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Provost E. Thomas Sullivan

Tom Sullivan, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost

Among the best in the world

Provost Tom Sullivan talks about the University's new push to excellence

Published on March 26, 2005

Growing international competition, shifting demographics, and funding issues are creating a "swim or sink" situation for the University. Last year, President Bob Bruininks asked then newly appointed provost Tom Sullivan to lead an effort to help the University navigate the years ahead. A committee made up of faculty and staff arrived at the goal of creating a university of such excellence that it would rank among the top three public research universities in the world within the next decade.

We asked Sullivan what this new goal means for faculty, staff, students, and the people of Minnesota.

In the push to increase excellence at the University, there most likely will be some hard realities to face. How do you think faculty, staff, and students might react to these challenges?

Change is never easy. This is particularly true at well-established universities. We think and we hope that we have a careful process, one that is open and transparent when it can be. I think the key to success is a careful process and a plan that excites people and is inspirational. I hope that we are doing that.

It may be necessary in some instances to change the culture. That's hard in a university where people are comfortable in their positions.

As the strategic positioning discussions have suggested, our goal and our achievements can only be limited by a lack of leadership and courage and political will. And I think it will take [those qualities] on the campus, and off the campus with our larger constituencies, for us to be successful in urging and managing the necessary change.

Are other state universities setting similar goals for themselves? I think a lot of universities are doing strategic planning. I try to read other strategic plans as they're being produced, and in many ways some of them read rather similarly. But I think ours is bolder and more inspirational, and will require more leadership, courage, and political will. And that's in part because of each state's own culture, history, and ethos. Minnesota's attitude, which has been so very important over the years, is that everyone owns this university. It's everybody's university. That attitude is just wonderful, but because of it, it takes more due diligence to persuade Minnesotans of the need for change as we build excellence at the University through this new coherent vision as set forth in this plan.

What are the top universities in the U.S. now? The University of California, Berkeley; UCLA; the University of Michigan; the University of Wisconsin; and the University of Virginia. Those really are the leading public universities. We're right in there amongst that group.

Which are the most distinguished three that we want to be a part of? The two most prominent are Berkeley and the University of Michigan. Over time, that may change, but we will be on that list of them over the course of the decade.

We want to distinguish the University among the top three public universities. Can't we compete with private institutions? In fact, we are in competition with Harvard and Stanford and the very best of the private universities for faculty and for gradate and professional students. Clearly we go head-to-head in those areas with those private universities. We're not there yet with undergraduates, but we haven't tried directly, either, at the undergraduate level. [In the financial realm,] quite frankly, we cannot and will not be able to compete with the Harvards of the world in endowments. Our endowment is about $1.7 billion; Harvard's is $22.6 billion. That is quite a gap.

We wanted to emphasize the "public" because, as a public university, we have a special mission to advance the public good. That's important. It's all about returning to the community--to society, to civilization--the products of our best discoveries in teaching and research. So there is this common good or public good that comes out of the University. That's the distinction when we say "public." Many private universities do that, but that's not their core mission. It is ours. And we will continue to build excellence toward advancing the public good that benefits all Minnesotans.

Why is it important to use the word "world" in the University's new goal? Ninety out of the top hundred universities in the world are in the U.S. We are fortunate in having the premier higher education system in the world. But we are beginning to see lots of new, vigorous competition from around the world, especially in recruitment of students and graduate students. Since 9/11 and the difficulties getting into the U.S., other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have increased substantially their recruitment of students and scholars. We now face global competition for talented students and faculty. And that's the essential reason why we decided to look at ourselves in the world market, not just the U.S. We directly compete for faculty and students on this world stage.

How are we going to know if we've reached our goal? I don't think we should focus on managing to the rankings. I think we should manage and lead the University in a way that points to benchmarks or output, that looks particularly to productivity, results, and impact. If we do that well, in the end our reputation will improve. If you do things very well in your research and teaching, if you're a path-breaker in solving society's big problems, if you are changing the paradigms for thinking, you will be noticed.

To be among the top three public research universities in the world within the next decade is an aspiration. This is a journey. It's figuring out where we do well, where we have comparative advantage, where there is uniqueness--places where we can make a contribution to advancing all the ideals of citizenship and civilization--and then putting new resources into those places so that we can succeed. We'll also need to remove ourselves from areas where we do not have the financial resources or competitive advantage to be successful.

And we want to be recognized as a place where very exciting things are happening in the classrooms, the laboratories, and the libraries. That's where the reputation ultimately comes in. We also will require substantial new investments because you can't realize a vision without the resources to achieve the goal.

So how are we going to fund this new push to excellence? I think we need to be persuasive with prudent investors, be they private--friends or alumni--or public, through the legislature realizing the enormous economic impact the University has on the state and its well-being. Prudent investors invest in long-term opportunities for enhanced returns. And the more we can focus on building excellence though quality, through a coherent vision, the more successful we will be; and the more successful we are, the more people will want to invest in this University. The returns are reinvested in Minnesota's well-being and future.

People don't invest in something stagnant or in mediocrity. It's too easy to sit and be comfortable and complacent with how well we're doing--and we are doing well--but if that's our attitude we surely will fall behind. And when that happens, the best students, the best faculty, and our friends will not want to invest in the University. That simple notion is key.

What does the coming year look like for the strategic planning process? There will be many opportunities for input because this is an ongoing consultative process and a multiyear endeavor. It's dynamic, it's changing, and it's not static. The University is moving forward with pride and enthusiasm.

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