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Former Univ. of VA President Talks About Her Role In MSU Presidential Search

Teresa Sullivan
Joe Dandron

The search for a new Michigan State University President is moving forward with the recent appointment of a search committee and the start of community listening sessions. The Board of Trustees also hired Spartan and recently retired University of Virginia President Dr. Teresa Sullivan to serve as an advisor in the search process.

WKAR’s Laura Michels sat down with Dr. Sullivan during her visit to East Lansing to hear what she’s bringing to the process. 

LM: When you were asked to come and were brought on what are the expectations?

Dr. Sullivan: I think in general what they want is for me to simply advise them on the best practices being used in the country. It’s been a long time since Michigan State had a national presidential search and you know things have evolved over time in terms of what you do with that search. I more informally said I’m something like Jiminy Cricket in the movie Pinocchio – I’m kind of like a conscious but I don’t have any power.

LM: What are the best practices to get the right person?

Dr. Sullivan: Well, I think it’s very important to start off with what it is you are looking for. Right? So, are there certain skills certain characteristics that you know you want to get in this person because you want to be sure you’ve got the best fit for the job. I think it’s also very important not just that you get the right candidates but that the candidate believes that Michigan State is the right fit for her or for him.

LM: You said in your tenure at the University of Virginia there were some ups and down. The Rolling Stone article (an article about an alleged gang rape that was discredited) being investigated a couple of different times for sexual abuse allegations – the school. How is that experience impacting, playing a role in what you are doing here?

Dr. Sullivan: One of the things that Virginia decided was that we wanted to be leaders in terms of making the university as safe as possible for everybody was there. The allegations in the Rolling Stone story weren’t true, but it is true that sexual assault happens at universities. So, we pulled together a large commission who gave us a lot of recommendations and we began implementing those recommendations. Now I see President Engler also seeking to do the same thing to create a situation in which Michigan State has changed its practices and its policies so that this is a safe place for students and faculty and staff going forward.

LM: Part of this person’s - whether it’s a man or woman’s job - is engendering the trust again of the students and the community, right – and how is that going to happen?

Dr. Sullivan: Well, I believe you are right about that. It’s partly a matter of being sure that you’ve got good policies in place that you’ve got good procedures in place and that you’ve got good people in place. And some of these policies and procedures such as mandatory reporting, and so on I think those are already being implemented. But I also think you’ve got to think as you said about the more proactive measures -bystander training so that if somebody is in trouble at a party the other people that are there don’t just shrug and turn away but they know what they could do to be a practical help. And, frankly, plenty of advice to young people as they enter the university about being aware. Most sexual assaults that happen at universities are not happening with strangers they are happening with people you know.  We also know that there are situations that are setups for sexual assaults I often said at Virginia that alcohol is the toll of the predator. And that doesn’t mean that everybody who is drinking alcohol is a predator by any means but predators are using alcohol as a tool That’s a message that recent high school graduates have not necessarily heard.

LM: How are you going to get the right person? I know empathy has been brought up by students and trustees. How are you going to figure out in the person’s background – Ms. Byrum mentioned psychological testing - with their past experience how – this is a big decision, how are you going to know?

Dr. Sullivan: Well, first of all, there will be extensive background checking which will include talking to people who know this candidate both people the candidates told us about but also people the candidate has not told us about. Certainly, somebody in the academy there tends to be vast networks of people who know you - who were your supervisors who were your students who were your co-workers. There’s lots of people typically you can talk to and interview and you want to ask a question about all kinds of things but is there anything here this candidate would not see in the newspaper? Is there anything embarrassing any serious mistakes – lots of questions like that you can ask on background.

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