Teresa A. Sullivan
April 15, 2011, 3 p.m., The Lawn
Governor McDonnell; Rector Wynne and members of the Board of Visitors; faculty; staff; students; and alumni, parents, and friends of the University of Virginia: Today I formally dedicate my time, my energy, and my utmost effort to the presidency of this great University. I accept the task before me with gratitude and humility, and I face the future with hope and optimism for what we - together - will accomplish in the years ahead.
The inauguration of a new university president tends to focus on the individual person assuming the presidency, but this occasion should focus our attention on the institution - its values and mission, its generative power in producing new knowledge and discoveries, its service to the common good, and its significance as a force for human betterment in the world. So after a few personal comments, I will deflect undue focus from me and turn these remarks where they belong - to the University.
I owe thanks to many people. I thank the Rector and Visitors for their confidence in my abilities, and I pledge to carry out the duties of this office with integrity and with steadfast attention to the University's core values.
I am deeply grateful to several people in the audience today whose guidance and personal friendship have shaped the course of my life: Mark Yudof, President of the University of California, who mentored me in administration at The University of Texas. Jay Westbrook, my long-term interdisciplinary writing partner, and his wife Polly, here from Austin. I'm grateful to Mary Sue Coleman for her kind remarks. Many members of her remarkable executive team are also here.
I am grateful to my colleagues here and elsewhere who have provided a scholarly family for me throughout my career. Four friends who were my undergraduate classmates at Michigan State are here, and four friends from my University of Chicago days. I am very pleased that colleagues from Texas and from Michigan have come to Grounds to celebrate with us.
My Aunt Eleanor Finnegan has traveled here from Bremerton, Washington, and my cousins Jack and Judy Tumbleson from Rock Island, Illinois. My Finnegan cousins – Monica and husband Mike Kelly from San Francisco, Ed and wife Diane from Tacoma, and Ann from Bremerton – have also traveled here to join us.
I bring with me to this task my three greatest treasures - my husband, Doug Laycock, who teaches in the University's Law School, and my two sons Joseph Peter Laycock and John Patrick Laycock.
As I begin my work as president, I am aware that I follow in the footsteps of strong leaders who have shaped this University over the past hundred years. John Casteen served for the past 20 years, and Robert O'Neil, who is with us today, served for five years before that. These two men, and the five presidents who preceded them, oversaw the evolution of this institution from a modest school of some regional renown to a truly global university and a model of excellence in American higher education. I am grateful to these former presidents for the strong foundation on which we stand.
A New Revolution
Earlier this week we celebrated Founder's Day to honor the birth of this University's mastermind, Thomas Jefferson, born on April 13, 1743. When he was still a young man, Jefferson conceived a framework for a new Republic based on a set of inalienable rights - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These potent words in the American Declaration of Independence gave us new language for the expression of individual human rights and universal liberties, and they gave us a moral standard for the new-born nation.
When he was an old man, as the nation was approaching its half-century mark, Jefferson shaped a plan for the University of Virginia that was as revolutionary as the truths he had expressed to define a free people. He designed this University to be radically different from other universities that existed at the time. Its curriculum, rather than focusing on a few, constrained areas of specialization, would, in Jefferson's words, "be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation." 1
1. Letter to DeStutt de Tracy, December 26, 1820
Unlike other universities at that time, this University would not conform to a particular religious doctrine. Jefferson used an architectural message to drive this point home. At the focal point of the Academical Village, Jefferson placed a library - the Rotunda, behind you - rather than the chapel that stood at the center of most American universities at the time. This was a sign that learning here would be limited by no dogma or doctrine, but only by the capacities of the human mind.
Jefferson created this University to meet a pressing need. In the early 1800s, the United States was still in its infancy, and the future of the Republic was by no means guaranteed. External threats and internal bickering had put the young nation's long-term prospects at risk. America would need strong leaders to sustain the fragile nation. As President Coleman remarked a few moments ago, Jefferson and his colleagues understood that a healthy democracy would require an educated citizenry.
Jefferson believed then, as we believe today, that educated people, led by enlightened leaders, would provide the surest means of preserving hard-won freedoms. Equipping free people with useful knowledge would give them the tools necessary to resist tyranny and sustain democracy. Knowing these things, Jefferson built this University as a training ground for leaders of the American Republic.
These two bold experiments - the American Republic and the University of Virginia - were connected at the very beginning. They remain connected now. They share a close and prolonged association of mutual benefit. Their relationship was symbiotic then, and it is symbiotic now.
Like Jefferson, we live in revolutionary times. The revolution led by Jefferson and his collaborators was a political and military revolution played out in Independence Hall and at Lexington and Concord, at Bunker Hill and Valley Forge and Guilford Courthouse, at Yorktown and other battlefields where patriots fought and died to secure their freedom - and ours.
Our revolution is a knowledge revolution playing out in classrooms, laboratories, and libraries around the world. The frictions of time and space have been forever altered. In this new revolution, technological advances have obliterated barriers to information-sharing, made distance largely irrelevant, and opened new pathways to collaboration across disciplines. The pace of discovery and the pace of disseminating information have quickened beyond anything Mr. Jefferson could have imagined. The volume of information grows exponentially.
Our new observational abilities provide us with unprecedented quantities of data. We gaze outward with powerful telescopes into the farthest reaches of the universe and inward with powerful microscopes to sub-nano and pico levels. Developments in imaging illuminate what was previously opaque. The new sources of data spur us on to develop new forms of data storage and management; our ever-expanding capacity to store data preserves much that would previously have been discarded, and challenges our ability to organize and process our data. We struggle to find new and more robust approaches to data reduction and analysis, and new approaches to structural modeling.
This knowledge revolution has accelerated productivity. With an economy based more on knowledge and less on natural resources and manufacturing, we produce more of everything with fewer workers. Just as the improvement in agricultural productivity freed up workers for the newly industrialized cities, today the great improvement in manufacturing productivity frees up workers for newer occupations based on technology and knowledge. We don't know with any certainty what many of those occupations will be. But we do know that some of these new occupations will, in turn, quickly morph into whole new fields and occupations.
I ask now that you consider these two revolutions together. Hold them side by side in your mind - the political and military revolution that began 235 years ago and gave us our national independence, and the knowledge revolution that is transforming cultures and economies today. They are worth comparing because the stakes were so high then, and the stakes are so high now.
The new revolution challenges our society in every way. It challenges us technologically. We need an educated work force that can operate and manage the new technology, continue to improve it and develop it, and ensure that we control the technology rather than letting the technology control us.
The new revolution challenges us economically. Important industries are declining or dying. Here in Virginia, we have seen the loss in textiles, furniture, metal-working, and other traditional industries. Geographical distance no longer offers much protection from economic competition from countries with lower labor costs. Meanwhile, new industries are emerging here and elsewhere, and more must emerge.
The new revolution challenges us politically. Our political system must respond effectively to the extraordinary pace of change, and it must function despite the challenges created by hyper-partisan blogs and television commentators and the 24-hour news cycle, all made possible by new and ever-cheaper information technology.
And the new revolution challenges us philosophically. When we have more information at our fingertips than we could possibly absorb in a lifetime; when our information devices present us with continuous short-term distractions and disrupt our capacity for serious thought; when computers easily defeat our greatest champions in chess and on the television quiz show Jeopardy - when all of this is happening, it is more important than ever to think about what it means to be human and what it means to lead the good life.
We are not responding to these challenges as well as we should. The United States is falling behind other developed nations in the number of men and women earning college degrees, and especially those who earn degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - the STEM disciplines that allow us to keep pace with technological advances. Just as education was an essential precondition for citizens to be able to operate the new governing structure created in that first revolution, so dominance in education today is the key to national security and economic competitiveness. Educational failure in that first revolution would have imperiled our nation then; educational failure in today's revolution will imperil our nation now. More and better education in the STEM disciplines is essential in responding to the technological challenge; more and better education in all disciplines is essential in responding to the whole range of challenges - technological, economic, political, and philosophic.
The American Revolution that led to independence from the British Empire required strong leaders; leaders such as Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and many others. This new revolution will require strong leaders, too. Who will those leaders be? Who will train them?
We have many fine universities in this country, both public and private. Many of them have representatives here with us today. Some are larger than U.Va. Some are older than U.Va. Some sit higher in the popular rankings. The revolution we face requires that all these great universities continue to flourish, that they all get adequate political and financial support, that they all do their part to train the next generation.
But I propose to you that among all of these universities, this University is especially well suited to prepare young people to face the challenges of our revolution. Unique qualities that influence how students live and learn at this University help us train effective and ethical leaders who can respond to the political challenge of the new revolution.
Student life here combines academic learning with practical training in honor, ethics, self-governance, and leadership. From their first day on the Grounds, students begin to absorb these values. Because of the Honor System, students are trusted in their academic behavior. In exchange for being trusted, they take a pledge against lying, cheating, and stealing. Students take responsibility for themselves and for one another. They trust others who come from very different backgrounds than their own. Honor and personal accountability shape student self-governance and extend to virtually every aspect of student life. An appreciation for diversity prepares students for life in a globalized society.
Strong moral values provide an anchor in tough times. Strong academic values provide a sure foundation for the intellect.
Revolutionary though he was, Jefferson also knew that universities must conserve what we already know. Pavilion V was first inhabited by a professor of ancient languages, and Pavilion IX by a professor of moral philosophy – a term that in Jefferson's day included ethics, rhetoric, and philosophy. Ancient languages, philosophy, literature, and history link today's students to their intellectual heritage. This University's strong curriculum in humanities and the arts prepares students to address the philosophical challenge of the new revolution. This curriculum must always be central to the University's mission.
At the same time, we nurture curiosity and discovery in all fields. We are proud to be a research university, because research enables the faculty to continue to learn, because research enables the faculty to contribute new knowledge to the larger society, and because research skills are an important tool we can impart to each student, whether that student be seeking an undergraduate, graduate, or professional degree.
The Academical Village remains an important metaphor for the distinctive approach to learning that has characterized these Grounds. Students and faculty live and work side by side in the shared pursuit of knowledge. The first floors of the pavilions were the original classrooms, where faculty members and their student neighbors came together to learn. But there is a second floor to each pavilion, where the professors lived. And between the pavilions, at the second-story level, there is a walkway. That walkway permitted the professor of one field to stroll over for a conversation with a neighboring professor of another field. The secret to a great university is the second story, where the faculty live and study, and where new ideas, even new fields, grow in the spaces between the disciplines.
Consider two of our faculty, Brett Blackman from engineering and Brian Wamhoff from medicine. They took that walk on the second story to collaborate. Understanding that living human cells can be used to test cardiovascular drugs, they developed a new instrument that detects the genomic response of human blood cells to new drugs. This instrument offered a way to screen new drugs much more accurately and inexpensively than before. With support from the Coulter Foundation-UVA Translational Research Partnership, they started a company called HemoShear to produce the instrument here in Charlottesville. Since 2009, HemoShear has generated 15 jobs - including jobs for several recent U.Va. graduates. This new knowledge created jobs and tax revenues, but most important, it improves health care.
This is one example of many. The future vitality of the University is nurtured in these second-story walks. We must keep the vibrant activity of the first-story classrooms and close interactions between students and faculty, while nurturing the creative and visionary activity stimulated on the second-story walkway that connects the disciplines.
I reject the canard that research is incompatible with a great undergraduate education. That claim is grounded in a static and fundamentally under-achieving approach to our students' abilities. To the contrary, the creative ferment within a community of learners intensifies and sharpens the critical thinking of all.
Our society desperately needs leaders with such a vibrant intellectual capacity. And it needs leaders who have the strong values that characterize the U.Va. education. Many Americans are discouraged by the current condition of our democratic project. We see gridlock in Congress. We hear partisan bickering among our elected officials. All across the country, we see competing interests looking to gain the upper hand, rather than looking to find common ground. We hear cynicism about the role of money in politics. Part of our political challenge is to find leaders with the integrity and resolve to help us rise above this fray.
Now, as Jefferson said nearly 200 years ago at our founding, the University is an "institution on which the fortunes of our country may depend." 2 And our founding purpose remains our first order of business today: we prepare students to safeguard the fortunes of our country and lead it into the future. Today we prepare students to meet the political, economic, technological, and philosophical challenges of our new revolution.
2. Letter to General James Breckenridge, February 15, 1821
I've spoken a lot about Thomas Jefferson in the last few minutes. But we cannot afford to dwell too long on the University's history, because we have such a critical role to play now, in the 21st century. Jefferson himself wrote, "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." 3 He would not want us to spend all our energies reflecting on past glories. Instead, we should face forward and try to emulate our founder's best qualities: the insatiability of his inquiring mind; his restlessness with the status quo; his insistence on making knowledge useful; his dedication to the public good; his steadfast attention to the future.
3. Letter to John Adams, August 1, 1816
With our gaze cast toward the future, let's commit ourselves to re-articulating Mr. Jefferson's founding ideals in these modern times. Let's acknowledge that this University has an essential role to play in our nation's future, and let's vow to work hard together as we embrace the responsibility. Many colleges and universities from across the nation are represented here today. All of us are engaged in the important work of discovering, preserving, and disseminating knowledge. As president of this University, I look forward to joining forces with my colleagues in higher education to pursue our shared mission and our common purpose.
As I take on the responsibilities of this presidency, I carry forward the work begun by my predecessors. More than 100 years ago, another inauguration took place here, when Edwin Alderman was installed as the University's very first president. In his inaugural address, President Alderman spoke about the founding of the University and the necessity of sustaining it for future generations. He had these words to say: "… this University faces the future, which summons you and me to preserve and strengthen, as it summoned the founders to conceive and create." 4
4. Letter to DeStutt de Tracy, December 26, 1820
With the help of my colleagues, I will preserve and strengthen this University to the best of my ability. I am aware that doing this work is both a privilege and an obligation. The obligation extends back in time to the day in 1817 when Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe laid the University's first cornerstone, and forward in time to future generations who will come here to learn. I am grateful for the privilege of serving, and I will work hard to meet the demands of the obligation.