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President's Letter In the University of Virginia Magazine: 'Meeting the Challenge'

Winter 2006

On September 29, in a public session held in the Old Cabell Hall auditorium before some 500 students, faculty members, alumni, and volunteer backers of the University, the Board of Visitors officially launched the Campaign for the University of Virginia—our $3-billion undertaking to assure future financing for academic and other improvements in the University and its programs. A day marked by both contemplation and celebration ended with thousands of alumni, students, and others gathered on the Lawn to watch fireworks over the Rotunda and to hear the Marching Band play Sousa marches, bits of the 1812 Overture, and other samples of what people who were there called (perhaps with apologies to Handel) "Fireworks Music." This public launch came at the end of a two-year silent phase in which more than $1 billion toward the $3-billion goal has been raised.

This campaign has many purposes. Traveling for the last couple of years and listening to alumni and the parents of our students across the country and to faculty members and students here, I have come to understand that this is an enterprise to fulfill a dream—one formed in Jefferson's mind and then re-formed in the hearts and minds of the generations of women and men who have come here to gain the knowledge and competencies on which they build their later lives, and to adopt for themselves timeless values of honor and respect for human dignity.

This campaign comes at an historic moment in the University's evolution. Since 1990, state funding for Virginia's public colleges has imploded. Support from the state, once in the range of 28 percent to 30 percent of the operating budget, now amounts to 7 percent to 8 percent. We dealt successfully with much of this damage during the last campaign. More recently, after several years of experimenting with partial deregulation of University functions that the state no longer supports, the General Assembly passed two major deregulation acts that amount now to the first operating charter and statutory recognition of the University's corporate status since the state adopted the Dillon Rule in the late 1950s.

These new laws, and especially the elaboration passed last winter by overwhelming majorities of both parties in both houses, define a new model for financing and operating public universities. Together, they return to the Board of Visitors authority to plan and manage a University capable in our time and in the future of fulfilling its public responsibilities and establishing durable national and international prominence on a base of self-sufficiency.

That this legislation passed at all says much about the pragmatism and aspirations of the many persons who worked for it—two governors, legislators of all persuasions, cabinet officers, alumni, and others. That it passed in each of two years, and by massive margins, says even more about the power of Virginia's thirst for durable excellence in its public assets.

And so we move into a new kind of autonomy, albeit one embodied in words first put into the Code of Virginia in 1819. As Mr. Jefferson did, we have learned to rely on education's friends, on our alumni, and on our own capacity to manage assets to sustain the University and build strength for the future. Private philanthropy gave this University its beginning. When after repeated refusals the General Assembly finally passed the bill establishing the first genuinely public comprehensive university, it provided altogether $15,000 in funding. Jefferson raised $40,000 from his friends. Private giving has nourished the University in more recent (but similarly tough) times. Philanthropy—your gifts and mine—will make the difference for the future.

So far, this new campaign has received an uncommonly large number of gifts, both small and large, from alumni and friends around the country. Gifts of all sizes matter, and the opportunities cover a broad range of undertakings important to our common future. Cancer research, the performing arts, scholarship and fellowship support for students, science and technology, programs to promote excellence in K-12 education, historic preservation, athletics—this campaign presents opportunities to invest in all of these areas, and in many others as well.

We have launched this Campaign for the University of Virginia in a spirit of celebration. After 16 years of dwindling state support, Mr. Jefferson's University is not only here, it is thriving. Demand for its most fundamental services—discovering and teaching useful knowledge—has grown in these leaner years to a crescendo. A new recognition in our time that Mr. Jefferson knew what he was talking about when he characterized safety, happiness, and power as education's natural outcomes lies behind both the unprecedented demand for admission into all of our schools and the unpredicted pace at which Bob Sweeney and his colleagues have reached the one-third mark in a campaign that is only now emerging in its public phase.

Alumni and other benefactors, many of them the parents of our students and recent graduates, have stepped up to the challenge that this campaign spells out. Self-sufficiency turns out for our University not to be a condition to be feared and resisted. It turns out rather to present the freedom to do and to be what we were told to do and be in the beginning. The hand that wrote the truths that we hold to be self-evident with regard to the human condition and our national character also challenged this place to be the bulwark of the human mind in this hemisphere, to be sufficiently excellent in its work to attract "the youth of other states to come and drink the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us," and above all to secure "the illimitable freedom of the human mind." Those are serious challenges. This campaign is about meeting them in the brave new world to whose potentials our nation and perhaps especially its young people are now awaking. Useful knowledge has never been so useful as it is now. It can only become more useful yet in the future.

John T. Casteen III, President
University of Virginia