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Alumni News

Summer 2002

"Research in the University"

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson called the American scholar "the world's eye." By this, Emerson means that the scholar looks at the world and detects meaning and order where others might see undifferentiated matter. Like the world before creation, described in the King James Bible as "without form and void," the scholar's world invites creating, interpreting, discovering, and inventing.

In all this creating, the scholar needs also to make a living, and sometimes needs also expensive space, materials, libraries, and research apparatus. Enter the research university. In the last fifty years, scholarship, "research," as it now is known, has become the province of research universities, and American universities have become strong by taking their scholars seriously.

Not all disciplines have flourished equally. For most of our history, the University has been more often a seedbed for scholarship in English or the law or history than a hub for the sciences. More recently, since just after World War II, first-class research in the sciences, both basic and applied, has developed here. Nowadays every elected official knows that research is good. Many say that excellence in research comes before many other missions.

Research has long been fundamental to graduate education in the American model. Most of us remember TAs or Junior Instructors who lingered late in the Alderman building or in the old Cobb or Miller Hall or Physics labs. Those who attended the graduate schools generally see independent research as the most important element of education. Today, undergraduates also want and benefit by research as a capstone of their studies here—not least because many top faculty members now open their own scholarly work to student participants.

Undergraduate students look for ways to embed research within their programs. Many work on research projects under the Faculty Senate's collaborative program sponsored by the David A. Harrison Trust. "Harrisons" are as prized now as Honors degrees were back in the 1960s. The undergraduate schools offer variants of this program. Students may conduct research within their course work, or they may be volunteer or paid researchers, working with faculty members in faculty-originated projects. Participants in this year's all-University planning retreat argued that opportunities for individual and collaborative research work ought to be available to virtually all students.

Most of us have opinions about the teaching that graduate students do within the University. Student evaluations say that TAs and other graduate instructors generally do excellent work, because they share the excitement that goes with their own budding research undertakings. Both the Teaching Resource Center and senior faculty oversee work with these younger or junior colleagues as they learn excellence in teaching. Graduate instructors are becoming to undergraduate education what resident physicians are to hospital patients. In both contexts (teaching hospitals and colleges where research thrives), customers (patients, students) come with the expectation that serious research lies just one step away from their immediate contact with TAs or residents.

The University perhaps measures time in longer increments than most of us do. It lives in the long historical context. It is still learning how to sustain excellence in its (fairly young) incarnation as a great research center. Running it in its current form involves addressing some new challenges, not least the challenge of paying for and supporting the eminent faculty, new programs, advanced equipment, laboratory space, libraries and computing systems, graduate student support, and so on. Hundreds of persons provide support for the teachers and students or patients who are the end of all this effort.

Virginia's most recent financial catastrophe looks much like the one before it and the one before that. Each has brought cuts in public support. When compared to Virginia's last financial downturn, this one finds us fairly well prepared, largely because the recent capital campaign and the Virginia 2020 planning initiatives have given us new flexibility. The campaign not only yielded one and a half billion dollars; it also taught us lessons of self-sufficiency.

So as we look at how to sustain the best things about the University, the view extends beyond the old sources of state money. Increased tuition charges, corporate and foundation grants, private gifts, federal support for research and suddenly state support as well—each has its role to play. Similarly, sound management has a role. We have gained some autonomy in this period when the state has had other priorities than its colleges, and the Board has used that autonomy to everyone's benefit. We enter this new period of state constraint as one of the best-run research universities in the country.

In prior times, we might have had to abandon innovation because of the state's most recent financial collapse. We do not have this option now. State leaders want research to flourish because in it they see jobs, corporate profits, and tax dollars, which is to say, resources to restore general prosperity. In the mix, tuition will begin now to move toward the real market for the University's services, we will seek donor support for the most critical innovations, and the Board will manage its private assets with a special sense of urgency.

This is a time to cultivate what is authentically ours. Mr. Jefferson's aspirations and designs make this a rare version of the research university. He scaled this place to human dimensions because the individual was at the core of his thinking about education. This public university, the first of its kind, cannot be itself and also be massive and impersonal. The focus here is not on research per se, but rather on the researcher, on what Emerson called the "man thinking."

Most nowadays would rephrase this to say "the human thinking," a phrase that must make wonderful sense to our founder's spirit as it presides over this modern extension of his shadow.