Before that, in her first position at a Catholic university, Sullivan served as executive vice president and provost at the University of San Diego. There, she fell in love with the Catholic intellectual tradition that helps students see how the world fits together.
“Education is about acquiring knowledge, but it is more importantly about acquiring wisdom,” she says. “It is about the development of not just your mind but really your heart and becoming the person you were created to be. In Catholic higher education, we develop the whole person: the heart, the spirit, and the mind. We want them not just to acquire a bucket of knowledge but something broader and deeper than that. “
Students at the heart. It’s a practice she knows deepens with the addition of Ignatian spirituality at Jesuit universities.
“In the Jesuit tradition, we stress Ignatian spirituality,” she says. “You have a responsibility to be a man or woman for others, but here you also have a source for that. It is fed by the spirituality and discernment of God speaking to us and helping us find that purpose.”
At San Diego, Sullivan used SCU as a benchmark for her work.
“I always admired Santa Clara for its academic excellence, its overall excellence as an institution, and the quality of the students,” she says. “It was always a University that I was watching.”
Tracing her own discernment path—this dedication to the mind-expanding power of education—goes beyond Sullivan’s time as an accounting professor at UC San Diego, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Oklahoma.
As a kid in Florida, Sullivan made her brother play school with her. She was, of course, the teacher. She excelled outside of pretend school, too, graduating after the 11th grade.
When she was 12, her family moved from an upper-middle-class part of Jacksonville to a mixed-income community in Live Oak. Her father had purchased a car dealership in the area. It was there that she first taught someone other than her kid brother. She tutored friends and, as a young teenager, volunteered as a teacher at a Head Start program.
Still, when she went to the University of Florida as a first-generation college student, she didn’t go with the idea of becoming an educator—rather her idea was to get an education.
“I had no idea what I wanted to study,” she says. “I started pre-med because that is what I thought people who got good grades did.”
Her drive to excel in school—and all things really—is inspired by her family’s hard work. Her fraternal grandmother grew a private student transportation business with just two school buses in 1957 into the largest such company in the state of Florida by the time she retired.
The fortitude is summed up by a poem passed down from mother to daughter, starting with Sullivan’s maternal grandmother. Tucked in the pages of Sullivan’s bible is the Douglas Malloch poem “Be The Best of Whatever You Are:”
“If you can’t be the sun be a star;
It isn’t by size that you win or you fail—
Be the best of whatever you are!”
Despite doing her best, Sullivan met her match in organic chemistry and switched majors to accounting, which better suited her skills and interests.
While she earned her master’s and taught introductory accounting as a college teaching assistant, the education puzzle came into place.
“I was really good at breaking things into pieces and explaining them,” she says. She could see the lightbulb go off when her students understood something.
A lightbulb went off for her too. Education was the place she was meant to be. “It took me a while to realize that my vocation was going to be a teacher, but I’ve always been a teacher,” she explains.
“God has always guided my life,” she says. “I tell people that God has a better imagination than I do. I have never planned my life to have a goal of this or that in five years. I’ve never done that. I’ve always just wanted to be the best at what I was.”
Life of Faith
“There was a time when I was a child when my family didn’t go to church but to drop me off to attend services,” she says with a laugh.
It was the kind of kid she was. She grew up Protestant and converted to Catholicism while in North Carolina after falling in love with intellectual purpose, social teaching, and the universality of the Church.
The faith and purpose at the center of Sullivan’s life is part of what makes her a match for Santa Clara.
“In Dr. Sullivan, we have found a proven leader and faithful servant ideally suited to lead SCU in our pursuit of a more humane, just, and sustainable world,” says Larry Sonsini, chairperson of the SCU Board of Trustees, which selected Sullivan as the University’s 30th President.
“Having spent considerable time with Dr. Sullivan, I can personally attest to her thoughtful and engaging leadership style, her deep faith, and her genuine excitement for carrying forward our long-established traditions and mission that are so needed in our ever-changing world,” he continues.
Sullivan is reflective as she starts her role at Santa Clara. Coming here brings her closer to some of her grandchildren who live in the Bay Area. Her family includes five grown children—a blend of stepchildren, adopted children, and biological children who comprise a joyful brood spread around the world. Her husband, Robert Sullivan, is the former dean of the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego.
When she first heard that SCU was considering selecting a lay President, she was interested but also felt deeply committed to the projects she’d launched at St. Thomas. These include a new nursing school, a Racial Justice Initiative, and that university’s move to Division I sports. But, over Christmas, Sullivan was with her Bay Area-based children and felt God again guiding her path.
“This is an opportunity to do what I love, and that’s Catholic higher education. It is an opportunity to do something I’ve always yearned to do in Jesuit, Catholic higher education, and to be with my family,” she says. “When God decides it is time for you to do something else, he tells you.”
The job became an option for someone like Sullivan in summer 2021. That’s when Santa Clara’s Board of Trustees opened the President’s position to laypeople for the first time in the University’s history—that’s 170 years of Jesuit, and of course male, leaders. Being a first in this way is a role she’s taken on before. She was also the first layperson and woman to lead St. Thomas when her appointment there was announced in 2013. Still, she says, “I don’t like to dwell on firsts.”
Her leadership style is, of course, informed by experiences as a woman, mother, and wife, but also by faith, belief in education, and optimism. It’s a collaborative and partnership style, she says.
“You can’t do anything alone,” she says. “I always tell people that my dreams are just fantasies if I can’t find anyone who shares them. If we can find some shared dreams, we can do anything together.”
In her first weeks and months on the job, Sullivan knows she’ll uncover the dreams the community shares, including developing a student body that is diverse and meets the needs of Silicon Valley and the world.
“There are great hallmarks of excellence here,” she says. “I feel like it is in Santa Clara University’s DNA—whatever we are going to do, we are going to do it well.”
And so we return to the back chapel of SCU’s beloved Mission Church—the Mission at the heart of campus. Behind Sullivan is a wooden cross; she’s finishing the video introducing herself to faculty, staff, alumni, and, most importantly, students.
Santa Clara’s incoming president leans toward the camera, smiles, and says, “I am excited to get to work with you.”