Becoming Dean

An Interview with Neil Sullivan

SullivanOn June 6, Neil Sullivan, interim dean and professor of physics, was appointed to serve as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences by Provost David Colburn. His appointment, which officially began on July 1, came after a national nine-month search following Will Harrison's retirement from the post last summer after twelve years of service.

Sullivan earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees of science from Otago University in New Zealand in 1964 and 1965, respectively. He went on to receive his PhD in physics from Harvard University in 1972, after which he did postdoctoral work at the Centre d'Etudes Nuclearies in Saclay, France. Sullivan then spent nine years as a physicist at the Centre d'Etudes Nuclearies before coming to UF in 1982. He served as chair of the physics department from 1989-99, until becoming associate dean of research for the college, a position he held until he was appointed interim dean when Harrison stepped down.

In early July, Sullivan spoke with former CLASnotes editor Laura Griffis about his new position and his vision for the future.

How do you understand your role as dean of the college?
The dean sets, ultimately, the tone, the level and the standards of inquiry for the college. Universities throughout the world are changing rapidly in terms of curriculum, the ways that they reach out to the community outside the university, as well as how they train and teach their students about the pursuit of knowledge. The levels of excellence to which a particular unit can aspire in all of these areas must be defined and promoted by the leadership inside that unit, and it is the dean's job to make sure those goals are both well defined and achievable on a workable time scale.

What are some of the goals you hope to accomplish as dean?
My primary goal is to change the national perception of our college into an institution that ranks in the top 10 of all public institutions in the country. In some areas of the college we are almost at that level, and other areas have great potential. We have put outstanding faculty and programs in place. Now we have to build them to a level of excellence where they compete with other top institutions.

My strategy is to choose particular areas where UF can be unique, build on those strengths and rise to international eminence. We have done that in our current collaboration with Spain to build El Gran Telescopio Canarias and, to a certain degree, with the environmental sciences and the new Land Use and Environmental Change Institute. I am also impressed with the analytical aspects of bioinfomatics where a number of our programs have drawn interest in the last few years. There are particular elements of the humanities that have real strength and national eminence, and we need to focus on those and raise them to a higher level of national visibility. The goal for the nascent Center for the Humanities is to build a new mode of inquiry focusing on the intersection of the humanities in the public sphere. The center will draw great scholars, humanists, poets and philosophers who will provide a catalyst for expanding our programs to a new level.

It is very important in all areas of intellectual pursuit--whether it be in the sciences, social sciences or humanities--that we have a flow of scholars into the university to give students and faculty members the opportunity to interact with the most creative and accomplished individuals in their fields. Therefore, we need to find ways to build all of our programs so that they attract international leaders in a wide variety of fields.

What are the biggest challenges facing CLAS at this time?
We must realize that in order to move forward, we have to generate the drive and the financial resources ourselves. The time when research initiatives and scholarly endeavors could depend on state support has passed. We must seek out resources and support from the private sector, from research foundations and from philanthropic foundations that support new initiatives. Being awarded such support is a mark of achievement in and of itself. If we are able to compete with top institutions and if we are perceived as one of the best, we will be able to draw support from these foundations.

Are you expecting the change in the system of governance to affect your job?
Yes, it will. First of all, there are going to be a number of new endeavors that we want to undertake and programs that we want to build. Rather than having to seek approval from the state university system to develop these initiatives, we will now go to our own local board of trustees.

Second, I think there could be a vast improvement in the morale of our faculty and students. Their confidence in their ability to develop a new path for the university could dramatically increase. With a new degree of independence, we will be given the opportunity to develop our own intellectual identity. I think faculty and students will respond to this opportunity for leadership and the invitation to strive for excellence. Our alumni and supporters
will also respond because this is a chance for UF to develop its own mark.

The change of governance will give us the opportunity to be independent, to choose the areas in which we want to be bold and to actually make significant changes to programs that we want to develop. This independence also provides a challenge: it means that we will have to be creative and resourceful to find the funds and support to achieve our goals.

How would you describe your style of leadership?
I like to work with people on an equal basis, whether they are staff, faculty or students. I strive to encourage people who work with me on projects to feel like they are part of a team and all have an equal say. I do not think you can succeed by imposing ideas on others. You have to try to bring people to collective decisions and proceed forward as a unit so that everyone is on board with the major projects you want to accomplish. At the end of the day, the thing that counts is what the best ideas are, not just who had them.

What is your five-year vision for CLAS?
There is no doubt that UF is changing. The changes will sometimes appear to be occurring very slowly, and on other occasions they will appear to be occurring quite rapidly. If we seize these moments of change, make the right choices and put tremendous energy into developing our strengths, the college will move forward significantly.

I think in 10 years time, UF will be more international in character. It will become an intellectual watering hole for the southeast in a way we have not seen before. Our position with respect to other intellectual centers in the US will change. Research and scholarly activity will develop in areas that reflect how our college is unique and where we are leading the world in certain fields. Naturally, our programs will then increasingly attract world-renowned scholars. I think you will see the whole character of the university change.

Jane Dominguez

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