On May 25, for her first (and now, last) international trip, she embarked on a five-day marathon to Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore, where she met sell-out crowds in all four cities. She was doing what so many of us had long advocated for the University – embracing internationalization. Yes, I could complain that it took her almost two years to do it. But with that single trip she had done far more than her predecessor to promote international engagement.
When I was an advocate of internationalization at UVA, it was natural to want to accomplish my goals within my brief, four-year term as a student. After all, advocates are sometimes so caught up in the daily work of advocacy, knowing that their time within an institution is limited, that they advocate vast institutional change while overlooking the small things that can be done to push institutional culture in the right direction. As I’ve worked within huge organizations, I’ve come to embrace the fact that institutional change is slow, and as much as we might want rapid reform, the slower path is often the most effective.
Today, as a board member of Virginia’s largest educational organization and second-largest employer, Fairfax County Public Schools, I can understand the challenges Theresa was facing at Virginia’s 13th-largest employer: a declining ratio of public funds to student enrollment, paradigmatic changes to employee benefits and compensation, and the need to embrace an increasingly complex 21st-century model of public education that encompasses online courses and presents boundless opportunities for institutional expansion.
As the petri dishes of society, schools shape our future like no other institutions, and the need for visionary institutional leadership is strong. However, in these times of great tumult in public education, it also takes a steady, studious hand to guide our educational institutions. At UVA, Teresa Sullivan was that steady hand who had earned the respect of her colleagues by continuing to teach, publish academic work, and engage with the University community.
As a female leader of a once-male dominated institution, her path was known to be precarious from the outset. Thinking that she had at least a few years to enact institutional change, she took the slow path to reform.
But what few give Teresa credit for today is that she rocked the boat more than ever could have been expected of a UVA President a mere decade ago. What she realized—and the UVA Board of Visitors forgot—is that the lives of great institutions are longer than our own.