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Posted on Thu, Sep 3, 2009 : 12:34 p.m.

Financial climate poses challenges for University of Michigan Provost Teresa Sullivan

By Juliana Keeping

With a new school year approaching, sat down recently with University of Michigan Provost Teresa Sullivan to learn more about what keeps U-M's other boss busy, and what's in store for the 2009-2010 school year and beyond.

Sullivan's job entails working with U-M President Mary Sue Coleman to set the university's academic priorities. It's ultimately her responsibility to find the money to fund them.

Reporting to her are the deans of 19 schools and colleges, the university librarian and dean of the library, as well as a multitude of vice provosts, directors and offices. The budget is a consuming priority, and more cuts are on the horizon, starting with new central cuts to IT, travel and hosting, and continuing space utilization and energy conservation efforts. The university often touts that it's trimmed $135 million in operating expenditures over six years. Over the same time period, state appropriations have dropped by millions and tuition has become more expensive every year.

"It keeps me pretty busy. I'm not keeping up with the soap operas," Sullivan said of her position.

The graduate of James Madison College at Michigan State University with a doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Chicago is also a U-M sociology professor and co-author of six books and 50 scholarly articles. She's a scholar in labor force demographics, with a focus on consumer debt and economic marginality.

Question: Do you have a strategy as to how you approach this very big, broad job?

Answer: The provost job is a little different than at other universities. The provost is both chief academic and chief budget officer. The chief budget officer card has particular significance in this time. In terms of academics, this is a very strong institution, and I have very strong and capable deans. I'm not worried about the strength of the academic mission, I'm worried about funding it well enough so that it can stay strong. So I'm spending a lot more time these days on budget than I might have expected when I came in.

Question: How does your background in sociology affect the way you approach your job?

Answer: Sociology gives you a sense of social structure, and looking at the university more structurally is a very useful analytic tool for how to deal with it. I was also trained in quantitative sociology, so I tend to be pretty data-based, and I think that helps you back up your decision with information, and I think that's valuable. Institutional Research (U-M's Institute for Social Research) reports to me, and I make a lot of use of their information. I still teach sociology once per year, which is good for me, and I hope it's good for the students

Question: Tell me more about feedback you received from the student budget advisory committee for this year's budget. (The committee is a group that commits to year's worth of meetings with Sullivan.)

Answer: They understand the terrible situation a lot of families are in; but also, they want their degree to be valuable, and a cut-rate degree won't be as valuable for them. So there is a sense of preserving your own investment as well as keeping the university affordable. We spent a lot of time talking about financial aid, and the university made a huge commitment to financial aid this year. Students were generally supportive of that analysis. No one likes to raise prices, but the students understood that we've basically got two ways to provide an education here. One is state appropriations and the other is tuition. If one of those goes down, we'll start by cutting costs, but at some point, we probably can't cut costs enough that we don't have to raise tuition some, and that's exactly the situation we're in.

Question: What is in store for the Pfizer property? Answer: The dean of the medical school (James Woolliscroft, MD) is currently mobilizing our effort, and he has set up a lot of committees and task forces to look at who should move to Pfizer and not just who, but where. I'm also viewing that campus as a new front door for the university. It's close to the highway, it's easy for people to get to. I envision a lot of high end biomedical kind of research going out there, because the facility is so perfect for that. (Sullivan added that the university has given itself a 10-year time period to fully assess the property, which includes analyzing rooms for their suitability as classrooms and looking at extending the bus system.)

Question: When you're not being the provost, what do you do with your time?

Answer: I sing in a choir. I'm in a walking club, the Washtenaw Wanderers. I'm on the board of directors of the Council of Independent Women and am chair-elect of the Washtenaw County United Way campaign. I also write scholarly papers. It keeps me pretty busy when I'm not here.

Juliana Keeping, University of Michigan reporter, can be reached at or (734) 623-2528

University of Michigan photo of Provost Teresa Sullivan.