Teresa A. Sullivan has had a distinguished career in academia as a sociologist of labor demographics and education, and as a senior administrator at major research universities. At the University of Texas, for instance, she served seven years as vice president and dean of graduate studies. While there she also became, so the yarn goes, the “foundress” of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, the administrative parent of its better-known Alliance for Catholic Education.
Rev. Timothy Scully, CSC, who as the institute’s director knows a thing or two about the ACE program, told that story while introducing Sullivan as the commencement speaker at the ACE graduation ceremonies on Saturday, July 14. More on that in a moment.
Most recently, Sullivan became a national figure as the embattled leader of the University of Virginia, where the school’s Board of Visitors accepted her forced resignation on June 10, citing “philosophical differences” with UVA’s eighth president over competing visions for the future of “Mr. Jefferson’s university.” The move unleashed a firestorm of student and faculty protests, and public concerns about the school’s viability that prompted the board to unanimously reinstate Sullivan on June 26.
Eighteen days back on the job, Sullivan seemed to be enjoying her respite from the media spotlight. She cut a serene and confident figure on the stage of the Leighton Concert Hall as she approached the microphone at the end of the ceremony to receive a gift from Father Scully, who asked the audience, “So just what does one give the president of the University of Virginia?”
“Armor,” Sullivan replied instantly. It was the closest thing to a direct reference to Sullivan’s recent travails that the afternoon would allow.
In fact, the gift was a sturdy bust of Blessed John Henry Newman. Moments earlier in her remarks to the graduates, Sullivan had invoked the writings of the famous Catholic convert and Oxford don, and told a story about a legendary Victorian-era educator at Williams College named Mark Hopkins, to support her view that the best education forms the whole person and is founded on the relationship between teacher and student.
No lesser a Williams alumnus than U.S. President James A. Garfield had described a perfect university as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” Bringing the message home to the 81 teachers and 23 principals (who included a Mark Douglas Hopkins among them) in ACE’s 17th graduating class, Sullivan assured them: “The perfect school is you.”
Sullivan, a Catholic who has written favorably of the living wage, a concept near to the heart of papal social teaching, grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s and attended St. Joseph High School, a pioneer of racial integration in the state that has since become a placement school for ACE teachers-in-training. But her primary personal connection to ACE, the link responsible for the in-house joke that she “founded” the highly regarded and influential Institute for Educational Initiatives, comes from her university administration days in Austin.
As Father Scully told the audience of graduates, their families and faculty, some years ago Sullivan tried to hire Maureen Hallinan, a leading sociologist of education, away from Notre Dame to become the dean of Texas’ education school. When word of the “unwelcome gesture” reached Scully, he ran to “tattle” to then-provost Nathan Hatch, who moved swiftly to stop it. Hallinan’s terms included the establishment of what would become the Institute to gather Notre Dame’s strengths in education research together with ACE and other programs. With Hallinan, the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of Sociology, eyeing him carefully from the audience, Scully turned to Sullivan to conclude his tale. “I think,” he said, “you’re the only university administrator that Maureen actually likes.”
John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at email@example.com.