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Gift will support Astronomy and new Center on Religion and Democracy

California Couple Gives $20 Million To College Of Arts & Sciences

December 6, 2000 -- Frank and Wynnette Levinson of Palo Alto, Calif., have committed $20 million to the University of Virginia to be divided evenly between the department of astronomy and a new interdisciplinary center that will study religion and democracy.

Levinson, a scientist-turned-engineer and businessman who received his doctorate in astronomy from U.Va. in 1980, believes the astronomy department at U.Va. has the potential to become one of the outstanding research departments in the U.S. in this field. He therefore wants to help the University meet this opportunity and to work with the department and administration to develop a strategic plan.

As a couple, the Levinsons have long been interested in how both technology and religion can transform societies. Their support of the Center for Religion and Democracy will enable U.Va. to examine how religion affects the formation of democratic ideals, institutions and practices, and to publicize its findings beyond the University.

"Frank and Wynnette’s gift will allow us to expand our existing strength in astronomy, and will significantly enhance our ability to contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge in this field," said Melvyn P. Leffler, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. "Their gift will also enable us to create a new academic center that will explore the relationship between religion and democracy and help us understand the reciprocal roles they play in civil society."

The Levinsons’ choice to direct their philanthropy to such distinctly different initiatives is unusual among University donors, but emblematic of the Levinsons’ wide-ranging interests.

"Frank and I are deeply committed to examining issues surrounding religion, science and technology," Wynnette Levinson said.

Leffler says the Levinsons rank among a new generation of philanthropists who are helping to shape the strategic objectives of the programs they support. During the months prior to the announcement, the Levinsons worked extensively with University leaders to ensure that their gift would help U.Va. fund academic research, acquire vital equipment, hire professors, pay graduate student researchers, and publicize their research findings beyond the University.

The $10 million in operating funds for astronomy, for example, will support new faculty in both research and teaching, postdoctoral and student research positions, outreach and education programs, and programmatic and instrumentation priorities, and will enable the University to become involved in a major new telescope research consortium.

The $10 million to launch the Center for Religion and Democracy includes a mixture of operating and endowment funds to help start its research and outreach programs; to endow a professorship and other positions; and to give long-term support to its programs and public outreach initiatives.

"The Levinsons’ creativity in structuring their gift sets a new standard of commitment from those who have received their advanced degrees from the University," said University President John T. Casteen III. "Their thoughtful analysis of present and future needs ties in closely with important work already begun by Virginia 2020, the University’s long-term planning initiative. We are grateful for this generous gift."

Levinson received his master’s degree in astronomy from U.Va. in 1978 and his doctorate in 1980. An active member of the University community, he was the first astronomy student to be elected president of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Wynnette Levinson worked in the archives at Alderman Library during their years in Charlottesville. Today Levinson is chairman and chief technical officer of Finisar Corporation, a fiber optic communication systems company that he founded in 1988.

The multifaceted gift is one of the top five in University history and the largest ever from a former graduate student.


The Department of Astronomy will use its $10 million gift for two main purposes–to join a partnership in a large optical telescope project, and to create a leading team of telescope instrumentation designers. The department will need to raise an additional $6-8 million to meet all of its goals.

"We have ambitious goals for our department, and this generous gift is the cornerstone of our future as a leading astronomy department," says Robert T. Rood, chair of the department, which presently is ranked among the top 20 astronomy programs in the nation.

"Much of our reputation is due to a very strong group of theoretical astrophysicists," Rood says. "However, our observers are at a disadvantage compared to those at more highly ranked institutions where most have guaranteed access to state-of-the-art telescopes, which increasingly are available only to closed groups. We only have guaranteed access to our small local telescopes, and otherwise must compete for time on national facilities."

Rood explains that most large telescope projects cost $100 million or more, and are therefore built and operated by large research consortiums made up mostly of universities. Each participating institution in a group is allocated research time on the telescope and each contributes to the research and instrumentation development efforts.

"Joining as a research partner with other institutions on a major eight-meter or larger optical telescope project is a paramount objective," Rood says. "We can no longer get by with chancy allocations of publicly available observing time. We need to join in as a shareholder in a major project in order to secure the guaranteed research access needed to further improve our status as a department. This will help us attract high quality graduate and undergraduate students as well as additional top faculty."

Rood’s department also will form an instrumentation group to develop state-of-the-art light detectors for use on optical telescopes. The department will hire a faculty instrumentalist, project manager and engineer, and add positions for postdoctoral fellows. The department also plans to improve existing programs, add laboratory facilities, create new courses, and invite distinguished visitors. The gift also has funded a new faculty position directed toward education and public outreach activities.

Center for Religion and Democracy

The Center for Religion and Democracy will be a non-partisan research center exploring the complex relationship between religion and democratic society. Undergraduates, graduate students and faculty from numerous disciplines will examine the dynamic role religion plays in the formation of democratic ideals, institutions and practices.

"As Thomas Jefferson observed, democracy must be renewed in every generation and within the circumstances in which each new generation finds itself. It is essential for our generation to come to terms with the changing realities that both sustain democratic life and threaten to destabilize it," said James Davison Hunter, the William R. Kenan Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and chair of the sociology department.

Politics alone cannot provide what democratic vitality requires, Hunter said. "Democratic vitality depends upon its ability to sustain coherent and binding moral understandings–a common vision for a common good."

The center’s researchers will explore how such common ideals are generated through two-year cycles of study organized in themes. The first research cycle, spanning 2002-2004, will explore religion, pluralism and public discourse. The second cycle will examine religion and American public philosophy, and a third cycle will probe religion and moral and civic education.

At the start of each cycle, the center will sponsor a national public opinion survey focused on the research theme. To facilitate the research the center will offer four residential and non-residential post-doctoral fellowships in a variety of disciplines including sociology, history, political science, philosophy, religious studies and law. The center will also award six doctoral fellowships annually. Five U.Va. faculty will serve as fellows during each research cycle and will teach courses that explore democratic practice and the role of religion in civic life.

To share their work and to gain feedback, the center will hold semi-annual conferences for the fellows; sponsor an annual fall lecture that brings a distinguished scholar to U.Va.; and, at the end of each cycle, host an academic conference likely to attract leading scholars as well as civic and religious leaders.

The center also will disseminate its findings to the public through journal articles and essays, newsletters, a web site and the media. "The center has great potential for galvanizing interdisciplinary interest across Grounds and for serving the broader public good," Hunter said.

Campaign for the University of Virginia

The Campaign for the University of Virginia was launched on Oct. 6, 1995, with an initial goal of $750 million. In February of 1998, the goal was increased to $1 billion and extended to the end of 2000. Gifts and pledges now total more than $1.25 billion.

Contact: Carol Wood, (804) 924-6189 or Ken Kipps, (804) 243-8960

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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