March 29-April 4, 2002
Back Issues
U.Va. to confer Thomas Jefferson medals in architecture and law
Genius at work
Disability insurance: shifting to new plan
Adenosine compound promising in treatment of spinal cord injury

Book festival closes chapter on eighth annual event

Sex sells but is it necessary? Authors discuss erotica
Journals offer students creative opportunities
U.Va. hosts anti-terror meeting
Hot Links -- Architecture School Web site
‘Envision’ sessions bring goals into focus
Architecture looks to create new ties to U.Va. community
Arts & Sciences planner looks forward to more esprit de corps
TJ Award nominations sought
Clock stops on NSF biological timing center, but the momentum carries on
Notable -- awards and achievements of faculty and staff
Shulman to discuss religion and culture in South India
Off the Shelf -- recently published books by U.Va. faculty and staff
Poet Carl Phillips next Rea Visiting Writer
Doctor, researcher and teacher, Wispelwey puts his students’ and patients’ interests first

’Envision’ sessions bring goals into focus

Robert Sweeney and Gene Block
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Robert Sweeney (left) and Gene Block stroll past Lawn rooms, perhaps discussing their visions for U.Va.

By Anne Bromley

When Gene Block became vice president and provost last fall, he planned to meet with faculty about which projects from the Virginia 2020 planning commissions could be put on a fast track.

As Block discussed his plans with Robert Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs, the two realized they had an opportunity to broaden the discussion to learn more about each school — the characteristics that define their excellence, the areas they want to strengthen and the obstacles that may stand in their way. Block would have the chance to hear from deans and faculty in each school about their academic plans, and Sweeney could understand better their fund-raising and communication needs.

When the two brought together deans and other representatives from each school, in a process called “Envision,” some unexpected pictures came into view.

“The meetings have been a catalyst in helping people realize common interests,” Block said, calling the level of discussion “so productive.”

“We had a template for the meetings, but each school had the flexibility to conduct it as they felt most useful for them, to make sure to cover what they felt most important,” Sweeney said.

He and Block wanted to listen to each school’s aspirations to see how they fit with University-wide planning and to find out where each school wanted to grow.

Through their own three-year planning processes, schools had already begun taking stock.

The meetings involved groups of faculty and academic leaders who don’t often get together.

“There was extraordinary turnout, especially when four or five other deans and directors voluntarily attended [another school’s meeting],” Sweeney said.

Since meetings began in October, themes have emerged that show a greater consensus than they expected about University life. They found a burgeoning support for and dedication to reinvigorating the University’s strengths and overcoming barriers to progress, despite state financial problems.

Power of the student experience

The way U.Va. provides education is its top priority and distinguishes it from other public universities.

students on the Lawn
Photo by Jenny Gerow
Students and faculty sometimes hold seminars outside on the Lawn.

Schools can be responsive — take what’s cutting-edge, absorb it and pass it along to students, whether it’s state-of-the-art classroom technology or breakthroughs in particular fields.

Through programs and faculty-student interaction, the University is committed to developing students’ leadership qualities. Faculty members pride themselves on being good mentors to students.

Ethics pervades the education process — from school to school, in teaching and public service and in research and scholarship. Besides programs in individual schools, the Institute for Practical Ethics is already up and running with faculty across disciplines participating in its ventures.

U.Va. provides an intimate undergraduate experience. Although schools and programs might be small, especially as public flagship universities go, that gives the University the aura of a private college.

Collaboration and contiguity

Small departments or schools can excel because their close physical proximity to each other makes it easier to work together, even if it’s not through formal means. The proposed South Lawn project should help facilitate collaborative efforts, especially those already under way between departments in the basic sciences, medicine and engineering. At many institutions, participants noted, medical and engineering schools are far removed from the core academic areas. The College should do more to exploit the contiguity of these schools at the University.

Joseph E. Grasso, associate dean of Arts & Sciences planning and operations, pointed out that the potential to achieve critical mass is greater in areas of expertise such as biomedical technology or ethics when faculty and schools work together. But ways to accelerate and reward these efforts need to be explored.

Common understanding

Through the Envision process, members of the University community — internally and externally — have consistently defined key elements of what makes the University distinctive and what will help it achieve future success. They recognize a unique sense of place and a strong sense of values, grounded in Thomas Jefferson’s ideals for this university.

Sweeney and Block said they also heard a strong willingness to work together to realize the University’s aspirations.

“There’s unity on who we are. The faculty thinks in the same way as the alumni about the University of Virginia experience,” Sweeney said.

Another indicator of the apparent success of the process is that leaders from other areas have sought their own meetings. There have been sessions to “envision” the library, the Miller Center, and the student experience. Meetings are being planned to address diversity, concerning both faculty and staff issues.

The two leaders found other benefits.

“The meetings helped me begin to understand the culture of each school,” Block said.

“In uncertain financial times, this is a clear call to arms,” Sweeney said. “It’s a recognition that Development has a role in achieving the institution’s aspirations. More people realize that philanthropy is the only financial option for reaching our goals, and the faculty want to be actively involved.”

Issues and barriers

Space continues to be a major issue. Even with the building projects in the works, multiple needs for expansion remain.

Achieving a more diverse University workforce still challenges schools and departments as they work to recruit and retain minority faculty.

“All schools are making efforts on diversity, but much remains to be done,” Sweeney acknowledged.

He and Block found the Envision sessions useful in the context of the Virginia 2020 planning commissions’ work.

“Even though we heard many faculty voice concerns with Virginia 2020 initiatives or the process as a whole, most actually understand and embrace the four areas,” Sweeney said. “We’re seeing many aspects of Virginia 2020 in the individual school plans because areas or initiatives overlap.”

International activities and technology are already being integrated in humanities, sciences and social sciences. Public service is ingrained in the culture of many areas of the University, involving and benefiting students, patients, state residents and members of the global community.

Transformational ideas

Block and Sweeney also asked Envision participants to propose ideas that would “transform” the institution and could attract interest from donors.

In addition to continuing the attention to ethics, some other areas and programs could be created in a relatively short time because almost all the elements exist right now.

For example, a Leadership Center or curriculum could be put together, building on the University’s Jeffersonian foundations and its emphasis on nurturing student leadership. The center could involve faculty from all of the schools of the University and offer courses in ethics, medicine, law, history, business, politics and other areas of strength.

Similarly, an umbrella program or major in public policy could be formalized, bringing to bear the expertise of the politics department, the Miller Center of Public Affairs, the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership and the Center for Governmental Studies.

The Shannon Center for Advanced Studies, which was originally established to recruit and retain the best faculty, should be revived, according to Envision participants. In other meetings, such as the Virginia 2020 planning commissions, faculty repeatedly endorsed this idea. The University needs to dedicate fund-raising efforts, however, to make it viable once again.

See Architecture looks to create new ties to U.Va. community

See Arts & Sciences planner looks forward to more esprit de corps


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of the University of Virginia

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