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UVa’s Sense of Place - Past, Present, Future

Teresa A. Sullivan
Remarks at Reunions 2013
Saturday, June 8, 2013  

Welcome, and thank you all for coming to Charlottesville for Reunions Weekend. I know that our alumni and their families have limited time and limited budgets for travel, so I’m grateful that you decided to spend this time with us.

UVa alumni come to Reunions in great numbers, and your attraction to the University seems to grow over the years. The classes represented at this year’s Reunions — classes from 1968 to 2008 that end in 3s and 8s — have come back in stronger and stronger numbers for each successive Reunion gathering. Your attendance at your 2013 Reunions is about 25% larger than five years ago, and about 70% larger than 10 years ago.

In addition to coming back to UVa in greater and greater numbers, you have become more and more generous with your gifts. Reunion Giving for your classes was more than $39 million this year; this is an increase of almost 30% over your last Reunions in 2008. The number of total donors in these classes also increased, by about 12%. Your gifts recently helped us surpass our $3-billion goal in our capital campaign, and I’m grateful to all of you who have given so generously.

Several recent articles have posed the question, Will social media replace school reunions? In other words, Will alumni stop coming to their college reunions now that they are able to stay connected with each other all the time via Facebook? I’m sure many of you stay connected with each other through social media, and yet all of you are here this weekend.

So why do you come back so regularly, and in such strong numbers? Part of the answer, I believe, is the strong sense of place that distinguishes this University.

The term “sense of place” means the qualities that define and differentiate one physical place from others, and there are several qualities that make this place unique. UVa is the only American university included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites; it was conceived and built by Thomas Jefferson to support the Republic with an educated citizenry and to embody the principles of liberty and learning. This unique story imbues these Grounds with a sense of place that no other American university can claim.

But “sense of place” has another meaning. It means the feelings that a place creates within us—feelings of emotional attachment and fidelity; feelings of gratitude for the quality of the education you received here; feelings of cross-generational connection to the students of today and tomorrow, and your desire to ensure that their experience is as rich, profound, and life-affecting as yours was. I imagine those are some of the feelings that helped to draw you here this weekend.

Today I’m going to talk about the University’s future, and how UVa’s distinctive sense of place is an important consideration as we plan for that future.

After these remarks, we will have time for Q&A, so please be thinking of questions you might want to ask me.

Planning for the Future

Since last fall, we have been engaged in a strategic planning effort to chart a course for UVa’s future. Seven working groups have focused on topics like faculty recruitment and retention; student life; technology; streamlining; resources; synergies; and what it means to be a public university in this century.  

This has been a broadly inclusive process that has brought together more than 10,000 alumni, parents, students, faculty, staff, the Board of Visitors, a consulting firm, and others. I hope that many of you participated, either by sharing your comments with our working groups online or by responding to the alumni survey that we sent out by email in April.

Any planning effort that includes 10,000 people is going to generate a lot of ideas — many good ones, a few bizarre ones, and some that are in direct conflict with each other. But one major point of agreement has emerged from all of the participants involved in the planning effort.

Everyone agrees that UVa’s powerful academic-residential experience is its greatest strength and its prime area of potential for even greater distinction. Several factors contribute to the richness of the residential experience here. This is a place where students and faculty work side by side in the shared pursuit of knowledge and discovery; the Academical Village is the physical manifestation of this ethos. Training in self-governance and personal accountability prepares our students to be ethical citizens who are ready for leadership on the day they graduate. This is a place with deep local roots and a uniquely American story, but with global reach and global aspirations. And this is a place where life and culture are shaped by a distinctive set of values — honor, ethics, integrity, inclusiveness, and commitment to service.

These qualities define the University. They give us a powerful identity and a strong sense of place. They are genuine, rare distinctions upon which we can build a great future for UVa.   So let me talk about these qualities in a little more detail …

A Place to Live and Learn

UVa is built on an uncommon scale. It combines the vast intellectual resources of a research university with the smaller physical scale of a liberal arts college. This unusual scale creates a natural proximity among students and their professors, and it allows our students to engage in research and work closely with professors, both inside and outside the classroom. We are using the term “collegiate research university” to describe this distinctive scale and the opportunities created by this rare blending of large and small.

This is a powerful model for public higher education, and we plan to make it more powerful by building on existing strengths. One way we can do that is by improving our student-advising program. We want to pioneer a new style of advising that we are calling “total advising.” This will be a multidimensional process that combines high-quality academic advising with career advising and life coaching to give students a comprehensive, holistic advising experience. Alumni can play a key role in this, by sharing your advice and expertise with students. We plan to develop channels that will allow you to do this.

We plan to enhance an already-broad range of educational experiences for undergraduates that includes research with faculty members, service learning, entrepreneurial experiences, and internships. We will improve the University’s infrastructure to encourage and support individual, curiosity-driven research, scholarship, creative arts, and innovative work by both faculty and students. This summer, with support from the Harrison Awards and under the guidance of faculty mentors, 44 of our undergraduates are conducting research projects in fields ranging from neuroscience, to global development, to the study of autism. Our research tells us that our student-applicants are seeking these kinds of experiences, so we want to offer more programs like this one that allow students to build a strong portfolio during their undergraduate years.

Offering high-impact, high-quality education requires that we have a high-impact, high-quality faculty. So recruiting and retaining excellent faculty is another priority in our plan. We have reached a generational turning point that will bring a wave of faculty retirements over the next five to seven years. Many of the wonderful professors who taught you and your classmates will be leaving soon, and we will be seeking new faculty who have the capacity to be just as wonderful.

As this intense period of hiring begins, we will be seeking faculty who are eager to collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines. Most of the complex problems facing society today — poverty, disease, environmental issues, and so on — demand multi-disciplinary approaches to solutions. So our faculty need to be able to work in the intersections between disciplines, and to teach our students to integrate various perspectives and draw connections between different fields to solve problems.

As part of our plan, we also want to develop training, teaching, and counseling programs for alumni. In the spirit of “lifelong learning,” these programs make UVa your “lifelong university.” Our surveys have told us that you feel very socially engaged with the University through our alumni events, but you want to feel more intellectually engaged. One way we can do that is through the University’s online-learning programs, so let me talk about that now.

A Physical Place with Virtual Capabilities

UVa has a strong physical sense of place — in these buildings and Grounds that surround us and in the quality of residential learning that happens here — and we are extending those strengths beyond the University through online education and other programs that make use of emerging technologies.

In “The Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” Thomas Jefferson wrote that knowledge should be offered widely to citizens “without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.” One way we can do this is through MOOCs — massive open online courses that allow our professors to teach huge numbers of people. How huge? Six UVa classes offered through the MOOC developer Coursera this spring semester registered 400,000 students in 100 different countries.

One of the main reasons we want to experiment with MOOCs is to understand how the experience of teaching online can help us enhance our residential teaching. In one of the Coursera classes, history professor Philip Zelikow taught his course on “Global History Since 1760” to more than 42,000 students around the world. And he has told us that the experience has helped him   re-invent and improve the ways he teaches in the traditional classroom.

In this spring’s alumni survey, only 40% of respondents were aware of the online courses that we offer through Coursera, and of that 40%, only 4% had enrolled in one of the courses.  Meanwhile, 63% expressed some interest in enrolling in an online course for UVa alumni. We have two new MOOCs in development that might be of interest to you. Peter Onuf, our resident expert on Thomas Jefferson, is developing a MOOC on Mr. Jefferson. And Larry Sabato is creating a MOOC about John F. Kennedy to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination this fall. Larry’s MOOC will examine Kennedy’s administration and his legacy over the half-century since his death. You can register for courses at www.coursera.org. 

We will continue to develop relationships with MOOC developers, but at the same time, we will carefully determine the conditions required to place MOOCs on a sustainable financial basis, and we will assess the implications of offering MOOCs, particularly in relationship with the residential experience. 

Other kinds of technology are helping us offer students a broader range of learning opportunities. For example, starting this fall, a partnership between UVa and Duke will allow students at both schools to learn a rare language. Duke students will take a course in Tibetan language offered here, and UVa students will take Duke’s course in Creole, with students at both schools using advanced video-conferencing technology.

Our survey showed that most alumni believe strongly in the residential model of education that UVa provides, but more than 60% believe students benefit from flexible, technology-driven delivery of class content. The Duke partnership is a good example of that kind of flexible delivery. We plan to invest in better production facilities and innovative classrooms that we will need to enrich our traditional in-class activities with Web-based and digital technologies.

A Place with Global Reach

Having a strong sense of place here at UVa gives us firm grounding as we turn our attention to the rest of the world. We aspire to be a truly global university, because to be anything less in the 21st century would be a disservice to our students. The inter-connectedness of nations and economies demands that we prepare students for work, life, and leadership on a global scale.

We have made great progress on the global front in recent years. We now have more than 50 study-abroad programs, including year-round programs in Valencia, Spain and Lyon, France, and we have reciprocal student-exchange agreements with more than 80 universities. About 160 of our faculty members are from foreign nations, and they bring international perspectives to the courses they teach. Of the 3,700 undergraduate students who graduated a few weeks ago, roughly one-third participated in some form of education abroad during their time as students.

Those numbers are pretty good, but  we want all of our students to be globally engaged. To help achieve this goal, we plan to systematically strengthen our global connections and foster cross-cultural understanding among our students. We are working on three immediate priorities: 1) creating a global studies curricular track that connects academic study to global issues such as pandemics, economic crises, and so on; 2) enhancing the global experience in every facet of University life, from UVa tours, to careers services, to the alumni experience; and, 3) strengthening UVa’s global reach and reputation, by establishing a consistent presence in regions that are important to us. We are now in the process of interviewing candidates for a new position — a UVa representative who will be permanently stationed in Shanghai, to help increase our presence in Asia.

With the Academical Village as our model, we can build on UVa’s strong sense of place to conceive a “global Academical Village.” One such program, the Jefferson Global Seminar, is debuting this summer at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Peking University. In these seminars, faculty from UVa and HKUST are joining forces to offer a structured living-learning experience for students. The program includes four weeks in Hong Kong at HKUST and one week in Beijing at PKU, with half of the participants from HKUST and half from UVa. This program is led by the College of Arts & Sciences, in cooperation with the School of Engineering, and it’s one way that we are expanding the concepts of the Academical Village on a global scale.

A Place for Leadership

During our planning effort over the past year, leadership has emerged as both a recurring theme and a distinguishing factor for the University. We mean “leadership” in two senses: that we prepare our students to become ethical citizen-leaders, and that the University itself is a leader in higher education.

Learning and leadership go hand in hand. We train students to be ethical leaders through our co-curricular and extra-curricular programs, such as the Honor Committee, residential life, and student organizations. We also emphasize curricular approaches to leadership.  Some of these reside in the College or in schools, while others span the University, such as the Social Entrepreneurship initiative and the Jefferson Public Citizens program that foster leadership, service, collaboration, and innovation.  

Even as we prepare our students to be leaders, we will position the University as a leader. One way we do this is by mobilizing private and public partners to generate economic development in Virginia and the nation. I recently traveled to Prince George County for the grand opening of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, or C-CAM. This collaborative research center brings Rolls Royce and other global companies together with researchers from UVa, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University to accelerate the transfer of research discoveries to commercial use.

Earlier this year, the National Governors Association identified C-CAM as a “best-practices” model in a report called “Making our Future,” which described the work that various states are doing to encourage growth in manufacturing through innovation and investment. The C-CAM partnership benefits our students in many ways. For example, Rolls Royce has become a top-ten recruiter of UVa Engineering graduates, and has provided many internships to our undergraduate and graduate students.

A Place with Values

As we continue the strategic planning process and present a  final proposal to the Board of Visitors this fall, we will begin to implement the priorities we have identified. As we do so, we are committed to ensure that, first and foremost, our priorities and actions conform to our values.

Every decision we make, and every strategic initiative we pursue, should support and align with our values of honor, integrity, responsibility, accountability, self-governance, and public service. If we move up in the popular rankings but fail to sustain our values, we will have failed ourselves and failed the University that means so much to all of us. 

These values are as much a part of UVa’s identity as any building, statue, or garden. These values are engrained in every aspect of academic and social life at the University. You experienced these values when you were a student here, you absorbed them over the course of those years, and then you carried them with you into the careers and communities you entered when you left UVa. For many of you, I imagine these values have served as guideposts in your life journey — a journey that brings you back here, from time to time, to visit the place where it all started.

Closing – Memories of the Past, Hopes for the Future

I recently came across a copy of the 1966 edition of Corks & Curls, the University yearbook. In the introduction, a narrator describes a night-long gathering of friends in a Lawn room, a night when it’s snowing outside and there’s a fire going in the fireplace. These young men are sharing tall tales about epic football games, about professors they loved, about the stories behind the secret societies, and other various topics. This goes on for hours.

Finally, at the end of the night, all the men leave except the one who lives in the Lawn room, and he’s left alone with his memories of the evening and his thoughts about the future. I want to read a brief excerpt, because I think it captures some of the unique essence of this place and how it resonates in the lives of our alumni:

“[He] knew that 20 years from now there would only be vague remembrances, vague impressions left on the memory like fingerprints on glass. He would always be able to remember the buildings, the statues, the gardens, but they were not the important thing. What was important to remember was the state of consciousness whose breeding ground and context was the University, the active, collective spiritual force that conditioned both the way he looked at the world and the way he looked at himself. You could call it the University’s personality, its soul ...

“It would be nights like this, he realized, that he would miss most of all … they would be remembered collectively with the same intense quality as the memory of a first love … Knowing full well that no matter how many buildings are changed, destroyed, created; no matter how many strange faces slip with enigmatic speed from first-year dorms to the proverbial cap and gown; no matter what physical changes take place, there will still be a certain mystique about the University…”

William Faulkner, one-time Writer-in-Residence at UVa, famously wrote, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

The past lives on in us, through our memories of the places and people that shape and nurture us. For many of you, some of your fondest memories are built on this place and these people who are here with you this weekend.

But remember the future lives in us too, through our hopes for the generations that will follow us and through the actions we take now to build on those hopes. Together, we are planning and building a future for this University that will be even brighter than its past, and I’m grateful to all of you who remain so loyal and committed to the effort.

I hope you have a wonderful weekend with family and friends, and I thank you for coming this morning.

“How Facebook is Affecting School Reunions,” TIME.com, June 15, 2009. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1904565,00.html