STORIES

George L. Sullivan:
Visionary, Dean, Iron Chancellor ...

Sullivan and students
George Sullivan (center) and freshman engineering
students, 1914. Photo from Archives of SCU.

In 1911, the decision was made to hire George L. Sullivan, professor of mechanical engineering at Montana State College, to head a new engineering program at Santa Clara College. Before coming to Santa Clara, Sullivan was asked to outline courses in civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering. These were accepted as the official engineering program and so began a century of engineering excellence at Santa Clara.

As the first dean of engineering, Sullivan led the program safely through the turbulent times of WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, and the Korean War, as well as helping the school adapt to wave after wave of engineering innovation.

Resources were limited, and Sullivan taught as many as 28 class hours per week in labs that weren't properly equipped. As an administrator, he had an unsympathetic view towards student shenanigans, earning him the nickname "the Iron Chancellor." Nevertheless, he persevered in expanding the program and producing well-trained engineers.

In addition to his role at Santa Clara, he also contributed greatly to his community. He held the dual role of Dean of the College of Engineering and City Engineer for Santa Clara 1928-34, overseeing federal government WPA work and paving the streets, installing the City Sewage Treatment Plant, and building the Washington Ball Park grandstand for the City of Santa Clara. Later he served as a consultant on numerous other projects, including the design of San Jose's $4 million sewage treatment plant. He was also a consultant on the construction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and held a consultant’s post in 1953 with the Department of the Interior for conversion of sea water to fresh water.

George L. Sullivan
George L. Sullivan.

A self-admitted tough taskmaster, Sullivan led by example, setting the bar high as he educated generations of engineers of competence, conscience, and compassion. In his words, recorded in 1956:

"...the ideal teacher must have the ability to inspire his students with love for their work and with the realization that there is no greater satisfaction in life than the feeling of work well done. The ideal teacher must also convince his students that their success in life can be won only by hard work and that anything less than their best is unworthy of them. The ideal teacher inspires each student to develop, to its highest, whatever ability he has in order that he may reach a place of service in his profession and community as high as his natural ability will allow..."

When he retired in 1955, George Sullivan was named Dean Emeritus of the College of Engineering. In 1961 the Sullivan Engineering Center was named in his honor, and to this day, George Sullivan is revered for his vision, his leadership, and his dedication to the success of engineering at Santa Clara.