Edward Ayers, National Professor
of the Year
Cited for his passion and commitment to
by Andrew Shurtleff
By Robert Brickhouse
Edward L. Ayers, dean of
the College and
Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, has been admired for
his teaching, scholarship and public service for so long that
it should come as no surprise that he has been chosen as the 2003
national Professor of the Year at doctoral and research universities.
The annual award for dedication to undergraduate education was
given Nov. 13 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education
(CASE) in Washington.
One of the country’s foremost Southern history scholars,
Ayers has continued his teaching and advising of undergraduate
and graduate students and his outreach in history
education nationwide while serving as the top administrator of
U.Va.’s liberal arts core. He and honorees in three non-doctoral
college categories were selected from among 400 distinguished
professors nominated around the country.
“As an educator, mentor and advisor, Professor Ayers has
had a lasting impact on both the University of Virginia and on
his discipline,” said Vance T. Peterson, president of CASE.
seek him out for his wise counsel and guidance because of the
extraordinary commitment he brings to everything he does.”
In addition to being an exemplary teacher and award-winning author,
Ayers has been a national advocate for exploring the potential
of computer technology to enhance scholarship
and teaching. He previously received the Outstanding Faculty Award
from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and currently
serves as a presidential appointee to the National Council for
the Humanities and on the executive board of the National Council
for History Education.
“His infectious passion for learning invigorates every encounter
with students, whether in a class of 400, a seminar of 10, or
an individual conference,” said Vice President and Provost
Gene D. Block, who nominated Ayers for the award.
Among the first wave of scholars to tap the power of emerging
technologies for learning, Ayers created and directs an authoritative
Internet archive, “Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities
in the American Civil War,” that has won numerous major
awards for its contributions to education. It is used in classrooms
at all levels throughout the country and makes available thousands
of original sources for students and scholars to conduct their
own research and draw their own conclusions about history.
A finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award
for his 1992 book “The Promise of the New South,”
he has also recently published a groundbreaking new book about
the coming of the Civil War, “In the Presence of Mine Enemies.”
Block noted that Ayers’ passion for teaching carries beyond
his own work to close collaborations with his graduate students,
as they prepare for teaching careers, and to long involvement
with the University’s Center for the Liberal Arts in mentoring
K-12 classroom teachers around the state and country.
While teaching, serving as dean, writing books and fund raising
for educational projects, Ayers holds regular undergraduate office
hours each week and encourages his students to visit him. He requires
students at all levels to conduct their own original research
into what he has called “the messy complexity of the past”
in order to gain a deeper understanding.
“He regards classroom walls as the most arbitrary of boundaries
and never stops instructing or inspiring those around him,”
said Charles F. Irons, who received his B.A. and Ph.D. in history
at U.Va. and was one of several colleagues and former students
who sent the awards committee letters testifying to Ayers’
effects on their personal lives. “In every circumstance,
he spreads his boundless enthusiasm and helps his listeners to
imagine a better tomorrow.”
“He is so much a part of the University — and what
is right about it — that it is difficult to extricate him
from it,” wrote Lee J. Hark, a doctoral student in education.
“He occupies an almost mythic status in the minds of students.
I found the process of studying with him quite unsettling, which,
it seems, is exactly what he wants.”
Ayers confirms that notion. “Unless we come to terms with
the hardest parts of this nation’s history, we cannot see
it clearly,” he wrote in a statement about teaching. “And
unless we see our nation clearly, we cannot know how best to live
within it. Coming to terms with the past demands that students
confront its problems for themselves.”
Ayers received his doctorate in American Studies from Yale in
1980 and joined the U.Va. faculty that year. He has been dean
of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences since
The U.S. Professor of the Year awards, created in 1981, are the
only national honors for excellent undergraduate teaching and
The other national winners included Outstanding Master’s
University and College Professor Patty Hale, a professor of nursing
from Lynchburg College and an alumna of the U.Va School of Nursing.
The national winners and winners of state Professor of the Year
awards were honored at a luncheon at the National Press Club.