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Letter to Alumni, Parents, and Friends of the University

June 2005

Dear Alumni, Parents, and Friends:

The final weeks of the spring semester always bring special pleasures and surprises to these Grounds. From one year to the next, the sequence of the appearance of spring blossoms changes as late-winter cold or early warmth, damp or dry spells, and other natural forces shape the season. Students this year have gone through their spring cycles of intense study for finals and intense play to make up for the lost (meaning spent-in-the-library) social weekends of what turned out to be a tenacious winter, one that seemed determined never to let go.

This is the time when our top students are elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, and other honorary societies, when Rhodes Scholars (two this year), Marshalls, Mitchells, Trumans, Luces, and the other national prizes are awarded—at least one of each this year. In this season, fourth-year students work late at night on their theses or capstone projects, academic departments work through the annual round of tenure and promotion decisions, and search committees identify new deans and professors and others who will begin work here in the fall. Admissions committees in all of the schools work to complete selection of the next entering class. Jack Blackburn is predicting that the first-year class in the fall will be our best ever, and I am hearing similar reports from admissions officers in most of the schools. Retiring faculty members generally announce their retirements at about this time. So there is sometimes a bittersweet quality to the season as we realize that before long valued colleagues will move on to other ventures.

Landmark legislation. The news from state government has been uncommonly good this year. For almost 15 years, the University and Virginia's other public colleges and universities have operated under reduced appropriations from the state. These reductions came in two phases, neither predicted nor planned—one in 1990-91 as the state dealt with reduced tax revenues during a recession that the state's economists did not foresee; the other in 2003 as a new Governor cut allotments of tax funds to deal with a $6-billion shortfall found in the budget proposals left behind by his predecessor. Restorations of these funds have been minimal and temporary as what was added back in one year was cut out in the following year. The net effect is that state support, formerly in the range of 28% to 30% of the University's total budget, now amounts to slightly more than 8%, a level that state leaders now say they see as more or less permanent.

During this period of reductions, we have asked for and generally received relief from various kinds of state regulation, some longstanding and others of recent making, that have made the cost of operating with reduced appropriations more expensive than it should have been. This relief has taken the form of pilot projects, all successful and many expanded to include other public colleges and universities. In the 2005 Session of the General Assembly, the Governor and legislative leaders from both parties and both houses acknowledged that the system was not working and drew new ground rules that bode well for the University and for the other public institutions.

Specifically, the state decided in late winter to expand the temporary exemptions granted us (as the temporary reductions became permanent state policies) to new areas of operations; to establish a system of scrutiny and public control in which the Governor and the General Assembly have clearly defined statutory roles, as contrasted with the ad hoc roles assumed in recent years in response to one crisis after another; to establish longer-term planning programs than have ever before existed in Virginia; and to address a broad range of educational deficiencies that have built up in the state (even extending to K-12 education) during a decade and a half of under-funding and over-regulating without achieving any noteworthy public benefits. And under carefully defined terms the state offered versions of this comprehensive deregulation to every public college and university in the state.

In a nutshell, this legislation (formerly called the charter legislation, and now called restructuring, although neither title quite explains the new law) provides a broad framework for operations in a period of decreased state support and increased state demands. This framework is reasonably flexible as to regulation, comprehensive, and sufficient to meet our predictable needs for many years to come with regard to financing the University, building sound structures at market prices rather than at the inflated prices we used to pay for state construction, procurement or purchasing of necessary goods and services, and managing our various personnel systems. It vests responsibility in the Board to establish operating policies, make tuition decisions, and in general develop and enforce operating systems capable of maintaining the quality of teaching, research, health care, and public service programs. It recognizes the Board's capacity, first defined in Jefferson's statute, to raise, manage, and own the University's assets, and indeed encourages this.

At the same time, the legislation assumes that we will continue to build on the financial strength and academic standards developed in the wake of the state's initial decision back in 1990 to cut its commitments to higher education. This assumption includes our continued commitment to raising private funds from alumni, friends, and others, to managing both tuition and financial aid programs in order to keep education here affordable (an especially important commitment in that the best the state has done in recent years in funding its own financial aid formulas amounts to less than one third of actual student need). We also intend to manage support for academic programs so that they can continue to grow, and to regain market competitiveness with regard to faculty and staff salaries.

This is good legislation, indeed historic legislation. It makes clear both our obligations to do what we have learned to do—stand on our own institutional feet—and it protects the public interest in functions neglected in recent years when public policy was simply not clear. It allows us over time to restore faculty salaries to competitive levels after a long period in which faculty accomplishments and loyalty amounted to far more than the state's ability or willingness to pay fair salaries; to take some, although limited steps to do the same for non-faculty staff members; and to manage operations in a businesslike way under the ongoing scrutiny of the state's Auditor of Public Accounts.

It may also begin to provide a remedy for the lack of state planning for enrollment growth in the public colleges, for the growing achievement gap between the most and least affluent students in Virginia's public schools, and for the absence since 1990 of effective state policy on economic development. Especially pressing areas for redevelopment are Southside and Southwest Virginia, where plant closures contributed to near-depression unemployment levels even in the boom years of the late 1990s, and continue to this day to do so.

In the end, this legislation serves everyone well, although not equally well. I am not altogether satisfied with what it does for employees in state classified grades. Salaries and benefits in those grades are so far below market, and state action to address this problem, now well over 10 years old, has been so ineffectual that we know that we need to do more to protect our interest in hiring and retaining top people. We will continue to work on this issue in upcoming legislative sessions. But in the larger view the legislation is good for the University's programs, faculty, and staff, and for the public interest.

So this is a time to acknowledge that this legislation produced near unanimity between the two major political parties and within both caucuses; that champions emerged in the General Assembly to lift the discussion above factional differences and use it to open larger issues that have been neglected for years; and that the Governor in the end found common ground for virtually all who took part in the debate, and oversaw the passage of what persons who know Virginia history are describing as the third landmark education bill in the state's history—first, Jefferson's statute for the University of Virginia in 1819; second, the universal public schools act in 1900 (only 126 years after Jefferson first introduced it); and third, this restructuring act to take the system back to first principles and begin movement toward solving the many other problems the state faces because of its neglect of its public colleges.

It is perhaps also the right occasion to express gratitude to our Rector and Vice Rector, Gordon Rainey and Tom Farrell, and other Board members for their unflinching commitment to the principles now embedded in this law; to Leonard Sandridge, Colette Sheehy, and their staffs who worked relentlessly to provide accurate and complete information for the Governor and his staff and the General Assembly at each stage of the discussion; to Virginia's other public colleges and universities for taking common ground with us on this legislation; and to a remarkable group of Richmond alumni, friends of higher education, and veteran attorneys who banded together to make it happen. We are deeply grateful to all.

Financial aid to students, and AccessUVa. In late May, the New York Times carried several stories about the shrinking numbers of students from low-income families enrolling in the top-tier universities since about 1990. The last story in the series treated some of our own efforts to remedy this problem. Several factors seem to lie behind the problem. Changes in public funding and in the state's educational emphases have contributed to distinctive differences between regions where family income and parental education levels are high and where local tax dollars support college-prep programs that the state has not emphasized since the late 1980s, and less affluent areas where unemployment is high (Martinsville reported 14% last month), local tax capacity is less, and fewer students take and complete the rigorous AP or IB programs that best prepare them for study here, or at an Ivy League college, or at UNC or Duke.

In addition, the ever-shifting federal commitment to Pell Grants, which are supposed to support the neediest students and in truth fall far short; excessive reliance on loan programs when a blend of grants and loans would make better sense; and in Virginia's case, chronic shortfalls in state appropriations to meet the costs caused by the shift of obligations from taxpayers to tuition payers have made access for the least affluent a complex challenge to which no governmental entity, state or federal, has proposed a coherent solution.

Our Board of Visitors understood this problem long before the Times did, and directed us to develop AccessUVa (http://www.virginia.edu/accessuva/) as a means to reopen access to needy students and to provide incentives to attract students to the tough academic courses early in their high school years and to keep them enrolled until they are ready to come here or to go to some other top-quality college or university. For students whose family incomes fall within 200% of the relevant federal poverty guideline, AccessUVa provides full scholarship support to the level of need determined on the national financial aid application form. The response has been large. Seven-hundred sixty-seven applicants qualified under this part of the program. Some applications are still in process, but the latest numbers show that 293 of these students have met all of the entry requirements and received offers of admission and almost two thirds of these (186) have accepted. This is an increase of about 40% over last year, and a yield rate on offers of admission about 10% higher than for other groups of students.

For middle-income families, AccessUVa offers caps on four-year loan obligations (set at 25% of the cost of four years for an in-state student), with University and other scholarships meeting the full remaining need demonstrated on the federal form. I do not have numbers for this group yet, but I am receiving notes and letters from students and their parents to tell me that they are using this part of the program and that they look forward to opportunities here that they had thought earlier were simply beyond their means.

I am guessing that Mr. Jefferson would approve these initiatives to make his University in our time what he intended it to be—an academical village open to all who meet the academic qualifications to "come and drink of the cup of knowledge . . . with us." The net of both elements of AccessUVa: for the first time in almost a generation, students can begin study with assurance that all of their demonstrated need will be met, and that their indebtedness on graduation will be reasonable and manageable as they move on to their next undertakings.

We applaud the launching of AccessUVa as a visible means to demonstrate the University family's commitment to all of our students as we celebrate the successful maturation of one great program: This is the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Jefferson Scholars program, which has become over its quarter-century history the nation's foremost and best recognized merit scholarships program.

New buildings and restoration projects. We began the year with the opening of the David and Mary Harrison Institute for American Literature, History, and Culture and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Located directly in front of the Alderman Building, these two buildings together complete the design for the western margin of the central Grounds, and in appropriate style.

In the Harrison Institute's major display galleries, students and visitors this year have been able to see artifacts of life on Flowerdew Hundred, one of the oldest continuous settlement sites in North America. Unearthed at Flowerdew are thousands of years of artifacts of the daily lives of Native Americans (dating from 8000 to 3000 B.C.), and African Americans—indentured servants and enslaved workers—and European Americans (dating from the Jamestown settlement ca. 1607 to ca. 1830). Included in the collection are religious objects, children's toys, household goods, personal ornaments, hunting and military gear, and much more as evidence of how and where they lived their lives and built their families. The earlier American Indian and African-American remains are among the most important ever found in this part of the U.S. And in the largest gallery, students and tourists have gathered each day to stand silently before objects as gripping as the charred remains of a cross burnt in 1956 by the Ku Klux Klan in the yard of Sarah Patton Boyle, a civil rights activist married to a University Drama professor, during Charlottesville's school desegregation struggle, and the physical remnants of Jefferson's decision to expand America to the west and the expeditions that carried that purpose forward. Below ground, in the Declaration Gallery of the Small Special Collections Library, the drafts, the personal letters and notes, the mark-up copies and broadsides and newspapers that chronicle the adoption of the Declaration of Independence are accessible in what is by any account the most comprehensive collection of these essential materials. We broke ground in April for the new McIntire School behind and attached to Stanford White's Rouss Hall at the foot of the Lawn. Construction has begun. The new arena, Wilsdorf Hall in Engineering, major expansions of the Hospital's operating suites, the rebuilding of Fayerweather Hall for Art History, and other construction projects are under way; and planning and fund raising for the new concert hall and museum, for the College's South Lawn project, for a new building adjacent to Ruffner Hall, a second building for Nursing, and other projects continue on time and on track.

By year's end, the new studio art building, a major research structure in the Fontaine Research Park, additional projects in the Medical Center including a new medical education building, and new student housing projects will all be under way. And in the fall, the new Observatory Hill dining hall will open. In addition, this year has seen completion of the first phases of the Groundswalk project with the opening of the Goodwin pedestrian bridge over Emmet Street and related new walkways that wind through the Lambeth Field colonnades. We also took the first step toward reopening the Grounds waterways that were built over in the 1930s with completion of the new reflecting pool at the lower end of Bonnycastle Dell. So this is and will be an exciting year for new work on the physical plant.

A changing of the guard in men's basketball. A new face on the Grounds this spring, and also a new presence at many VAF and alumni club events, has been Dave Leitao, an exciting young basketball coach who comes to us from DePaul and UConn. Dave comes following what has been for me and for many others a bittersweet farewell to Pete Gillen, a coach all but unique in the affections of our students and fans. We respect both men, and so we wish Pete nothing but success in his future undertakings even as we welcome Dave and get to know him and his program. Those who watch men's basketball closely have admired Dave's way of taking charge, putting his own stamp on the program, and beginning the business of finding the best possible staff of assistant coaches and others, training players to do their parts under a new coaching system, and forming relationships here in the community and with alumni and others who have backed both women's and men's basketball over the years. As I have traveled this spring, alumni and parents who have met Dave have talked at length about their excitement about opening the new arena in 2006 and the basketball program itself as it moves into a new era.

I am completing this letter just after the largest and arguably the most affirmative Finals weekend in our history, one that wraps up what has been a grand year for the University. The ceremonies occurred on one of those spring weekends that everyone remembers for a lifetime, with the Grounds full of late azaleas and the first of the rhododendrons and every shade of green, and full in another sense of the 25,000 family members and friends who came to join faculty members and our 3,400 recipients of undergraduate degrees and 2,500+ recipients of graduate degrees—the largest graduating class in our history, and one of the very best. Full information, including streaming video of many of the events, is available at http://www.virginia.edu/majorevents/finals.html.

Ron Suskind (College '81) spoke to the fourth-year class on Saturday, and gave them both his own impressions of education as he experienced it and a virtuoso demonstration of the play of a fine mind on the issues that matter most to students in their last weekend on the Grounds as they contemplate what brought them here and what comes next.

Vivian Pinn, a pathologist and Director of the Office of Research on Women's Health of the National Institutes of Medicine (Medicine '67) spoke on Sunday to the entire class. Dr. Pinn has presided over historic changes in the protocols by which medications are developed and tested for treatment of women patients. Her concepts about the medical professions' obligations to develop and provide treatment regimens tightly tailored to patients' needs and informed by detailed analysis of how medications and treatments differentially affect women and men have had powerful and positive impact on the quality of health care for women during the last 15 or so years. In very personal terms, Dr. Pinn talked about integrity in one's work and living one's life by standards far higher than the norm. At the end of her speech, our graduates accorded her one of the rarest of all Finals compliments in the form of an extended standing ovation.

This class of 2005 has been in every respect a landmark class. Within its number is at least one winner of every major scholarship awarded to graduates of American colleges and universities. It includes some 570 international students, as well as a near mirror image of the diverse cross section of humankind who now make up the University. Its members have performed thousands of hours of volunteer work in our immediate area, in Latin America and Africa, and in dozens of countries where needs exist and women and men of conscience work to meet them. We who have taught them, worked with them, enjoyed good times with them, and watched them grow to that maturity that belongs in special ways to young people stepping forward to take their first places in the world of work and in our communities, salute their going as we have their successes here—with affection, respect, from time to time amusement, and optimism for the impact they will have in their time on our Republic and the world.

Finally, a few words to those of you who have come this year to our meetings around the country for alumni and the families of our students, who have come back to the Grounds for visits and reunions and even to share in teaching our students, and also to the alumni, friends, and students' parents who have contributed financially and in other ways to the quality of work and life that prevail here within the University and in the many places around the world where faculty members and students work. I am grateful for your advice and guidance, for your generosity, for your determination to build and sustain excellence in the University in our time. I hesitate to put words in Mr. Jefferson's mouth, but in this case his letters appealing for help at the beginning speak for him. He wanted his university to be the bulwark of the human mind, to be the place where reason is free to combat any error, where each new generation is free to discover what he called "the important truths"—"that knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, and that knowledge is happiness." For whatever measure of success the University may enjoy in pursuing its founder's vision, I am profoundly grateful to each and every one of you.

John T. Casteen III
President