Nov. 16-29, 2001
Back Issues
Deans slow new spending
Photos show aftermath of Rwandan genocide
Q&A: Ayers builds future on founder's model

Martin: Immigration laws need to be realistic

Medical Center reaches settlement
Notable -- awards and achievements of faculty and staff
Play explores the foibles of greed
Campaign pleas for local charity support
Hot Links -- With Good Reason
Sheer images
Poet and editor R.T. Smith to read at U.Va. Nov. 29

Ayers builds on founder’s model
Dean plans to invigorate College Grounds, student experience

By Matt Kelly

EDWARD L. AYERS, Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History, has spent his entire professional career at U.Va., starting here in 1980 fresh from earning a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale. He recently accepted the mantle of the dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at a time of expansion and change at the University. Ayers, a nationally known and respected historian, moves in the past and the future simultaneously, placing the Civil War on the World Wide Web with his Valley of the Shadow electronic archive and narrative of the years before, during and after the war.

Ed AyersHe spoke of the changes facing Arts & Sciences in a recent interview in his office at New Cabell Hall, which is slated to be torn down and replaced with a more modern building incorporating the latest technology and adaptable for future upgrades.

Q: What is the importance of the South Lawn project, with its renovations to Cocke and Rouss halls and the new New Cabell Hall and B-1 building?

A: This new South Lawn project is the clearest chance we’ve had since Stanford White finished these buildings 100 years ago to remake the Central Grounds and the central buildings in which the College of Arts & Sciences conducts most of its business. We have 6,000 students a day coming through New Cabell Hall. Cocke and Rouss have not been repaired in a long time and we have a 150,000-square- foot space shortage, according to SCHEV.

The teaching spaces of New Cabell Hall simply aren’t adequate. The classrooms here are un-air-conditioned, barely heated in the winter, not configured properly for active discussion. There are no public spaces for people to gather, no places for faculty and the students to get together outside of the office or the classroom. The present space is not worthy of our aspirations.

We folded the Digital Academical Village into these new buildings to use new technologies to make teaching and learning better. We’re going to weave that innovation into the entire educational process of Arts & Sciences.

The South Lawn project allows us to re-imagine the humanities, social sciences, the sciences and arts at U.Va. It’s an almost unprecedented possibility to rethink what the liberal arts are for the next century. Jefferson believed in an interconnection and unity of knowledge that the original Lawn embodies, in which a student would understand philosophy and music and science and languages. We’re trying to recreate that with the new South Lawn project.

There’ll be two major emphases in the new buildings. One will be international learning, bringing together all our language departments, government, religious studies, and perhaps others, to focus on areas of the world beyond the borders of the United States. That will probably be where New Cabell is. The other emphasis will be devoted to science, technology and society. Our sciences will have some of the teaching spaces, but we’ll also have programs that focus on biomedical ethics, philosophy, and media studies that are about the interrelationship between these new technologies and society.

The other thing that I picture is that both buildings are going to have easily recon-figurable digital space in which we can update technologies as they change. People will have access to video conferencing with colleagues and students abroad. We can take advantage of new technologies through every department.

Q: What is the role of technology in learning?

A: My goal is for technology to become transparent. The technology is not the purpose of learning, but merely a tool toward learning, and every discipline can use that.

Q: What do you see as the future of higher education? How is higher education to prepare students for this allegedly different world?

A: Jefferson, from the very beginning, brought in leading professors from Europe to internationalize the University and make it cosmopolitan and ambitious in its reach. That’s what we want to do with the university in the 21st century. I want us to be a global university where we are very firmly of this place, a University of Virginia that would not exist anywhere else, but that is dedicated to the universal ideals that Jefferson had in mind. If we stay true to those original ideas, we’ll be one of the most innovative universities anywhere.

Jefferson said he wanted to create the most broad, modern and liberal university in existence. That’s still what I have in mind here.

Q: What are students getting here that they can’t get anyplace else?

A: We combine an intimate undergraduate experience with the advantages of being at a research university. Our competitors are all much larger and are not able to create the same rich experience that our undergraduates repeatedly say is the best thing about being at U.Va. It is also that concrete physical place embodied in the original vision of the University that lies at the heart of the University’s uniqueness.

It’s a fragile mix, and I’m afraid we could lose what makes us special if we aren’t vigilant. That’s one reason I talk so much about the quality of the undergraduate experience. It’s the main thing I want to focus on.

Q: What is your commitment to the Arts Grounds?

A: My vision is that we’re going to embrace the Central Grounds at both ends, with the arts precinct on the northern side and these new buildings on the southern end. When you put the two together, we’re going to have a revitalized College of Arts & Sciences.

Q: How do you see the arts integrated with the rest of the package that you’re offering students?

A: Increasingly, students who come to U.Va. are looking for as full an educational experience as they can get, and clearly the arts are a major component of that. We know that there are far more people who want to take classes in digital art or in new forms of music than there are spaces for them. If you can move forward in your own [field] but also have an appreciation for art, music, drama and dance, then you’ve really gotten the full benefit of a liberal arts education.

The new spaces include more than classrooms and offices. I’m hoping there are going to be places for the collective life of the University … envisioning performance spaces, and places to eat, workshops and studios.

Q: What are your plans to address the problems of some departments being taxed by undergraduate teaching loads?

A: The very first thing I asked for when I took this position were new junior faculty lines for those departments that are especially stressed by student demand, and I received four tenure-track positions. Some departments had very compelling statistical rationales showing how many more people try to get into their classes and how rapidly their majors have grown in recent years.

Q: How are spouse placement and balancing office space being handled?

A: We have remarkably good success in attracting the best junior faculty in the country. We’re a remarkably attractive place to begin your career and to continue it. It’s a buyer’s market right now and the quality of the people we’re able to bring in is just breathtaking. We’re actually quite successful in that. We do find impediments [but by 2005 we should have remedied] the substandard teaching [and office] space.

Now, the last thing that needs to be remedied is the tough spousal hiring situation that we have. We’ve talked to colleagues around the country. It turns out that this is a problem everywhere.

One of the things that we’re working is to create a more coordinated effort to locate jobs, not only within the University but at other universities and in businesses in Charlottesville and beyond.

People are delighted to be a part of the University. One thing I would say in fact is that we talk so much about all the challenges that we face is that we forget that in the eyes of American higher education, this is really one of the plum jobs and one of the great places to come. UVA and Charlottesville are extraordinarily attractive and we want to keep it that way.

We’re a wonderful place to raise a family. We’re a less wonderful place I think to come if you’re single, or if your partner is far away. But, these are systematic problems of lots of places and I’d just say, of the list of things I worry about, landing a large proportion of the people to whom we offer jobs is not one of them. I’ve seen the best universities in America have a difficult time hiring at the senior level.

A history of Ed Ayers

EDUCATION: University of Tennessee, B.A. American Studies, summa cum laude; Yale University, M.A. American Studies; Yale University, Ph.D. American Studies.

HOBBIES: Basketball, studying popular culture

• CURRENTLY READING: Frank Rhodes, Creation of the Future: The Present State of the University.

FAMILY: Wife, Abby; son, Nate, 20; daughter, Hannah, 15.

AWARDS: Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; E-Lincoln Prize for best digital project on the era of the American Civil War; member, Society of American Historians; Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award for best book on Southern History; James Rawley Prize for best book on the history of race relations in the U.S.; National Book Award, finalist for nonfiction; Pulitzer Prize, finalist for history; David A. Harrison III Award for Distinguished Service to U.Va.; Teacher of the Year, Phi Eta Sigma; State Council of Higher Education for Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award.

PUBLICATIONS: The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War – the Eve of the War; American Passages: A History of the United States; The Oxford Book of the American South: Testimony, Memory and Fiction; All Over the Map: Rethinking American Regions; Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction; The Edge of the South: Life in 19th Century Virginia; Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South. Edge of the South: Life in 19th Century Virginia; Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South.

Q: What is it that makes this place so special for you and why have you decided to stay?

A: I’m a historian of the American South, and we have one of the premier collections in the world in our library devoted to the American South. I draw sustenance every day from living in the same landscape that I spend so much of my imaginative time in.

When I thought of leaving in earlier years, it struck me that it’d be a wonderful opportunity to stay and see if I couldn’t help U.Va. wrestle with some of the complexities and tragedies of the past. I’m generally a very cheerful person, but for my living I think about a lot of the worst things in American history — slavery, origins of segregation, war — and I think to live in the place where those things transpired helps me focus my energies.

Q: Why have you decided to continue teaching while being a dean?

A: I’m delighted to be dean, but I’m still a professor and do not cease to think of myself as a teacher and scholar. It never really occurred to me to give up teaching.

Universities are devoted to two things: teaching and scholarship. The dean’s job is to make it possible for those to flourish and I can best help if I’m practicing them myself.

I still have all my graduate advisees who I’m trying to see through to doctorates and into the job market and into publication. That’s one of the great pleasures of my career and I’m not tempted to give up a bit of it.

Q: What most limits the College’s ability to reach its aspirations and how do you plan to move beyond that?

A: Two simple but fundamental things: space and funding.

As for space. It’s what I call the cinderblock ceiling. One of the things that I said made U.Va. special is its scale. We are a place where people know each other. But that places a limiting effect on some of our departments.

Ironically, one of the things that makes us strong is one of the things that places limits on our aspirations. We need to try to find ways to grow some of our departments, especially in science, even as we maintain the intimacy of our undergraduate education.

The recent hiring freeze has driven home how fragile our funding in the College is. Clearly, if we want to move beyond our current status, we increasingly must rely on private gifts. My job is to help define the goals so that those gifts may come to us.
The only limit to our aspirations is the amount of resources that we have to put toward them. It’s clear if you look at any numerical ranking, that this is a great university of over-achievers, that what we do with the amount of resources we have is remarkable.

I’m struck by how many superb graduate students still choose to come to U.Va. because of the quality of the graduate experience we offer, but I would like to treat them better by offering graduate fellowship support commensurate with their abilities. We’re at a tremendous disadvantage as we compete for the best graduate students. That’s one of the things I’m going to be working on very hard.

Q: Do you think that the undergraduate experience has changed a lot since you began teaching?

A: Yes. I came here in 1980 when the student body was not nearly as diverse as it is now. The ethnic and national diversity of our student body is now remarkable. One of my goals is to help create a faculty as diverse as our student body.

What makes the undergraduate experience so remarkable here is the degree of involvement both within and beyond the classroom. At the same time, those same students who’re working so hard somehow find time to volunteer so much with Madison House and to participate in so many extracurricular activities.

What’s been, I think, the great accomplishment is even as we’ve been able to make our student body more inclusive by gender and ethnicity, the same things that the alumni loved about the University in 1960 still flourish. It’s that sense of community. That community may be more complex now, because people belong to several different kinds of organizations, some of which are specific to their own identities and some of which transcend those identities for a larger common purpose, and so I think that we have been able, through some alchemy, to maintain what was best about the University in the past even as we’re able to reinvent it for the present and the future. That sounds like an advertising brochure, I know, but I really believe all this. I do.


© Copyright 2001 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

UVa Home Page UVa Events Calendar Top News UVa Home Page