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Fall Convocation Speech

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Heart of a University

I'm honored to speak at my very first Fall Convocation as the University's president.

Today we honor students who have demonstrated excellent academic work during their first two years of study. Each of you who is being recognized today received a letter notifying you that you had earned Intermediate Honors. Enclosed with that letter was an additional invitation to this ceremony. You were encouraged to give the invitation to a faculty member who had contributed significantly to your academic life during your first two years of study. If everything worked out the way you planned, that faculty member may have marched with you in today's procession, and may be sitting beside you right now.

We should acknowledge that not all of the faculty members invited by students to come here today are teaching faculty. Some are administrative faculty members who work in various units across the University. This shows that teaching and mentoring are not restricted to the classroom and the laboratory.

Because we are celebrating our top-achieving students today, and because we have their most cherished teachers and mentors here with them, I want to spend the next several minutes talking about the foundation of student achievement. That foundation, of course, is the student-teacher relationship.

This idea may seem old-fashioned, or even unfashionable. A relational approach to teaching is fundamentally different from what many people today consider to be education. Today, we have online universities, distance education, video-conferencing, webinars, and technology-enhanced classrooms. We've created a whole new language to talk about these methods of pedagogy. We talk about synchronous and asynchronous technologies for online learning. We talk about "transactional distance" — the cognitive space between a teacher and student in a distance-education environment.

I don't mean to suggest that we should turn our backs on these technologies. Innovation is a core value at this University. New technologies can help us teach and learn better, and help us reach greater numbers of students. One example: Our own PRODUCED in Virginia program, based in the Engineering School, deploys distance-learning technology to allow community-college students all over the state to earn an engineering science degree without ever leaving their home communities. All of our schools have programs that make effective use of new and emerging technologies. That work will continue, and it will continue to get more sophisticated.

But there is not, and never will be, a high-tech substitute for the supremely low-tech bond of direct teacher-student interaction. The fundamental teacher-student relationship is still the foundation on which each great student stands.

But there is not, and never will be, a high-tech substitute for the supremely low-tech bond of direct teacher-student interaction. The fundamental teacher-student relationship is still the foundation on which each great student stands.

Here's another story that's well-known in higher-education circles and downright legendary at Williams College in Massachusetts. Before James Garfield became a Civil War general and our 20th US president, he attended Williams College, graduating in 1856. One of his teachers there was a man named Mark Hopkins, a professor of moral and intellectual philosophy who was well known for his lively teaching style, his engagement with students, and his humor and compassion. He taught for more than 50 years and served as president for 36 years. Despite his administrative duties, he always continued teaching.

Years after James Garfield graduated, he spoke at a gathering of Williams alumni, and he had these words to say about what constitutes a perfect college: "The ideal college," Garfield said, "is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other."

Those of us who are familiar with the early years in the life of our University's founder know a similar story. In the middle of the 18th century, about 100 years before Cardinal Newman published "The Idea of a University" and 100 years before Mark Hopkins taught James Garfield at Williams, Thomas Jefferson benefited from a similar style of personalized instruction when he was a college student.

From 1760 to 1762, a man named William Small was Jefferson's only instructor at William & Mary. It's fair to say that Small was the greatest single influence in Jefferson's early intellectual development. Born and educated in Scotland during the Enlightenment, Small had immersed himself in the writings of Newton, Bacon, and Locke. At William & Mary, he took the young Jefferson under his wing, and introduced him to science, mathematics, and the writings of the Enlightenment thinkers. The great Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone writes that William Small "was one of those rare personal influences that prove unforgettable and elicit immortal tribute."

Jefferson himself understood and appreciated the influence. In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote, "It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication correct and gentlemanly manners and an enlarged and liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me and made me his daily companion … from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed."

Consider these two images from the past: the 17-year-old Thomas Jefferson strolling the William & Mary campus with William Small in the 1760s, his young mind opening to the possibilities of science, mathematics and philosophy; and, some hundred years later, James Garfield's image of Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other, teaching and learning, face to face.

If a skilled artist were to sketch these two images, they would be perfect illustrations for the ideas described by Cardinal Newman in "The Idea of a University." Remember Newman's words: "… the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes [learning] live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already."

Of course it was Thomas Jefferson who later designed the Academical Village that gives architectural shape and substance to these very ideas. Jefferson's pavilions, where teachers lived with students' rooms interspersed between them, naturally foster close interaction among students and teachers. The Academical Village creates proximity by design. It's fair to say that no other university in America, in its physical design, so perfectly embodies the principles on which it was founded and the values that permeate every facet of student and faculty life. No other university is built to foster the student-teacher relationship the way this university is built to do so.

Every productive student-teacher relationship requires a great teacher and a great student. So, what are the characteristics that constitute a great teacher and a great student? What are the distinguishing qualities that make them succeed?

A great teacher is able to capture our imaginations, spark our interest, and push us a little farther than we think we are able to go intellectually. Great teachers pose interesting, sometimes provocative questions; they encourage creative thinking. They don't ridicule our mistakes, but offer constructive guidance that leads us to clear thinking. Teachers instill strong habits of mind. They teach us to be inquisitive, to be critical. We learn to ask questions, and we also learn which questions are the important ones. Great teachers give students the courage not to accept the conventional wisdom blindly. They equip us with the tools of inquiry. As students we learn how to question and to evaluate all that we think and do. This influence lasts a lifetime. Just ask our alumni! Almost every one of them has a story about his or her favorite teacher here. For many of our alumni, that favorite teacher is their strongest and most enduring connection to the University.

What makes a great student? Great students are enthusiastic learners, and their enthusiasm is infectious — they infect their classmates and their teachers with it. Great students are insatiably curious. They're open-minded and receptive to new ideas and new ways of thinking. They study a broad range of topics. They search for new knowledge in every corner of the university curriculum as if searching for hidden treasures in a big house. They're motivated to gain knowledge for knowledge's sake — and not just as a means to an end, or as a resume-builder. Great students are committed to their work; they are well-prepared when they walk into the classroom or laboratory. Great students are resilient. They can overcome setbacks or discouragements. Together, the great student and the great teacher are a formidable team.

To all of the great students, great teachers, and proud parents gathered here today, this is my Convocation thesis in a nutshell: the teacher-student relationship is the heart of the university. It's the heart of every university, we hope, but it's the heart of this University without a doubt. The Academical Village is our University's physical heart, and the student-teacher relationship is its metaphorical heart — the heart within a heart.

New technologies will come and go. Today's "state-of-the-art" will one day be "obsolete." Theories of pedagogy will fall in and out of fashion. What will remain is the essential thing: the eager student working under the careful guidance of a dedicated teacher. Mark Hopkins sitting on one end of the log and a student on the other. William Small strolling with Thomas Jefferson in Williamsburg, deep in discussion, some 250 years ago.

And today, here in Charlottesville, it is the student in the classroom or the student in the laboratory, working side by side with an instructor or researcher. The student in the College, the engineering student, the architecture student, the student of leadership and public policy, the student of business or commerce, the student in the School of Education, the student of medicine or nursing, the law student, the life-long learner in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies — all these students have teachers who will fix the destinies of their lives just as surely as William Small fixed the destinies of Thomas Jefferson's life.

Today, we celebrate these students and their teachers. Thomas Jefferson set a high standard for the students who came to his University. He wrote that he wanted students here to go on "to destinies of high promise." The students gathered here today have begun the journey to reach those destines. Their teachers and mentors stand close by, showing them the way.

Thank you.