Skip to Content

John T. Casteen III's Inauguration Speech

October 6, 1990


I accept the presidency of this University, Mr. Rector, with humility and pride, sustained by the counsel of the Board of Visitors, my faculty colleagues, the sons and daughters of the University, and good citizens everywhere. I undertake this task with hope and courage, and I vow to respect the University's ancient spirit, to maintain its noble ideals, and to serve gladly with whatever strength I have. All this I shall seek to do, and with God's help I will.

Governor Wilder, Senator Robb, Mr. Rector, Visitors of the University, faculty colleagues, students, ladies and gentlemen: the Rector began his remarks a moment ago with a reference to the laying of the cornerstone of Pavilion VII, the University's first building. At that place, a placard reads:

On 6 October 1817, in the presence of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and many another distinguished citizen, was laid the cornerstone of this pavilion, the first to be erected of the group that was later to give visible form to Jefferson's architectural plan for the University of Virginia.

So began the physical history of the institution we celebrate today for its value, vitality, and continuity. Yet the University's real origins existed a generation before the construction in Jefferson's vision for public education in a democratic republic. He regarded education, especially as it was be pursued in this place, as the salvation of a free people. It is this vision, and its meaning in our time, that I want to address today.

No other university has such a relationship with its founder as this one has with Thomas Jefferson. By his own account, Jefferson was the father of the University of Virginia. He conceived the University when there was no similar institution, wrote the curriculum, convened the faculty, devised standards for admission of students and rules for student behavior, and wrote statements of purpose and mission that endure to this day. Moreover, he acquired the land, raised the money, and designed and supervised the construction of the original buildings that remain even now the intellectual and spiritual core of the community.

One begins to understand the University of Virginia only after beginning to understand its founder. His ideas, aspirations, dedication to the public good, and confidence in the people live here as surely as do the bricks and mortar, the lawns and gardens, that he created to elevate the tastes and refine the spirit of a newly formed republic.

Of all his qualities, Jefferson's commitment to the people lies closest to the core of this place. A phrase attributed to President Edwin Alderman in the 1920s captures the essence of this commitment. The University was in Alderman's view, a training ground for all the people, with the people understood in a sense of we the people, the shapers and shareholders of the republic itself.

This commitment matters to us and to American universities in general, for all have inherited elements of Jefferson's vision of education for a free people. Our most profound obligation must be to the people-- the public whose future we exist to enlighten and enrich.

Education at the University upholds principles that remain as radical and as essential to human freedom today as they were two centuries ago.

The principle that a great university pursues useful knowledge, the learning that liberates women and men by making them self-sufficient. From the beginning, the University has embraced learning in the broadest sense.

The principle that members of this academic community respect the work of their peers in all disciplines. The humanities, as well as scientific, medical, professional, and creative enterprises, belong here by virtue of their value to a free people. Intellectual ferment, indeed controversy, is essential to this culture.

The principle that those are governed best who govern themselves. Faculty and student self-government are essential to the strength of this community. Self-government protects free inquiry, unfettered discourse, and individual liberty. The Honor System, the Judiciary System, and the collegiality by which the University's faculties and deans govern the academic life reflect much more than our local culture.

The principle that excellence in the Commonwealth and the nation derives from excellence in education. To tolerate mediocrity within the University whether in our support of faculty work or in our expectation of students is to jeopardize our future and deny the essential premise on which the University is based.

Jefferson wanted the University to respond to the needs of living generations. He understood that the full realization of many of his ideals lay beyond his time. He argued against provincialism, against traditionalism as an end in itself. As a consequence, we are free, even compelled, to confront new areas of knowledge, to study and reflect human, cultural and conceptual diversity. In this spirit, we affirm that Black, Asian-American, Hispanic and other minority faculty and students ennoble this place as they fulfill and extend the vision of its founder.

In the latter half of this century, paralleling the University increased diversity and influence, major new resources have become available. Public and private sponsors, including corporations, alumni, support landmark programs in many disciplines.

We have the additional advantage that Virginia's provision for public higher education has set a remarkable standard for the nation. In a decade of determined work to build quality, critical resources have been provided by our governors, our legislators, our Council of Higher Education, and the boards of visitors of Virginia's public colleges, even in the leanest of economies. We have created marvelous new capacities for research in nuclear physics and information science, for collaborations with business and cooperation among our universities, for strength in the basic sciences that support medicine. At the same time, the Commonwealth has diminished central controls that might stifle educational creativity and developed incentives and accountability to drive the individual colleges and universities to excel in achieving their disparate missions.

Political historians use the term destiny politics to describe the dynamics of a time in which persons or institutions can shape history itself if they choose boldly and well how to act. Ours is such a time. That we are now at the threshold of greatness ought not to satisfy us. To shape a destiny is to step beyond being very good and to do what has not been done before.

Let our goal be a logical extension of our origins and history: that the University of Virginia become in our time preeminent among public universities and second in teaching and research to no university, public or private. This means nothing more than the University will be what it was established to be.

The plans we make to achieve this goal are at once simple and supremely ambitious. We will sustain excellence in each of the university's disciplines. We will cultivate and support distinguished faculty who contribute new and useful knowledge to the Commonwealth and nation. We will enroll students capable of meeting the most rigorous academic and ethical demands. We will set a lasting standard for the productivity of a great university.

To carry out plans, we must discipline ourselves to choose our direction wisely and then act boldly, We must direct the University's resources to its dual mission of teaching and research. We must make fairness, inclusivity, the quest for excellence, and an active commitment to the University's function as the republic's great equalizer the hallmarks of our common life.

The University chief academic officers are already developing a comprehensive academic master plan for this decade and beyond. When endorsed by the Board of Visitors next year, this plan will become our statement of large institutional purposes and will establish the contexts within which all other plans will be developed.

The academic master plan will define our purposes with regard to new technologies, particularly with regard to information processing as it supports learning, research, and the larger intellectual life of the culture it supports learning, research, and the larger intellectual life of the culture that we serve. With history as a guide, the master plan will confirm our commitment to teaching, to the direct interaction between professor and student.

New explorations do not require us to abandon the traditional core of the curriculum. Nor do they imply that we must choose to celebrate one tradition over another. Rather, they attest to maturity within the academy, to the intellectual honesty, the rigor that drives us to analyze and understand, and to a dogged determination to dedicate the University in our time to the largest interests of the people.

Very personal and tangible motives bind me to this community and compel me to seek your support in building a future worthy of our past. For some eighty-six years, we have been led by superb presidents: Edwin Alderman, who conceived the modern concept of the University; John Newcomb, who developed its strengths and began its research endeavors; Colgate Darden, who established the public interest as the University's primary concern in our century; Edgar Shannon, who cultivated the quality of the faculty; Frank Hereford, who broadened and deepened the University's sources of support; Robert O'Neil, my predecessor and friend, who displayed unwavering reference for consensus-building within the academic process. I join their ranks with a sense of gratitude to the two Rectors involved in my selection, and to the Board of Visitors. I approach this mission with a sense of awe and a profound awareness of my dependence on you.

I came here as a first-year student from Portsmouth some twenty-nine years ago. My public high school teachers, and perhaps above all, my principal, J.J. Booker, Jr. determined that I should study here because they believed in the University's standards and promise for the future.

The individuals who taught me here believed that personal integrity, accountability to the community, excellence in learning and public service and intellectual sympathy for all people, regardless of personal wealth, privilege, race, gender, or place of origin, were essential characteristics of this community of scholars.

I learned the nature and values of the academic life by studying under and observing a wonderful wealth of human talent within the University. John Graham, Irby Cauthen, Thaddeus Braxton Woody, Robert Kellogg, Don and Joan Fry, Douglas Day, Martin Battestin, Lester Beaurline, Robert Langbaum, Arthur Kirsch, Fredson Bowers, Dumas Malone, William Faulkner, John Wyllie, Anne Freudenberg, B.F.D. Runk, and in different contexts, Frank Hereford and David Shannon and Edwin Floyd and Ernest Ern and other colleagues--teachers, friends, and mentors without peers -- taught me by their words and deeds what generations of Virginia faculty have taught to many thousands of women and men who have come here to drink the cup of knowledge. They defined for me, as their predecessors have since the first seven professors and forty students walk this Lawn in 1825, the nature of the University and the universe, the nature of our common commitments, and the joys of the life of the mind.

The attachments that bind us to the University of Virginia are both physical and spiritual. We live in the shadow of a mind that was determined to find light in darkness, that turned what might have been the most violent and destructive of times to concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have the rare privilege to live in this academical village that is dedicated to the illimitable freedoms of the human mind, to free and open discourse, to the pursuit of truth no matter where it may lead.

The privilege carries great responsibilities: to build on that first cornerstone, to seek the strength and the will to be this nation's premier public university, and to define for our time and for the future the central thesis of this place since the days of the Founder: excellence in pursuit of the public good.

John T. Casteen III

October 6, 1990