Provost Sullivan talks Minnesota and modesty

Sullivan was behind Strategic Positioning, the plan to make the “U” a top university.

Ahnalese Rushmann

Edward Thomas Sullivan thinks people at this school are way too modest.

“A lot of people don’t understand what a great university this is,” said the University Senior Vice President and Provost of Academic Affairs, who goes by “Tom.”

Sullivan attributed this to Minnesotans’ general sense of humility.

“It’s not the nature of people in Minnesota to talk about how great the University is,” he said.

Yet, modesty is a quality Sullivan seems to know well. Widely considered to be second-in-command to University President Bob Bruininks, he’s quick to shake off the informal title of right-hand man.

“Other people may look at it that way,” Sullivan said. “But I can tell you, we don’t look at it that way from a day-to-day perspective.”

High-powered positions are nothing new to the chief academic officer. Sullivan, a nationally renowned legal scholar on antitrust law and complex litigation, spent seven years as the dean of the University’s Law School until 2002.

Prior to that, he served a six-year term as the law school dean at the University of Arizona and practiced law in Miami and Washington, D.C.

Sullivan will get the final say on the new University Law School dean when final candidates for his old position are announced in December. He said he doesn’t treat the Law School dean appointment any differently than other major hires.

“On the other hand, of course, it’s my academic home,” he said. “It’s a position that I held and thoroughly enjoyed.”

Sullivan hasn’t been entirely neglecting his first career.

The top title on a pile of books on his desk is about the language of law school, and he’s currently co-authoring a legal book set to be published next year.

With a lawyer father and two uncles who also practiced law, it’s not surprising to see how Sullivan’s career aspirations were shaped.

Yet, even as a middle-schooler in northern Illinois, he said he was inspired by mentors to go into teaching.

“I had a spectacular English teacher in eighth grade,” Sullivan said. “In high school, a particularly magnificent biology teacher.”

In a mentorship of foreshadowing nature, a senior vice president during his undergraduate career also served as a role model, he said.

Bruininks, whose office is down the hall from Sullivan’s, said the provost’s “rare blend of leadership qualities” makes him one of the best in the nation.

“He was always being regarded as being one of the top deans of law schools in the United States,” he said.

Bruininks said he and his top administrators remind him of Abraham Lincoln and his staff, whom he called a team of independent-minded people with strong views and personalities.

“(Sullivan) is modest but also decisive and assertive in making decisions,” he said.

Sullivan’s recommendations launched the University’s Strategic Positioning Initiative, a plan, he said, with approximately $350 million invested in it.

Three years ago, the University set a goal to become a top-three research institution worldwide, he said.

“The meter’s running,” Sullivan said, adding the University needs to be bolder and take more risks.

“It doesn’t mean that we should engage in unreasonable conduct,” Sullivan said. “If we’re too cautious and not raising people’s expectations and aspirations, we will become too complacent.”

Sullivan, who doesn’t have children, said he has 15 nieces and nephews and tries to visit family in places like Boston and Phoenix on long-weekend trips.

Despite a 60-hour work week, the avid cyclist, golfer and hiker said he and Bruininks try to take canoeing trips down the St. Croix River together – their last outing taking place last October.

Bruininks said they invited others to join them, but ended up being the only people canoeing on the trip, which he said was a great opportunity to get away from the desks and pressures of work.

Guy-Uriel Charles, interim co-dean of the Law School, said he’s witnessed Sullivan’s determination at work and at play.

Sullivan helped with fund-raising efforts for an addition to the Law School – paid for entirely with private dollars, Charles said, something that hadn’t been done before.

Charles said the two of them have also played paintball together.

“I don’t think there’s anybody on this earth who would understand how amazingly competitive of an athlete he is,” he said.

Charles said he was with Sullivan at an alumni engagement the night of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and was impressed by the provost’s balance of caring and clearheaded thinking.

“Even under those circumstances, he still managed to be a great host,” he said.

Sullivan’s extensive experience hasn’t gone unnoticed by other schools, who have sought him out for vacant president positions in the past.

He said he’s currently not being considered for any presidencies, and downplayed past offers with a little of his own Minnesotan modesty.

“That happens to many people,” he said, “that’s not unique to me.”

Despite inquiring schools’ calls, Sullivan said he wants to stay in Minnesota and at the University.

“I have lived here now longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life, except growing up with my parents,” he said. “It’s home for me.”