Eileen Sullivan will start work as new dean of students July 1

Jess Hodge

As Bart Merkle says goodbye after 32 years of serving as Grand Valley State University’s dean of students, someone new will take his place.

April 25 started the first of three presentations put on by the finalists all vying for the open position of GVSU’s vice provost for student affairs and dean of students. Sidney Childs, Eileen Sullivan and George McClellan were the three final candidates considered for the position. On May 5, GVSU Provost of Student Affairs Gayle Davis announced the one candidate who stood above the rest and earned her spot as a Laker: Eileen Sullivan.

“She has a lot of energy, is very outgoing and easy to connect with,” Davis said. “I think she will be easily accessible to students and she will be one of those people students will know.”

Sullivan and both of her fellow candidates focused on ideas that could address potential barriers to student success at GVSU during their presentations. However, Sullivan was able to hone in on what that meant to her and how she would really benefit GVSU students.

“Grand Valley might be a place that I could contribute in some small way based on a variety of experiences,” she said. “For me, this opportunity really speaks to a culmination of maybe a lot of different experiences that I’ve had over the past several years.”

Her understanding of the important of a college education started at a young age when her parents, faculty members at Eastern Illinois University, instilled this value in her. She then worked her way through school, beginning with earning her bachelor’s degree in business and marketing from EIU. She also received her master’s in education and guidance and counseling/student personnel work from EIU. The pinnacle of her education was earning a Ph.D in higher education administration from Bowling Green State University.

“There are so many things that we can do as educators to remove the barriers for students,” Sullivan said. “I think sometimes they are institutionally imposed and it’s within our own reach to solve some policy problems to help get some things out of the way for students to be more successful.”

Since 2007, Sullivan has worked as the dean of students at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. The college is significantly smaller than GVSU, with an enrollment of about 3,000 undergraduate students, compared to GVSU’s 25,000 students. Size doesn’t matter, however, when it comes to Sullivan’s ideas for student success.

Her main point of discussion during her presentation revolved around the idea of engaging learners at all levels. Her efforts on focusing on student success began with diversity and inclusion, noting that inclusion is more important than diversity.

“It’s great if we have our campuses reflect more of the world, which is a more diversified student body and a campus,” Sullivan said. “But if people don’t feel that they belong, then they don’t stay and it’s also not a good experience for them.”

Another focus was to identify and understand who the students are at GVSU and to find strategies to meet all of their needs. By this, she means non-traditional students such as adults who come back after a hiatus, students of color, first generation students and GVSU’s veteran students in addition to traditional students.

“We have students who suffer from mental health issues, those are all of our students. We have students who are survivors of sexual assault, those are our students.We certainly have a richness in diversity by race and ethnicity, but also by sexual orientation and transgender students, those are all of our students too,” Sullivan said. “Higher education has to recruit, retain and graduate more people and we largely need to do it in a better way than we have, with students who we’ve been traditionally more at risk of losing.”