May 6 - June 3, 2005
Vol. 35, Issue 8
Back Issues
Leitao named 'Hoos first African-American head coach
Flagship universities must pursue excellence and access
Outstanding Contribution Award winners announced
Two-time university president rekindles love of teaching and scholarship
100 years since U.Va.'s first presidential inauguration
2005 Teaching Awards
Championing the 'F-word'
Well, well... Students' health tops University's concerns
Loud and clear; Gausvik says he's listening
Lyder blazes a busy trail at Nursing School
Researchers, environment win big in pollution cases
Documentary 'Rising Up' examines civil rights movement
Spring procurement vendor fair June 1
Iris: 25 and hitting its stride


After 20 years, Rawlings comes full circle
Two-time university president rekindles love of teaching and scholarship

RawlingsBy Kathleen D. Valenzi

Who am I, and what should I do with my life?”

It may have been this Socratic question that prompted Thucydides scholar Hunter R. Rawlings III to step down as president of Cornell University in June 2003 and return to teaching the classics, first at Cornell, where he remains on the faculty as a professor of classics and history, and now at U.Va. as a visiting University Professor.

“I had a strong desire to be a professor again,” he said. “I’d gotten into academia in the first place because I loved scholarship and teaching. Luckily, I’m in a field where it’s not impossible to return. It’s not easy — your Greek deteriorates, for example — but it’s also not impossible.”

No stranger to challenges, Rawlings spent the fall of 2003 refreshing his Greek, reading the secondary literature in his field, and absorbing, as he puts it, “a whole wave of literary criticism” that had both risen and ebbed during those decades when he was busy doing other important things. These “things” included reforming the governance structure of the NCAA; developing a bold residential housing plan at Cornell to solve the problem of self-segregation among students; strengthening Cornell’s medical college through collaboration with Rockefeller University and the Sloan-Kettering Institute; and pioneering an overseas program in pre-medicine and medicine for Qatar, an independent state in the Middle East.

Much of this preparation occurred at Signal Hill, the home he shares with his wife, Elizabeth, in Orange, Va. The native Virginians had bought the property in 1992 as a place they could call their own. “When you’re a university president, you live in someone else’s house,” Rawlings said.

Over the years, Signal Hill became his “haven” from administrative demands. Its close proximity to Montpelier, the historic home of James Madison, also gave him the opportunity to “discover” Madison, the country’s fourth president. “I wanted to know, ‘Who is this guy?’ And the more I learned about him, the more fascinated I got — especially about his intellectual side,” he said. Rawlings subsequently joined the Montpelier board (one of eight boards he currently serves on) and is now chairman of the organization’s $60 million renovation campaign.

Rawlings, who has a special love for historiography (“how and why people write about history the way they do”), is enjoying the opportunity to be a full-time classics professor again. “The students at U.Va. are very energizing, at both the undergraduate and graduate level,” he said. “At the faculty level, there is also a great exchange of ideas. I like the intellectual milieu a lot.”

The feeling is mutual. “We in Classics are thrilled to have Hunter Rawlings teaching in the department this semester,” said chairman John F. Miller.

In the words of President John T. Casteen III, who served with Rawlings on national boards in the past, the former chief executive of Cornell and Iowa is “the brightest, deepest, straightest and subtlest president I have known, and he had the largest vision.” Casteen said he recommended Rawlings for the professorship because he felt “he would bring unusual and valuable personal qualities to the University.”

And he has. In teaching his undergraduates about ancient Greek generals and politicians, for example, he draws on his experiences lobbying state legislators and Washington-based agencies. “You know what it’s like to go in front of a big assembly and make an argument,” he said. “You know what it’s like to have decisions ridiculed, argued and fought. And those experiences help you teach such things.”

Rawlings’ “favorite Greek” is Thucydides, an Athenian general and chronicler of the Peloponnesian War, whom the professor first discovered in the late 1960s during his graduate studies at Princeton University, and who is the subject of one of Rawlings’ two published books.

Like many students of his generation, Rawlings was opposed to the Vietnam War, and initially he found his graduate studies to be “irrelevant” to what he was reading on the front pages of the newspapers. While taking the course on Thucydides, however, he discovered a writer who had witnessed and endured an even more gruesome war than that being waged in Southeast Asia. He discovered parallels in terms of the amount of dissent and opposition each war produced on their respective home fronts. “Studying Thucydides made me realize that the classics were relevant and had a lot to teach me about current issues,” he said.

Rawlings tries to make that connection between “then” and “now” clear to his students, although it may not always be easy for them to see it. A recent look around his “Age of Pericles” classroom underscored the point: notebooks competed for desk space with muted cell phones, handheld computers, bottled water and cans of Diet Pepsi — suggesting that these bright young women and men may be even further away from appreciating the relevance of classic Greek writings to modern life — and warfare — than Rawlings was in the late 1960s.

Which is why he asked them to imagine what it would be like to be in a war: “Not a war that is fought 8,000 miles from home and witnessed on television sets, but a 27-year war that is fought at home,” he said.
To understand what Thucydides wrote, he told them, demands “an active imagination” and the willingness to consider “what happens to people under the stress of war.”

At other times during the semester, Rawlings required his undergraduates to participate in debates, where they argued the Athenian and Spartan perspectives about the Peloponnesian War. They also conducted a mock trial of Socrates. “These activities make students come to grips with the material in a deep way,” Rawlings said.

Ultimately, gaining an in-depth understanding of a topic is what defines a good liberal arts education, Rawlings believes. “It helps to prepare you for life, not just for a career,” he said. “When you’re well read, when you have developed your critical faculties, you can see things effectively, get
beneath the surface of history and ask intelligently the really pressing questions.”

Rawlings calls this almost cellular-level understanding “moral knowledge,” and he believes “it’s the job of us faculty in humanities to help students develop it.”

Rawlings’ Career at a Glance
University of Colorado 1970-1988
Assistant, associate, then full professor of classics
  1984-1988 Vice president for academic affairs and research
University of Iowa 1988-1995 President
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1995 Elected a fellow
Cornell University
1995-2003 President
  2003-present Professor of classics and history, president emeritus
University of Virginia 2005 University Professor
Leadership Roles
1993-1995 Member, President’s Commission of the NCAA

Member, American Council on Education



Chairman, Council of Ten, Presidents and Chancellors of the Big Ten Conference



Chairman, Council of Ivy League Presidents



Chairman, Association of American Universities


University Professorships

Established in the 1960s during the tenure of President Edgar F. Shannon Jr., University Professorships are conferred on a small number of the most accomplished faculty, who are often of international renown and distinguished in more than one discipline. They are appointed by the Board of Visitors on the recommendation of the president and have considerable freedom to teach across academic lines. Currently, University Professorships are held by the following people:

Terry Belanger Arts & Sciences
Donald Black
Social Sciences
David W. Breneman Education
Peter P. Brooks English
Robert M. Carey, M.D. Internal Medicine
Cora Diamond Philosophy
K. Ian Grandison Architecture and American Studies
Donald F. Hunt Chemistry
Anita K. Jones Computer Science
Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf Applied Sciences
Cato Laurencin Medicine
Jerome J. McGann English
David B. Morris Medicine
Robert M. O’Neil Law
Hunter R. Rawlings III Classics
Larry J. Sabato n Politics
Elizabeth S. Scott Law
Edgar A. Starke Jr. Engineering
Haydn N. Wadley Materials Science
G. Edward White Law
William A. Wulf Computer Science


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