is made in a lasting way, it can be disruptive or revolutionary. That leaves a lot of hurt feelings which come back eventually in other ways and disrupt the institution on their own. Whereas change that is made a little bit more slowly, maybe less visibly and with a little less attention drawn to it, in the long run creates less pain and therefore, I think, becomes more effective.  That doesn’t mean that there’s not change happening. But it may mean I’m not bragging about it all the time. That is what incrementalism means.

Editor S. Richard Gard, Jr. shared two additional Sullivan quotes that provide insight into her personal and professional demeanor. The context of the first was a reference to her father’s dinner invitation to an opposing criminal attorney with whom he’d “battled in court.”  As Sullivan questioned her father’s invitation, he affirmed that outside the courtroom they could be friends.  Sullivan was quoted as saying, “That made a deep impression on me, that you could disagree with people, but the disagreement didn’t have to carry over into everything else about your life.  I think we’ve forgotten that in a lot of American public life.” 

The second statement addressed criticism of her “non-strident” response to the Rolling Stone’s article describing a fraternity rape incident, which was later proven to be false.  “I’m not a particularly strident person. I’m an academic, and we tend to be nuanced. I also think the notion now that if your discourse is not outraged it is somehow not righteous, is not true and not necessarily good for the country. I think that we’ve had plenty of outrage expressed, but sometimes that’s not the only way to go forward.”

Her legacy appears to be one of collaboration among schools and colleges, acknowledgment and acceptance of historic events, and reconciliation with issues which could have been forgotten.  She may, in fact, be remembered not only for her accomplishments but for her civility, a trait that has become less common and less valued among leaders today.