Remarks at University of Virginia Presidential Inauguration
April 15, 2011
Governor McDonnell, Rector Wynne and members of the Board of Visitors, President Sullivan and Professor Laycock, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of the University of Virginia.
Today, together, we make history in shaping the future of this distinguished university.
It is my distinct and personal pleasure to welcome Terry Sullivan to the university presidency, and to join in celebrating her inauguration as the eighth president of the University of Virginia.
Rector Wynne, you and your fellow Board members made an exceptional decision in selecting this president to lead Mr. Jefferson’s university. My only hesitation in praising your choice is that you deprived the University of Michigan of such an admired and accomplished leader.
It was Mr. Jefferson who once observed, "The appointment of a woman to office is an innovation for which the public is not prepared, nor am I."
I believe Terry Sullivan would convince him otherwise. She is simply that impressive.
And today, more than ever, the great American institution we know as the public university demands strong, effective leadership. We need creativity, tenacity and integrity in the face of declining state funding and tenuous public support.
Terry’s depth of knowledge infuses her with a calmness that conveys both confidence and experience, particularly in the face of chaos and pressure. She does not fluster easily, if ever. Credit that to her tenure as a faculty member, department chair, dean and provost – she has seen it all.
Most important, she has a sense of humor, and a wicked one at that. As my fellow presidents here today well know, this job can make you laugh or cry, and I prefer laughter. Terry does, too.
All of these essential attributes allow those around Terry to genuinely enjoy her leadership. I am pleased, but not surprised, that a large contingent of University of Michigan leaders joined me in traveling to Charlottesville. We deeply admire Terry, and we miss her.
Teresa Sullivan’s appointment as president extends a deep relationship between the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan. It is a bond that stretches back to a time when our respective institutions were nascent ideas in the minds of two men.
Where Thomas Jefferson founded this great university, a jurist by the name of Augustus Woodward conceived what was first known as the University of Michigania.
South and east of here, in the splendid rooms of Monticello, Jefferson and Woodward exchanged stories and ideas. Historians agree the two men were friends, united in their passion about the necessity of public education in the new republic. They were inquisitive about science and the natural world. They believed human knowledge could and should be catalogued and classified.
Most significantly, they understood that democracy demanded an educated citizenry.
As president, Mr. Jefferson appointed his friend to be the first chief justice of the Michigan Territory, a largely untamed area. To appreciate Mr. Jefferson’s influence, know that Judge Woodward purchased some 500 acres outside of Detroit and called his new estate Monticello.
But the more lasting product of their friendship was the University of Michigan, and we in Ann Arbor are indebted to the conversations that first took place here in the hills of Charlottesville.
Michigan was established in 1817, followed two years later by Virginia. Each had humble starts. For years, both universities operated without presidents, for fear that too much power would be placed with one person.
Sadly for the faculty, presidents have been a staple at Virginia and Michigan for at least a century now.
In truth, our respective institutions have had exceptional leaders, who, along with faculty and students, have elevated Virginia and Michigan to the pinnacle of public higher education.
Ours are exceptional universities recognized worldwide. We are strong in research, committed to diverse ideas and people, and dedicated to public service. Academic excellence is the norm. And whether Wahoos or Wolverines, we love our sports teams.
Most important, we have never wavered in our commitment to society. At Michigan, we are driven by the ethos of providing "an uncommon education for the common man." It is a sentiment preached by Jefferson, who ardently believed in the power of education, and education for all, "from the richest to the poorest."
Public universities have a compact with society, and especially the citizens of our states, to work on their behalf and promote the greater good. It is an obligation we are privileged to fulfill.
Thomas Jefferson wanted this university to be "worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us."
Listen again to his words: "Worth patronizing with the public support." American higher education – particularly public higher education – is one of the monumental achievements of our country. No other nation can rival the innovation, creativity and intellectual fervor of America’s universities. None.
But we are threatened. Threatened by shrinking financial support from our federal and state governments. And threatened by waning public confidence and those skeptical of our value and our contributions.
Some might even question why anyone would want to lead a university in 2011. Too little money, too many headaches, too few rewards.
One of this university’s most notable graduates was Robert F. Kennedy, who lived and died during one of our country’s most turbulent decades.
"All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world," he said, "but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity."
Filled with opportunity.
This is our opportunity to demonstrate just how essential higher education is to prosperity and productivity – not only in the United States, but also worldwide. We are proud to educate young people, knowing their critical thinking skills will transform communities from America to Zambia.
This is our opportunity for new therapies and revolutionary inventions, for creativity in the arts and humanities, and for redefining the boundaries of human knowledge. To paraphrase Mr. Jefferson, it is a time for innovations for which the public is not prepared.
And this is our opportunity for strong, articulate leaders such as Terry Sullivan. The University of Virginia is a jewel, and this new president will protect it, make it shine, and increase its value. She is an exceptional leader, for an exceptional institution, at an exceptional time.
A few weeks ago, Condoleezza Rice spoke at the University of Michigan. As secretary of state, she held the job first occupied by Thomas Jefferson. Like Terry Sullivan, she was a university provost. She is a woman who has travelled the world, meeting with kings, prime ministers and presidents, serving as this country’s chief diplomat.
And yet when someone asked about the best job she’s ever had, she did not hesitate. It was being a provost, she said, because there is no more exciting or important place than a university.
Mr. Jefferson felt similarly. Up at Monticello, his tombstone says nothing about his having been president of the United States. But the stone does proclaim, as he wished, that he was father of the University of Virginia.
We are gathered today because of a shared belief in the good of higher education and the infinite power of an idea. This is not the first time we have faced difficult economic times. We can all point to challenging eras of dwindling resources. And yet we persevere, because our mission is so profound.
Clark Kerr, who did so much to define public higher education in the latter half of the 20th century, rightly observed: "As society goes, so goes the university; but, also, as the university goes, so goes society. The progress of knowledge remains so central to the progress of civilization."
Nearly two centuries ago, two men sat together at Monticello and envisioned great public universities. Today we assemble on The Lawn to celebrate the reality of those dreams and the certainty of an exciting new leader – a leader perfect for the opportunities that await Virginia, and all of higher education.