UNC-CH Professor Engages Students in the Study of Leadership

The question of how the president of the United States spends his day has long fascinated associate political science professor Terry Sullivan, who has taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1991.

“The only thing we ever see the president do is give speeches, and that counts for a little under 8 percent of the president’s day — preparing, writing, practicing, giving speeches,” Sullivan said. “Nobody knows what the president does. Much of the presidency and the president’s leadership is a mystery. But it’s a mystery we can find out about.”

In teaching graduate and undergraduate courses at UNC-CH on the presidency, Congress, leadership, persuasion, organizations and bargaining over the last 26 years, Sullivan has engaged many of his students in the study of how the U.S. president operates on a daily basis and how he goes about influencing other leaders.

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded Sullivan the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a $12,500 stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of the state’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, the country’s first public, residential high school for gifted students.

In studying the presidential day, Sullivan’s students study the logs of various presidents’ activities and analyze how the leader spends his time — comparing, for example, how the president’s day changes during a crisis. They read material about leadership and then listen to presidents try to talk other leaders — who have their own agendas — into doing things.

“A lot of my teaching comes from my interest in research,” Sullivan said. “The students are engaged in looking at what kinds of theories of leadership are actually practiced by practicing politicians. I hope they leave my class with the belief that they can understand how politics works, and they can affect how politics works.”

Sullivan earned his B.A. and Ph.D. in government from the University of Texas in 1973 and 1980, respectively, and completed his postdoctoral studies at Carnegie-Mellon University Graduate School of Industrial Administration in 1986. He has published four books, including The Nerve Center: Lessons in Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff in 2004 and The White House World: Transitions, Organizations and Office Operations in 2003.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt said in a statement that Sullivan’s commitment to excellence in the classroom exemplifies Carolina’s leadership in research, scholarship and creativity.

“Students and faculty consider him a great storyteller, provocateur and a breath of fresh air,” Folt said.

No Easy Answers 

Julia Ossey, a May 2015 UNC-CH graduate with a double major in political science and global studies, took from Sullivan an introductory power politics seminar, a 400-level executive politics class and an independent study focused on the daily routine of Lyndon B. Johnson.

“He was definitely the best professor I’ve had,” Ossey said. “He didn’t sit there and lecture and tell us what we needed to know for the test. He gave us information to get us started, and we had to investigate what we saw. He’s greatly influenced me to think more strategically, to analyze data or situations more in depth than looking at something and saying, ‘Oh, I have the answer.’”

Sullivan’s wife holds a Master’s from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and taught middle school in Chapel Hill before beginning to train teachers in service learning. Much of Sullivan’s teaching strategy comes from what he’s learned through his wife’s work.

“It turns out a lot of middle school pedagogy is applicable to the university classroom,” Sullivan said.

Rather than lecturing, Sullivan prefers to engage students in group problem solving. In addition to increasing students’ retention of the material, the group work enables students to engage each other on their own terms.

“Students learn from analogy, and one of the best purveyors of analogy is their peers,” he said. “They can help each other learn the material; they can talk about it within their frameworks.”

Sullivan also requires students to write a lot: He requires they write a number of one-page papers, which he grades intensely, as well as a 20-page single-spaced paper for the end of the term.






Sullivan's unique teaching style engages students in group problem solving. In addition to increasing students’ retention of the material, the group work enables students to engage each other on their own terms.

The President's Day 

Much of Sullivan and his students’ research feeds into The White House Transition Project, a multi-institutional effort that provides technical assistance and expertise about leadership to presidential campaigns, presidents-elect and their staff and White House staff.

The project has helped all major presidential candidates and all presidents-elect since 1996, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Sullivan cofounded the project in 1997 and currently serves as its executive director.

In their analysis of the president’s time, Sullivan’s students have debunked a couple myths, including the idea that the president has maximum political influence the day after inauguration.

“The idea that their influence is dwindling away, it’s not just silly; it’s wrong,” Sullivan said. “This idea of moving your agenda quickly is not a very good idea. You need to move your agenda smartly; you need to know when the right window is available for you to act.”

In trying to help the president’s staff find ways to manage his time better, Sullivan and his students have also determined that the president has to think about focus in a different way than most people.

“Presidents do lots of stuff everyday, but they don’t do anything very much. If you try to make the president’s day about one thing, you will feel constantly frustrated; you will constantly feel the president is off-message or out of sync,” Sullivan said. “Twenty-five minutes is a lot. If you’re going to try to make the president’s day about education, you have to realize that’s only going to be an hour at best.”

In addition to U.S. leaders, Sullivan advises foreign democratic leaders on transition-related issues. He worked with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in 2010 and 2011 and before that, the presidents of Kenya, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and East Timor.

Sullivan hopes his classes give students who may be interested in politics as a profession an inside look at what real politicians do.

While not all of his students end up pursuing politics after graduation, “they all understand leadership in a way they didn’t before,” Sullivan said. “And that, they use.”


Written by Christina Cooke, Freelance Writer
Photos provided by UNC-CH.

Published October 19, 2015