Feb. 14-27, 2003
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‘The Laramie Project’ examines Prejudice
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Term is up
Outgoing rector lauded as consensus-builder, man of integrity
John P. "Jack" Ackerly III
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
At the end of the board meeting Feb. 1, John P. “Jack” Ackerly III found himself the subject of discussion as fellow board members presented him with a resolution thanking him for his service and leadership as the University’s 36th rector.

By Elizabeth Kiem

When U.Va.’s Board of Visitors gathers in the Rotunda four times a year, it is a meeting of high-powered minds and wills.

“Some of the most successful people in the United States are on this board. They have strong opinions about how things should work, and they bring a lot to the table,” said John P. “Jack” Ackerly III.

Finding the common ground among those strong opinions has been the goal of Ackerly during his term as rector. On Feb. 1, he brought down the gavel for the final time, ending five years of presiding over the board’s meetings.

Whether on issues of architectural planning or admissions policies, the Board of Visitors under Ackerly pursued consideration over action and unanimity over speed.

“His term has been marked by a deep level of respect for each member’s viewpoint and by the sense of unity that he has worked hard to foster among members,” said Leonard W. Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Ackerly said that when he was elected as the 36th rector in March 1998 — filling a chair previously held by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — the task before him was obvious.

“I was very mindful of the fact that this was the No. 1-rated public university in the United States,” he said. “It seemed to me to be presumptuous to come in and try to change things. My goal was to help build consensus and support the administration.”

Board Secretary Alexander G. Gilliam Jr. noted that Ackerly’s reputation as a consensus builder was deeply felt among board members.

“He’s tried to get everybody on the board involved in all sorts of things,” he said. Ackerly’s initiative resulted in board members being on three high-powered search committees in the past two years, to appoint an athletic director, a Medical School dean and provost.

Board member William G. Crutchfield Jr. said Ackerly’s handling of two particularly contentious issues illustrates his leadership skills. In 1999, during separate debates over whether to open a branch of the University in Qatar and whether to sell the University-owned HMO, Ackerly’s emphasis on a unified outcome enabled the board “to reach decisions that genuinely reflected the measured views of the majority of its members,” said Crutchfield. Ackerly recalled that the board’s narrow approval of the Qatar question was the only split vote in recent history.

A native of Lexington and a Civil War enthusiast, Ackerly holds both bachelor (’57) and law (’60) degrees from U.Va. He is a partner in the Richmond law firm of Troutman Sanders. Because he and his wife, Mary, declined to invest in a Charlottesville home, devoted attendance at board meetings, football games and other events has made him a regular motorist on Interstate 64.

A devoted ’Hoo fan, Ackerly used athletics to help the board bond. Last year he encouraged the members to take a road trip to Blacksburg for the Virginia Tech football game, a scheme that had a tangible effect on the group, said student member H. Timothy Lovelace Jr.

“That’s just a good effort to foster community, not only from a governing standpoint but from a social standpoint,” Lovelace said.

Reaching out to students is one of Ackerly’s trademarks, and he has worked to make the board more accessible to the student body, Lovelace said. Last spring, Ackerly invited about 40 students to join board members for an evening at the Colonnade Club. Another such get-together is planned for April.

Although his goal has been to build community and consensus, Ackerly has faced some bumpy moments, times when his legal experience has served him well.

“At one point I was a defendant in eight lawsuits totaling $20 million in damages, which isn’t a really comfortable feeling,” he said, referring to litigation pitting the student Honor and Judiciary committees against sanctioned peers. The board and president were named as primary defendants.

Ackerly’s discomfort is understandable. His colleagues said that being charged with an abuse of power would be inherently difficult for a man of his integrity.

“Jack Ackerly is one of the finest people that I know. He possesses intelligence, modesty, respect for his fellow man and tremendous personal integrity,” said Crutchfield.

U.Va. President John T. Casteen III called Ackerly, “a man of gentle spirit, high standards and great decency.”

Those qualities have been tested by thorny ethical questions. During Ackerly’s term as rector, student organizations regularly brought politics into the boardroom, asking the visitors to pass resolutions on, among other issues, human rights in Burma and a living wage at home.

Casteen’s estimation of Ackerly’s handling of his obligations is unequivocal.
“Jack Ackerly’s contributions to the University have been enormous,” he said. “The job of rector is perhaps the most demanding one imaginable, because it involves walking each day in the track left by an authentic American genius — Thomas Jefferson, our first rector — straddling the public and the private elements that make this a great university, and presiding over the deliberations of a board whose responsibilities are genuinely massive.”

Said Ackerly, “I’ve just been sort of a common-sense kind of a fellow who has tried to get people involved and work together with the administration. We’re all here for the same purpose, and that’s to make this place as good a university as we can make it.”


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