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Posted on Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 5 a.m.

Executive Profile: Tom Sullivan, President & Chief Executive Officer and Professor of English, Cleary University

By Sarah Rigg

Tom Sullivan.JPG

Tom Sullivan

Several events in Tom Sullivan's youth set the stage for his current role as president of Cleary University. His parents, he said, emphasized the importance of college and encouraged him to save his paper route money for college tuition.

Later, in his sophomore year of college, a powerful experience helped propel him toward a decades-long career in higher education. During finals, a schoolmate flunked an exam after being kept up all night by rowdy undergraduates.

Sullivan pleaded with the dean of the business college to give this student a second chance. The classmate took a different exam and passed.

"I thought that was more what college should be about," he said. "I wanted to help young people learn and be successful."

After college, Sullivan served as a teacher or administrator in various public school, community college and university settings. He was hired as president of Cleary University 20 years ago during a time of "severe distress, financially and otherwise."

"The board said I should do whatever was not illegal or immoral to keep it going," he said.

He and the board determined that Cleary had a niche to fill, believing non-traditional adult students were not being well served. They intensified the university's focus on providing practical, project-based learning opportunities and took Cleary College through the accreditation process to become a university.

Sullivan said employers who look at otherwise identical graduates, one from a college and one from a university, tend to choose the university graduate. The board decided becoming a university was the right choice because it was a plus for its customers.

Now, the university offers fewer associate degrees and more baccalaureates and graduate degrees. The university's student makeup has also shifted from an even split between traditional-aged and adult students to now serving about 70 percent non-traditional adult students.

Other changes at the college have been driven by the economic downturn. Many students are taking less credit hours per semester, he said, and fewer students are receiving employer reimbursements than just a couple years ago.

Despite the downturn, Cleary continues to expand physically and academically. The university recently added an MBA degree in sustainable management, for instance.

Additionally, the Livingston County campus has acquired new buildings and land. A capital campaign is underway to build a fitness and recreation center there, and the administration also has plans to build a micro-business incubator on the campus. Faculty will advise the startups, and Cleary students will serve internships at the businesses.

Sullivan said application-based learning is a core component of the Cleary experience. Each graduate must complete a project related to real-world concerns during their last few semesters. Those projects, he said, have contributed to promotions for many working students.

"If you solve your boss's biggest problem, you're going to get noticed, and good things are going to happen," he said.


Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Dayton; Master's of Education degree, Kent State University; doctorate coursework completed, University of Michigan.

Family: Married to Barb 41 years. Two children, Colleen (38) and Brendan (35). Five grandchildren, Olivia, Ainsley, Mackenzie, Sebastian and Reagan. 

Residence: Green Oak Township.


Best business decision: Helping Cleary University aggressively move its curriculum to project/application-based learning.

Worst business decision: All decisions have consequences - if you learn from them, they are not bad decisions, although the consequences may not be desirous. I’ve been fortunate to learn.

Best way to keep a competitive edge: Continuously learn. Our Six Sigma approach has been helpful.

Personal hero: My bride. I am amazed at her talent, compassion, patience and growth over our married life.

How do you motivate people? People motivate themselves. Give people the opportunity to understand their role, make decisions, and serve their customers. That produces joy in work - motivation naturally follows.

What advice would you give to yourself in college? Understand how the collegiate experience and its growth will serve and fit into the rest of one's life.

Word that best describes you: Consistent.

First Web site you check in the morning: If/when I check, probably Yahoo! Fantasy Sports - my son has me in several leagues.


What keeps you up at night? Michigan's (and the U.S. ) economy. So many people are hurting, it is frightening. I worry about the lives my grandchildren will have.

Pet peeve: People not thinking through issues/actions and consequences.

Guilty pleasure: An oxymoron - none.

First job: Gas station attendant for Martin Oil (17 cents a gallon).

First choice for a new career: A fiction writer or a day care worker.


Favorite cause: Cleary University (no surprise).

Favorite book: "The Little Prince"; by Antoine de Saint Exupery - it contains all the wisdom one needs to lead a good and happy life.

Favorite movie: Casablanca - a classic love story.

Favorite hobby: Reading, gardening and golf - all tied for first place.

Favorite restaurant:
Madam Jeanette's - Aruba.

LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter? LinkedIn - we use it as a tool for alumni career networking.

What team do you root for?
The Orange Crush (my oldest granddaughter's soccer team).

Wheels: 1997 Mercedes - I bought it used from my son after he had his first child and realized he could no longer afford it.

Who would play you in a movie? Why would anyone want to play me in a movie? Probably an extra from the back lot.


Harvey Berman

Thu, Nov 5, 2009 : 8:24 a.m.

This profile captures the essence of Cleary University and it's strong role in education. Aided by his very capable wife Barb, Tom Sullivan's dedication, leadership, and drive have played a major role in Cleary University's success. The University's mission and practical program are vital to modern education - especially given the current economic environment in Michigan. The University is fortunate to have Tom Sullivan at its helm.