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Dr. Patricia Sullivan: First in Leadership

Janet Imrick | Thu Mar 28, 2024

The University of North Carolina Greensboro would not look like what it does today were it not for the first woman to officially serve as its Chancellor: Dr. Patricia Sullivan. Her legacy is felt in the name of the Sullivan Science Building and the continued real-world impact of UNCG’s faculty and students. 

Patricia Ann Sullivan was born in Staten Island, New York in 1939.  She graduated from Notre Dame College of St. John’s University in 1961 after receiving her bachelor’s in biology. In 1964, She went back to school for her master’s in biology and got her PhD in 1967.

Sullivan worked in many positions after graduate school, serving at the National Institutes of Health and faculty and leadership positions at Wagner College, Wells College, Texas Woman’s University, and Salem College before coming to UNCG.

The Beginning of Something New at the G

Following the tenure of Chancellor William Moran, Debra W. Stewart stepped into the position as interim chancellor in 1994. On January 1, 1995, Sullivan would be made the University’s ninth chancellor, the first woman to officially hold the chief executive position on campus.

With Sullivan at the helm, enrollment reached an all-time high. There was an increase in students from underrepresented communities. JoAnne Smart Drane, one of the first African American students to attend UNCG, said Sullivan “valued the University’s diversity as a strength.”

As chancellor, she led the University into its current classification as a research institution. Funded research grew 180 percent, from $12.7 to $36 million. Various doctoral programs were established in health, science, technology, and humanities. At the time, UNCG partnered with North Carolina A&T State University to start the Gateway Research Park and the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN).

Sullivan diligently supported the North Carolina Higher Education Improvement Bond referendum, securing $166 million for the University for construction and renovations. The Sullivan Science Building was built due to the bond referendum.

Responsible for more than $500 million in new constructions and renovations, Sullivan oversaw the addition of the Gatewood Studio Arts Building, the Moore Humanities and Research Administration Building, the Music Building, and the Spring Gardens Apartments Residence Hall.

Parting Thoughts 

On December 6, 2007, Chancellor Sullivan announced that she would retire on July 31, 2008. She said, “As with any journey, each year during which I have served as chancellor has been marked by great strides and great successes. Many inspiring challenges and surprises. Times when my heart felt great pain from strategies we had to overcome. And times when my heart swelled with pride at the accomplishment of our people. It has been, after all, a very beautiful voyage — and I shall always understand what UNCG means.”

A ceremony was held, with the Science Building being renamed the Patricia A. Sullivan Science Building in her honor. “I think we found a way to encode Pat Sullivan and her tremendous leadership into the DNA of UNCG for many years to come,” said Board of Trustees Chair Steve Hassenfelt. During the ceremony, Sullivan received The Old North State Award, which recognizes “dedication and service beyond expectation and excellence to the Great State of North Carolina.”

After a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, Sullivan passed away at age 69, on the morning of August 20, 2009. On September 14, 2009, a campus-wide service was held in her memory with remarks from many UNCG alumni, faculty members, and administrators. 

Chancellor Linda Brady said, “There is a void on our landscape. But it is just a physical void. Pat’s engaging smile and encouraging spirit – her intellect and reason – are in every hallway, in every building – in each classroom, studio, and laboratory. It is in the Weatherspoon, the library, the Elliott Center, on the athletic courts and fields — Her spirit lives on in the hearts of all of us who hold UNCG dear — and who continue the commitment to advancing the University that she dearly loved.” 

Legacy of Building Up the Campus and its Students 

Sullivan’s hard work became the foundation for many other innovative projects at UNCG. The late Dr. Nancy Vacc, a professor of curriculum and instruction, contributed to many successes at UNCG, one well known as the “clock tower” or the Nicholas A. Vacc Memorial Bell Tower. It was in memory of her husband, a prominent professor and department chair of Counseling and Educational Development. Dr. L. DiAnne Borders, Burlington Industries Excellence Professor of counseling and educational development said, “What I will remember most about Nancy…was her sincere optimism and genuine, warm attention to each person she met. All her gifts to the university will have lasting impacts on campus life.” 

Dr. Sherine Obare, recently announced as UNCG’s next Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement, has served as the Dean of JSNN since January 2009. Obare has overseen research breakthroughs that benefit industries, sustainability, and national security initiatives. She has always committed to supporting faculty and student studies. JSNN will hold its 15th anniversary celebration on April 4, 2024. This spring, Obare will succeed Dr. Terri Shelton in Research and Engagement.

Sullivan’s work also lives on in the Sullivan Distinguished Professorship, a title born by Drs. Nadja Cech and Nicholas Oberlies. They’ve both been praised for building mentorships with their students within their chemistry labs in the Sullivan Science Building. This year, Oberlies received the Senior Research Excellence Award, recognizing his study of fungi that paves the way for new drug discoveries. Cech was UNCG’s Board of Governors Excellence in Teaching awardee in 2022. She has been a leader in promoting multi- and cross-disciplinary projects and creates opportunities for students to cultivate curiosity and research networks outside the laboratory.

Though UNCG looks much different from its earliest days in 1891, it has not forgotten the students, educators, and leaders who laid its foundation. In Fall 2023, UNCG unveiled Astera, a sculpture. It serves as a tribute to the Woman’s College and the alumnae who became pioneers in their own ways. It’s surrounded by brickwork with photos of that era for students and visitors to reflect on the past and the possibilities for the future. 

Story by Lauren Segers and Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives at the University Libraries
Additional photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications