BENNINGTON -- In his third week on the new job, University of Vermont President E. Thomas Sullivan visited Bennington to introduce himself to alumni and officials, hear how the university is meeting needs of people in the southwest corner of the state and tout his vision for the state university.
"We started in the northern part of the state and then came down to the southern part. We hope to get to all of the counties soon because we want to literally listen to people outside of Burlington ... about the relationships between the university and the citizens and their communities," Sullivan said during an interview at the Banner, following a meet and greet session at Peppermills Restaurant. "We're listening to what kind of outreach and extension would be helpful to their communities."
Sullivan said the recommendations from people in all regions of the state are similar -- requests for more continuing education opportunities, expanded web-based offerings, and professional development certificate programs for professionals who already make up the work force.
Also on the minds of people is the high cost of education, which Sullivan has prioritized as the first of three areas he is focusing on immediately.
"We want to make sure there aren't financial barriers that prevent Vermont students from going to UVM. The conversation really is about how do we moderate the growth of tuition and at the same time grow and increase the financial aid and scholarship packages so we can lighten the financial burden for students -- particularly starting with Vermont students," Sullivan said.
Over the past decade, Sullivan said UVM has done well balancing tuition costs and financial aid. During that period the average tuition increase has been 4.8 percent, while the pool of money for financial aid has increased 5.3 percent. But, that trend needs to continue, and even improve, so Vermonters may be assured they can attend UVM without being buried in debt by graduation.
"I think the university has done a good job, (but) we need to be even more vigilant in being aggressive about building up the scholarship opportunities and financial aid opportunities to lesson the cost of attendance."
Sullivan will also focus on enhancing the quality of programs and the university's reputation through a strategic plan that aligns those priorities with budget realities. To meet that goal, Sullivan said the university must question the value in every decision and whether each "enhances the quality and experience for the students."
The third priority in the immediate future, which will help meet the first two goals Sullivan has set, will be a comprehensive campaign to raise a "substantial amount of money" through private donations. By taking in more money, the university will be able to improve the aspects that already make it stand out and defray student costs at the same time.
While his priorities are specifically related to UVM, Sullivan believes the university's continued success can have a significant impact on the state as a whole.
"That's part of our land grant responsibility, to help sustain and build communities and support people and be a catalyst for economic development through our research productivity and then delivering through applied research ... and through (university extensions throughout the state)," Sullivan said. "We try to admit and retain the very best students in Vermont, to keep them home for the workforce, and in that regard to recruit and graduate a fairly substantial number of nonresidents -- that's importing real talent for the state of Vermont."
One way Sullivan and others at the university will gauge their success is through conversations with people across the state. A presence in towns like Bennington from previous UVM president Daniel Fogel was not common in recent years, but Sullivan said he expects to hit the road more than his predecessor.
"This is the first time we've had an opportunity ... to visit, but I'm coming back. This won't be a, ‘gee, I saw him one time and he never came back.' We want to continue to come back on a regular basis and ask the questions how well are we doing and did we follow up and has that been beneficial to you and your community?" Sullivan said. "I see the university as a real partner with the citizens of Vermont and with the political leadership of the state."
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