Julie Sullivan, 56, was named earlier this month as the new president of the University of St. Thomas. She currently serves as executive vice president and provost at the University of San Diego, a Catholic university. A native of Florida, she is married with four adult children, two of them adopted from Ethiopia. She talked to The Catholic Spirit about the job she will take over on July 1. Sullivan will succeed Father Dennis Dease, who served as president for 22 years. She will be the first woman and the first layperson to hold the position.
Tell us a little about your faith life.
My faith life really permeates every aspect of my life. I feel that I am walking hand in hand, through my daily journey, with God. I feel that my faith really has been and will continue to be the source of my strength, my peace, my wisdom, my joy.
To what parish do you currently belong?
My husband and I attend Mass at Mary Star of the Sea, a parish in La Jolla [Calif.], which is where our home is located.
What is the biggest challenge today regarding Catholic identity facing Catholic institutions of higher learning, and how do you plan to address that challenge?
I could talk about this one for half a day. The curriculum and the learning experience in a Catholic university is fundamentally based on the Catholic intellectual tradition. We will need to constantly examine what are the principles of that tradition and how are those principles reflected in our own curriculum and in the learning experience of our students.
And then, at the end of the day: Have we delivered on the promise? Have we educated people who are, as our mission statement says at St. Thomas, morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good? How do we demonstrate that?
What kind of relationship do you envision with the archdiocese and Archbishop John Nienstedt?
I have had dialogue with the leaders of the archdiocese about a very open and supportive relationship. Bishop [Lee] Piché was a member of the search committee, and he played a very active and important role in the process. Then, during my visit to the University of St. Thomas, I was able to meet one-on-one with Archbishop Nienstedt. I was honored to have that opportunity, and I was very pleased with the warmth and openness of his welcome.
What did the two of you talk about in that meeting?
We talked about mostly the importance of being able to have open communication and dialogue with each other.
Some people are worried that having a layperson as president — and not a priest, as has been the case up to now — is a sign that UST isn’t as serious as it once was about its Catholic identity. How would you respond to people who have that concern?
I think, first, I need to acknowledge and say I understand their concern. Whenever that change might be.
I hope my appointment as a Catholic layperson will be seen — and this will take more time for some and less time for others — as a sign that the University of St. Thomas wants to be the best Catholic university we can be. I think that the Board of Trustees was very courageous and insightful to open their search to all Roman Catholics, lay or religious, men and women, in their desire to attract the best person for the position, knowing that a paramount responsibility of this position will always be to ensure that the University of St. Thomas nurtures, sustains and deepens its Catholic identity.
The UST student body is diverse but includes many Catholic students. What kind of faith experience do you want Catholic students to have at St. Thomas?
I want all students at St. Thomas to find the opportunities to learn more about themselves and their relationship with their God and to deepen their personal faith. I think that is why we attract non-Catholic as well as Catholic students. People who are seeking that faith journey are particularly attracted to the University of St. Thomas.
Obviously, for our Catholic students, we have a special responsibility. They have come here knowing and seeking a special deepening of their faith at a Catholic university. My understanding of the mission and ministry programs at the University of St. Thomas is that they are very active in helping our Catholic students in particular, but our non-Catholic students as well, on their faith journey.
How is working for a faith-based institution different from working for one that isn’t faith-based?
I think you operate from a wider platform [at a faith-based school]. You’re now dealing with the whole person. You’re now dealing with the pursuit of truth through faith and reason. The dialogue is richer and broader, and I have found it to be very personally rewarding. And, I’ve also found it to be an enormously valuable educational experience for our students at a faith-based university.
What will be your top priorities in your first year on campus?
My top priorities are going to be to assess our strengths, assess our opportunities, determine the three to five priorities that we are going to rally around, and then begin to set the goals and develop the initiatives that it’s going to take to hold ourselves accountable for reaching those goals.
Our priorities will be . . . very broad, things like our Catholic intellectual tradition, how it’s reflected in our learning experience, the academic rigor and excellence of our programs, the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that’s reflected in our programs, our international engagement, engagement in the local community.
You have two children from Ethiopia: Are they adopted?
Yes they are. My husband Bob actually adopted Almaz and Tadessa when he was a single person in the mid ’70s. He went to Ethiopia, initially in the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps left due to the unrest that was occurring during that time. It was a time of famine, and ultimately, of the downfall of [then-Emperor] Haile Selassie.
But, when the Peace Corps left, my husband stayed. He lived there for around five years and was teaching at the national university there. He was speaking Amharic [national language of the country] and he tells me that he intended to stay there forever. However, when there was the coup — the emperor was ousted — he had to leave for his own personal safety.
He had lived with an Ethiopian family during his time there, and the mother begged him to take one of the children, for fear that they were going to die of starvation. He said, “I can’t take one, I need to take two, so they’ll have each other.” He came back to the United States and went through what turned out to be a very difficult process for a single man to adopt international children.
Having them in our lives and in our family, being just an integral part of our family, but then also having the richness in knowing their Ethiopian family as well, has been an immense source of joy. Our Ethiopian daughter Almaz now lives in Antwerp. She finished her MBA at the University of Michigan and worked in the banking sector in San Francisco and met her husband and married. He’s from Belgium, so unfortunately, they’re far away. They have two little girls who are adopted from Ethiopia. It’s really been special. And, our son Tadessa lives in North Carolina.
Are you aware that right down the road is a Catholic women’s university — St. Catherine University — that has a woman president, Sister Andrea Lee? Have you spoken with her?
I am extremely aware of . . . St. Catherine University down the road. I have had the opportunity to meet Sister Andrea Lee at some of the meetings of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. The two of us share some very close and dear friends. One of the things that attracted me to this job was the opportunity to collaborate with a dynamic and creative and visionary person such as Andrea.
And, I’m very anxious, as soon as I get settled in, to begin conversations with her on how we can collaborate. Certainly, as soon as I arrive there, I hope to cultivate what I hope will be a wonderful friendship and a wonderful partnership. I know Father Dease speaks extremely highly of Andrea and of his valuable collaboration with her.
Tell us a little more about your work at the University of San Diego. What are you most proud of accomplishing there?
One of my recent accomplishments was the designation of our campus by Ashoka as a Changemaker Campus. This designation is something I’m really proud of. There currently are 19 universities in the world so designated. I think Ashoka [a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., USA, that supports social entrepreneurship] aspires to have 30 by the Year 2015.
The reason I’m so proud of this is it is a designation that says we are achieving the outcome — we are inspiring and equipping students to challenge themselves and change the world. We are doing it, we are helping them become aware of the challenges of our society, of our community, of our world, and we’re helping, empowering and inspiring them to make a difference. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about for me.
Would you like St. Thomas to also achieve that designation?
I certainly hope so. But it’s something that has to be a community-embraced goal because the work of one person will not do it. You need a leader that advocates clearly, but you need all the grassroots efforts of your faculty and your students and your staff to achieve it.
The rising cost of tuition is an issue at St. Thomas and elsewhere. What will you do to address that?
That has been an issue I have certainly been very aware of and talking about and working with at the University of San Diego. We have worked extremely hard to keep our tuition increases as low as possible, and to be very judicious when we increase tuition. We constantly strive to articulate the value and relevancy of our education, but also that we are trying to deliver it at the most reasonable cost possible.
Is there anything you’d really like our Catholic community here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to know about you?
That I’m so looking forward to being a part of their community. Since this has been announced, I have discovered that I know many people with Minnesota roots and many Catholics who have enjoyed and still enjoy a wonderful faith community there. I’m just really looking forward to discovering it and being part of it.