By EMERSON LYNN
Each time the University of Vermont welcomes a new president the rest of us take a deep breath, cross our fingers and hope for the best. It’s a billion dollar business and arguably the most important social, cultural and economic player Vermont has. It’s as good as the person running it.
Suresh Garimella took over as president on July 1, replacing Tom Sullivan who had led UVM successfully since 2012. Mr. Garimella comes to UVM from Purdue University, where he was the executive vice president for research and partnership. He was impressive enough as a candidate that the university’s trustees agreed they didn’t need to bring other candidates to the campus.
That’s encouraging. It’s also encouraging Mr. Garimella has an extraordinary record of accomplishment when it comes to research funding and forging international partnerships. Running a university needs someone with consummate abilities in both. Particularly in Vermont.
Mr. Garimella is fortunate in that he has been left an institution that is in good shape financially and whose reputation has been enhanced over Mr. Sullivan’s tenure. Mr. Garimella doesn’t have start his journey at UVM fixing things.
That’s crucial to UVM and to Vermont. The challenges in higher education are considerable enough without the need to spend time and resources fixing what the prior leader didn’t.
Mr. Garimella has the advantage of being able to do what – by reputation – he does best, which is to build relationships where they count most. If he can do at UVM what he was able to do at Purdue, he will enhance the university’s research standing, which, by extension, will not only strengthen the school’s resources but help build the economy that depends on such advancement. That would be an enormous benefit to Vermont.
That level talent, and progress, is what establishes a school’s reputation. It helps attract the sorts of businesses and industry that benefit from such associations.
It’s also an intensely competitive environment. The higher education community is competing for fewer and fewer students – particularly in New England. Lower tier schools will struggle and even the better ones will have to up their games to remain competitive. It’s not a time to be complacent or to countenance middling results. UVM needs to be better than it’s ever been.
Mr. Garimella will discover Vermont as a curiosity. He will find a state that preaches a commitment to its schools, but not to its colleges and university. It’s a befuddling disconnect he must work to correct. There are a number of reasons that disconnect exists, few of them defensible, but only one that would work to correct it, which is showcasing the one-to-one relationship between investments and success. UVM would also need to tell its story, something it does not now do
Vermont is struggling demographically. It has to figure out how to grow and how to attract the sorts of businesses that provide tomorrow’s jobs. That path forward will rely almost exclusively on being able to reorient our educational system in ways that are forward looking.
UVM is that engine. It’s the only institution in Vermont with the size and the reputation to move things forward. And, finally, it’s now healthy enough to make the transition Vermont needs it to make.
It’s time for a little impatience.