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Personnel File - December 2007: Women Executives

Pat Sullivan, Chancellor
UNC Greensboro

Despite her father’s misgivings, Pat Sullivan figured she would be a Latin teacher. “He wanted me to be an engineer, like him.” A favorite high-school teacher intervened, pointing out the limited opportunities for making a living in a dead language and suggested biology instead. That lesson shaped Sullivan in ways she couldn’t have imagined. Four decades later, as chancellor of UNC Greensboro, she’s in a position to mold the career choices of students, and making their education relevant to the modern economy has been a touchstone of her 13-year tenure.

The longest-serving chancellor in the UNC system, she has beefed up the sciences at UNCG — she hopes to push it into the top tier of research campuses, alongside Carolina and N.C. State — and boosted Gateway University Research Park, its joint venture with N.C. A&T. “I feel a professional and personal obligation to play a role in this area’s economic revitalization. We’ve been hit very hard with factory closures. As the biggest university here, we’ve had to be more of a driver.”

The native New yorker says this in the low-key way that has become her trademark. Sullivan, 67, eschews CEO peacockery for a researcher’s curiosity. Where many bosses expound, she explores. “I look at the university as a very large, complex organism,” she says. At the cellular level, it may mutate, moving, say, to more online courses, but core principles are encoded in its DNA: free speech, unfettered inquiry and wide consultation. Professors don’t take well to bossing. “You’ve got to persuade them, acknowledging their expertise. You’ve got to consult.”

If science shaped her mind, it didn’t satisfy her ambition. as a young faculty member, she worried about the relevance of her research. “At end of months in the lab, you’d wonder if you were making a difference. In my work with students, I knew I was making a difference.”

So, as administrative opportunities arose, she jumped. “I found them very challenging, not so much intellectually but personally and psychologically. You might put something in motion today, and nothing would happen for three years. You get your satisfaction from seeing the success of others and the success of the institution.”