Navigation Bar

Diversity Line
Envision Summary Documents
Line Spacer
Architecture School
Arts & Sciences Session I
Continuiing & Professional Studies
Curry School
Darden School
Engineering School
Law School
Medical School
Nursing School
Line Spacer
Miller Center
Student Experience

Envision Links:
Charge to Envision
Envision Matrix
Common Themes
Challenges Confronting the Schools
Suggested Approaches to Major Challenges
Transformational Ideas
Development Office

Academic Faculty
May 3, 2002

A 177-year-old institution that was virtually all-white and all-male for 145 of those years, the University of Virginia has a past to overcome. And despite considerable progress over the past three decades, especially in the enrollment of women and minority students, its present remains far from perfect.* The faculty, administrators, students, and alumni who took part in the Envision session looked at the current environment for diversity at U.Va. and what the future could hold, if the right steps are taken.

Among the barriers to progress is the lingering perception that the University will always be a conservative, "old boy" institution, in a homogeneous Southern city. There are also more tangible barriers, such as insufficient career and social opportunities for minority professionals in the Charlottesville area, which makes U.Va. less attractive for minority faculty with accompanying spouses, as well as single minority faculty who seek a rich and diverse social environment.

Among the participants, perceptions of the University varied. Some view it as the ideal of democracy, a place that promotes free interchange between faculty and students, in contrast to a hierarchical society. Others view it as hidebound and resistant to innovation and see its persistent use of white columns and red brick in its architecture as adhering to an old order.

Some participants praised the sense of community at the University and the autonomy and institutional ownership accorded to students. Others consider the University too comfortable with itself, which keeps it from mustering up the energy and resources necessary to address the lack of diversity in its schools and departments. With its strong sense of tradition, the University is seen as hostile to individuality and nonconformity. It pressures people – students and faculty – to fit in. In the same vein, students were characterized as largely conservative and "disappointingly passive about political issues."

The figure of Jefferson is a double-edged sword for the University, participants pointed out. The University’s continued use of Jefferson in its iconography and national branding can be off-putting to people of color. To many African Americans, the image of Jefferson is that of a Southern slaveholder, not an enlightened Founding Father. Thus, the University’s Jeffersonian heritage can be perceived as one of staid traditionalism rather than openness and innovation. It gives the impression that the University is resistant to change, which makes it uninviting to women and minorities.

"There’s a feeling that you can’t do anything here without checking with Thomas Jefferson," one participant said. Another pointed out that the University is "continually harkening back to a moment in time" rather than letting its culture live on in fresh ways. Its sense of history is powerful, but it also can be an albatross.

As for the Honor System, which is at once an exemplar of the tradition of student self-governance and a lightning rod for critics of the University’s culture, participants stressed that the notion of honor at U.Va. must go beyond issues of misconduct. It also must embrace the way we honor each other as individuals. When every student pledges to adhere to the Honor System, they should also avow a responsibility to, and respect for, others in the community.

Although they may be politically conservative, students today want their community to be diverse—geographically, ethnically, and culturally, it was noted. They come to the University with the desire to study with a cross-section of the American population, as well as young women and men from abroad. Increasing and sustaining diversity is seen as critically important to student recruitment.

Participants who have been on the University scene for some time acknowledged that its culture has changed in substantial ways over the past twenty years. Some consider the University a much more inclusive place, where all groups are expected to be represented in employment, in the student body, and in other aspects of University life.

Participants who were newer to the University community reported that outside perception has not caught up with these changes. The University still is seen by many as a bastion of Southern conservatism and as being unfriendly to women and minorities. When women faculty told colleagues they were coming to the University of Virginia, they were warned that they would never get tenure. It takes a long time to outlive your reputation, one participant said. The word on the academic street is that the University remains less than welcoming to diversity.

Others say the reputation is still deserved because change has not happened fast enough. In their view, we have changed our rhetoric, but we have not devoted the necessary resources to achieving diversity. "We need to put our money where our mouth is," one participant averred. Numerous times it was pointed out that the University has made inadequate efforts to recruit and retain women and minority faculty. Indeed, there are now fewer than fifty tenure-track black faculty at U.Va. In one thirty-five-member department, there are only five women, and only one in a tenured position. This situation perpetuates itself because women and minorities look at such numbers and assume that this is not a place where their careers will thrive.

Minority graduate students come to similar conclusions when they consider coming to the University. They look at U.Va. and Charlottesville, and they perceive that they will have to endure several years of social isolation while they work toward their advanced degrees. Due to the lack of diversity in the University and in the Charlottesville area, "it’s hard to establish a life and a family in this community," said one participant.

Because the number of minority faculty and graduate students is so low, it is vital to involve black faculty in the recruiting process. One participant noted from personal experience that this tipped the balance when she was considering a faculty position at the University.

Those who have come to the University from larger urban areas are especially discouraged by the homogeneity of the U.Va. environment. And in the surrounding community, they find that restaurants and other businesses are not as welcoming to minorities as they are in cities such as New York and Atlanta.

But we can’t throw up our hands, one participant stated. Special efforts have to be implemented to increase diversity and to make the University community more aware of the value of bringing together students and faculty from a wide range of cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Diversity contributes to the University’s ability to generate and disseminate knowledge; resistance to changing the complexion of the community actually gets in the way of staying on the cutting edge in teaching and scholarship here.

Scholars of diverse backgrounds bring diverse values and perspectives to the University and different ways of seeing the world, participants emphasized. In the health sciences, for example, there are issues of tremendous importance to minorities, but to a large extent they are not dealt with at the University. A diverse faculty is needed to push scholarship in new directions. Stanford was held up as a model of a multicultural milieu in which diversity adds to the institution’s intellectual vibrancy.

For the same reason, diversity at the University must also extend to international students, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. To attract the best scientists and scholars, in this country and abroad, the University must create an environment that is comfortable for international researchers. Establishing such an environment was one of the principal goals of the Virginia 2020 planning process. As one participant from overseas observed, having international students and faculty on Grounds pushes all of us to look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes and to ask new questions – the essential purposes of academic research.

Ethnic and cultural diversity also contributes to the University’s ability to build stronger connections with the community in its public service and outreach – another Virginia 2020 goal. For example, it brings comfort to African-American patients to see black physicians on the medical staff.

It was also noted that the lack of diversity in the faculty puts enormous pressure on the minority professors who are here. They are continually sought out as mentors and role models by students, making it difficult to devote adequate time and attention to their scholarship. Increasing the number of minority faculty will help ease this burden.

One problem cited with past attempts to achieve diversity is that initiatives have been top-down, which means that the administration controls the agenda. In the University’s decentralized environment, in which schools and departments function semi-autonomously, such approaches have had limited success. Studies are conducted, thick documents are generated, but not much changes. There needs to be a grassroots movement to make the University more welcoming to women and minorities, with the push coming from among the students and faculty. For faculty, it was suggested that the logical place to start such a movement would be the Faculty Senate, which over the past five years has emerged as a significant force in shaping academic life at the University.

Nevertheless, some top-down initiatives are now in place and promise to have an effect. The new vice president for research and graduate studies is committed to increasing diversity among graduate students, which in turn will create diversity among the nationwide pool of faculty. Also, the University’s deans are now being evaluated, in part, on their ability to increase diversity.

It was also noted that achieving diversity is resource-driven, and funds earmarked for this purpose have not increased significantly in recent years. To attract minority students, schools must have scholarships. To attract minority faculty, they must be able to compete vigorously with peer institutions, offering attractive compensation packages and employment opportunities for accompanying spouses – especially in a city with so little diversity in its professional community. If students and faculty can recognize the benefits of diversity (one of the questions raised was why efforts to achieve diversity continually require justification), the University has the capability to reshape itself. The University’s transformation into a more powerful research institution was cited as an example of how U.Va. has remade itself in the recent past.

Participants were asked to describe the outcomes they would like to see by suggesting hypothetical headlines for future news coverage of the University. Among those offered:

Bullet $10 million Fund Created to Attract Minority Faculty
Bullet U.Va. Receives $6 million Gift for Multicultural Center
(Current minority faculty could help the University identify and cultivate relationships with donors who would support such diversity initiatives.)
Bullet Percentage of Women and Minorities on the Faculty Matches the Student Body
Bullet University Launches New Effort to Retain Students of Color
Bullet A Diversity Committee Is Empowered to Enforce Increased Diversity in the Schools.
(Schools would be required to submit diversity plans, and their results would be monitored. There has to be accountability to achieve diversity goals, the Envision participants emphasized. Leaving it to altruism doesn’t work.)
Bullet Migrant Farm Worker Appointed to the Board of Visitors
Bullet University Successfully Defends Itself in Reverse Discrimination Suit
Bullet Women Feel Safe on Grounds at U.Va.
Bullet More Women and Minorities Achieve Leadership Positions
Bullet Dr. X, a Black Female, Is Appointed President of the University
Bullet U.Va. Achieves Breakthrough in Reducing Disparities in Health Care
Bullet University Triples Number of Minority Graduate Students
(Increasing the number of minority graduate students will in turn help to increase the number of minorities entering academic careers, and thus the pool of minority faculty.)
Bullet Virginia General Assembly Increases Funding for Diversity Initiatives
Bullet Institutions Create Statewide Network for Hiring Faculty Spouses
Bullet Cutting-Edge Architecture Reinvigorates the Idea of Contemporary Democracy at U.Va.
Bullet U.Va. Programs and Departments Integrate Diversity Into Their Curricula
Bullet U.Va. Lauded for Paying all Employees a Living Wage

Other recommendations include the creation of more residential colleges and theme houses to promote diversity in student culture and to serve as a counterweight to traditional fraternities and sororities. Participants also discussed whether other policies should be implemented to foster diversity in student housing. Through self-selection, minority students tend to be concentrated in certain residence halls, and students geared toward sororities and fraternities gravitate toward the "old dorms" in their first year. Random housing assignments would remedy this situation. However, some students questioned the wisdom of such a change. Minority students appreciate living among peers who share the same academic goals and around whom they can feel relaxed.

As for faculty recruitment, participants voiced concern over using loan lines for such purposes. These positions should be funded with permanent investments, allowing the University to recruit faculty who can effect change. Also, one of the things that makes faculty recruitment more difficult is that many schools are "right on the edge" in covering their class sections in core areas. That forces schools to recruit faculty in mainstream disciplines; minority candidates may not always fit this mold.

To further the recruitment of minority students, the University should do more to encourage students of color to begin thinking about college as soon as they enter high school. As early as possible, they need to start taking academic courses that will help prepare them for institutions like U.Va. that have rigorous admission standards. Such an initiative could fall under the heading of the University’s Virginia 2020 public service and outreach efforts.

Participants suggested that one way to approach the issue of diversity is to redefine the ideal of the Lawn – a community of learners among whom there is free and continual interaction – and to broaden the concept of the Academical Village to reshape the University’s physical and intellectual development. The University would not reflect society but would provide a model of caring and consideration that society should follow.

*According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the University ranks ninth among the nation’s top-ranked institutions in attracting, enrolling, and graduating African-American students as well as their progress in bringing black professors to their campuses. The University’s ranking by the journal is described as follows: For five years in a row, the University of Virginia has enrolled the highest percentage of incoming black freshmen of any of the nation's highest-ranked universities. But in recent years black freshman students and overall black enrollments have dropped significantly. As a state-chartered university, Virginia, in common with the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is particularly vulnerable to legal challenges of its affirmative action policies. For this reason the university may have backed off from the aggressive race-sensitive admissions policies it once pursued. While the university maintains a high rate of black student enrollments, it was rated near the bottom in two categories: five-year progress in increasing overall black enrollments and five-year progress in black freshman enrollments. The overall percentage of black faculty at UVA also dropped over the past five years.



E-mail comments to: (Web Communications Office)
Last Modified: Thursday, 16-Feb-2006 08:37:48 EST
Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia


Provost Home U.Va. Home Page