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Planners gather varied input on Virginia 2020 reports

By Dan Heuchert

There will be no shortage of input for the University's leaders to review as they sit down in the coming months to turn the Virginia 2020 recommendations into an action plan. Faculty, alumni and students have all weighed in with their comments and questions.

Robert Hull
Robert Hull, professor of materials science, here with doctoral engineering student David Longo (seated), is heading research efforts in the new Center for Nanoscale Design. The Virginia 2020 Science and Technology Commission is proposing nanotechnology as one of the areas that should be enhanced.

Will raising the University's profile in some areas lead to decline in others? Should the University take on new initiatives, or pay more attention to its aging infrastructure? Do the recommendations go too far in some areas, not far enough in others? And who's going to pay for all of this, anyway?

All are questions that have been raised during the public comment period that technically ended at the close of December, although reaction is still being accepted, according to Laurie Kelsh, the University's chief planning officer.

At January's Board of Visitors meeting, Kelsh broadly outlined some of the concerns that need to be addressed. "We need to make more connections between these reports. We need to accommodate and maintain existing strengths," she said. "We did not explicitly address diversity."

The four original Virginia 2020 commissions -- charged with elevating science and technology, the fine and performing arts, international activities, and public service and outreach at the University -- published their draft reports in the fall. All four of the chairs report widespread enthusiasm for the general thrusts of their reports, if not all of the details.

Madison House
Student volunteers from Madison House, one of whose programs is depicted here, told the 2020 public service commission that they hope the University will help the organization find support in the future.

A Nov. 30 meeting of the Arts & Sciences faculty highlighted two major concerns. First, faculty members worried that a fund-raising emphasis on the chosen 2020 areas might drain support from areas of current excellence. Dean Melvyn P. Leffler noted that it was "preposterous" to think that the English department, for example, would retain its top-five national ranking with mere cost-of-living-type funding increases over the next two decades.

It is not clear to him, he said, how much fund-raising support areas outside of the Virginia 2020 fields would receive.

The faculty's other general concern was whether repairing the aging infrastructure of many of the main Arts & Sciences buildings -- particularly Cabell, Rouss and Cocke halls -- was being put on the back burner. One faculty member's suggestion that renovations should be addressed before any of the 2020 recommendations drew murmurs of support.

A closer look at reaction to the reports, commission by commission, follows.

Science and Technology

Anita Jones, who chairs the Science and Technology Commission, said there is consensus that the sciences need improvement. "The community realizes that technology is playing a larger role in life, affecting choices that our graduates make every day in life," she said. "The need for all of our graduates to be literate in science and technology is now an imperative."

The commission's first four recommendations, aimed at general improvement, have been particularly well-received. They include three separate $100 million endowment funds to support faculty research start-ups, improve the quality of graduate education, and to support grants to jump-start new research projects, plus the establishment of a central provost to oversee both medical and non-medical research.

The commission's other three proposals, to establish centers of excellence in information management, quantum and nanoscale science and biodifferentiation, generated more varied reaction.

Jones said she was grateful to find that there have been no efforts to substitute alternative areas of focus -- which she called "purple spotted pelicans" -- to the three the commission selected. Still, many faculty, at both the Arts & Sciences meeting and at a Faculty Senate-sponsored December forum on the biodifferentiation proposal, wondered how the proposed interdisciplinary centers would relate administratively to existing departments. Would they compete for funding and faculty lines? How much teaching would faculty assigned to the centers be expected to do? Who would the centers' directors report to?

Jones assured attendees at the Faculty Senate that all faculty would be assigned to departments first, and that there would be no competition for resources. "We are they," she said. "Maybe it's a little schizophrenic, but it does work."

An Arts & Sciences committee set up to review the Science and Technology report also raised administrative concerns, and added that focusing too strongly on the three recommended areas might constrain development of other possibilities. "In science, there is no such thing as a 20-year plan" that could account for the twists and turns research might take, said biology department chair Raymond E. Keller, who chaired the Arts & Sciences review panel.

Nonetheless, Keller said, his panel strongly supported the Science and Technology Commission's system-wide recommendations, and supported the specific recommendations "with the caveats described above."

Jones said there is no need to separate the proposals for general improvement and designated specialties; they can be done simultaneously. "The two kinds of projects will appeal to different sources of funding and different potential donors. One will reinforce, not detract from the other, and the University will be a more vital place if we pursue both kinds of objectives," she said.

Fine and Performing Arts

This report may be the least controversial, but arguably one of the hardest to implement, calling for hundreds of millions of dollars of new construction and faculty hiring.

"Although it is bold in regards to how we hope to expand and improve the arts at U.Va., most feel it is realistic and that our goals are certainly possible to fulfill," said commission chair Robert Chapel of the drama department.

He conceded that the report could have been more specific in addressing diversity concerns, but said commission members were committed to a diverse University and arts culture.

A representative of the student-run Campaign for Dance questioned Chapel closely about plans for an undergraduate dance program at a Dec. 7 forum to receive student input on the 2020 reports. She feared that the report does not go far enough in its plans -- proposing, for instance, that the dance programs share rehearsal space with drama.

"I just hope as a student we make the vision as big as we can," she said.

Chapel said the recommendations aren't meant to make the University competitive with top dance programs nationwide, but to provide a presence now that may be expanded down the road.

Classics department chair John Miller, who chaired the Arts & Sciences review panel that examined the Fine and Performing Arts report, said they approved of the report's "sweeping vision." Their only concern was that the arts programs remain integrated with the rest of the University -- that the physical separation of the "arts precinct" not become a de facto split from the rest of Grounds.

Chapel said the crucial factor will be funding. "Without adequate facilities and adequate space, we have no chance for improving the arts at U.Va.," he said. "If the buildings are improved, many things will follow."

International Activities

The Arts & Sciences panel that reviewed the International Activities Commission report also questioned whether the commission offered a grand enough vision. The current International Studies office is terribly understaffed, said Jeff Legro, acting chair of the government department, who chaired the review panel.

He also questioned the commission's focus on regional studies programs. Although he acknowledged that "you can't neglect cultural literacy," he suggested that students studying abroad -- the commission set a target of 80 percent of undergraduates doing so -- could study more than just the countries they visit, including substantive themes that cross geographic boundaries like human rights and international development.

William B. Quandt, recently appointed vice provost for international affairs as a result of the commission's recommendations, called the discussions of the report "very helpful."

"The difficult part is to decide how to start and where to find the resources," he said.

The report remains a work in progress, he said. "I have heard that we didn't aim high enough. I'm not sure that criticism will still be heard when our specific proposals are seen."

Public Service and Outreach

Like her counterparts, Rebecca Kneedler of the Public Service and Outreach Commission said she, too, had encountered mostly "really positive enthusiasm from students and alumni."

Noticeably absent from that phrase are faculty, who were cooler to the report's recommendations. History professor Michael Holt, who chaired the Arts & Sciences panel charged with reviewing the report, was particularly critical of two specific items. One, an option to attach an extra hour of credit to a course for participating in a related public-service project, he panned as "pernicious." Some disciplines are ill-suited to public-service projects, he said; students could conceivably avoid such disciplines in search of more credit-rich coursework, which "could wipe out entire departments," he claimed.

Kneedler said the fourth-credit option was only included in the report as an example of possibilities for including service in the curriculum, and would likely be dropped from the final report

. Holt was also critical of a "dual ladder" for faculty performance evaluations, which the report said would "permit senior tenured faculty to choose public service in combination with either research or teaching as their primary activity, with the remaining activity being of secondary importance in evaluating the individual's contributions." Holt called such an idea a "sure route to scholarly mediocrity."

Kneedler said Holt's criticism is misleading. "[Public service] is part of our mission, by all of the statements you look at," she said. "Where we get in problems with a few faculty is when you get into the rewards system.

"The three [teaching, research and public service] have long been part of the evaluation process," she added. "The hard thing about teaching and service is that it's difficult to quantify it, and hard to evaluate the quality of it."

Kneedler stressed that the commission did not intend for public service to be an exclusive factor in tenure and promotion decisions, but for it to be considered more carefully in annual performance reviews.

Holt also lamented that only one Arts & Sciences faculty member was included on the commission.

Meanwhile, students from Madison House, the student-run public service clearinghouse, also expressed some concerns about the report, although they welcomed the focus on service itself.

More than 3,000 students now volunteer their time through Madison House, yet Student Council has mandated that its funding to Madison House will be gradually discontinued over the next 10 years, said assistant director David Norris.

"We would be interested to see some concrete statement of support in the report for the long-term financial viability of Madison House," Norris said.

What next?

The University's deans discussed the 2020 draft reports at a Jan. 11 retreat. Their formal comments were forwarded to the commission chairs, who are to respond by mid-February. President John T. Casteen III, the deans, and Kelsh's office will then work together to craft an overall vision plan, tentatively scheduled to be presented at Casteen's April 18 State of the University address. A five-year implementation plan is expected by January 2002.


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