Edgar F. Shannon Jr. (1959-1974)

Although coming from different worlds, Mr. Darden from the world of politics and Mr. Shannon from academe, they both believed, as Mr. Darden put it, “the main thing is the interaction between a first-rate faculty and a top-flight student body, which has marked the university from Jefferson’s day.” As governor, Colgate Darden sought to develop both, as did Edgar Shannon. A professor of English, Rhodes Scholar, and decorated naval officer, Mr. Shannon took office on October 6, 1959, at age forty, moving into Carr’s Hill with his wife, Eleanor, and two young children.

For Virginia, Susan, Lois, Elizabeth, and Eleanor Shannon, Carr’s Hill was home. Photo courtesy of Special Collections.

Eminent scholars, high-achieving students

In his pursuit of academic distinction for the University, Edgar Shannon sought eminent scholars and high-achieving students. With the establishment of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Sciences along with state legislation enacted during Mr. Darden’s governorship, legislation that enabled the establishment of the Eminent Scholars Fund (in which the state would match private donations), Mr. Shannon was able to attract well-known and respected faculty to the University.

This hiring activity, a faculty raise approved by Governor Lindsay Almond Jr., a National Science Foundation grant for $5 million, and a National Institute of Health grant for $2 million that Mr. Shannon funneled into faculty development, significantly raised the profile of the University’s faculty. When Mr. Shannon came into office in 1959, there were thirteen endowed chairs; by the time he stepped down in 1974 the University had nearly one hundred.

Student and faculty recruitment were important to Mr. Shannon, especially given the University’s mission to increase access to public higher education and to increase its research capability. In 1993, Mr. Shannon explained to Lisa Guernsey, a University of Virginia student who was interviewing him as part of an oral history project, “To fulfill our responsibility as the major research university and graduate university in the state we simply had to expand and actually we made a long-range plan and projection. When I started we were 4200. . . . We were up to about 14,500 when I left the presidency. We had a little more than tripled in size.”

Recruiting Students-including women and African Americans

To achieve a larger and academically superior student body, Mr. Shannon created a new office, dean of admissions, and appointed Marvin B. Perry to fill the position. (Mr. Perry recruited John Casteen to come to the University of Virginia as a first-year student.) Mr. Shannon needed an activist approach to student recruitment. He wanted to attract more “first-rate Virginia students,” students who were otherwise going to out-of-state colleges, particularly Ivy League colleges, and to stave off attempts by the legislature to limit drastically by law out-of-state student enrollment.

Meanwhile, the dean of the University, William Duren, put into operation the Echols Scholar program in 1960. The program was intended to attract top students to the University with a program that allowed gifted students more flexibility in their studies with the promise of no required courses. Also, most famously, Mr. Shannon and Mr. Duren implemented full coeducation in 1970, and made robust efforts to recruit African-American students.

Academic Ambitions

As the number of enrolled students increased from 5,000 to 15,000, so did the number of students graduating in four years, from 59.5 percent in June 1959 to 75 percent in June 1963. Students also became more academically ambitious, with 83 percent of those graduating in June of 1964 intending to go to graduate or professional schools, an increase of 18 percent from 1960.

And the honors program continued to thrive, having become important to departmental efforts to bring more rigor to undergraduate study. Honors programs generally consisted of weekly meetings with a student’s faculty tutor, at which they discussed the week’s project and extensive reading. In the second year of the program (their fourth year of college), students would write an honors thesis, a major research project that would yield degrees of honor at graduation: cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude.

Frank Hereford as dean, then provost

Like his predecessors, Edgar Shannon was an astute judge of administrative talent. He appointed Frank Hereford to the position of dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1962, and four years later appointed him provost. Himself a bit of an outsider, as a graduate of Washington and Lee and Harvard, Mr. Shannon recognized the advantage of Mr. Hereford’s close ties to the University by way of his undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics.

Having a long personal University history was a fortunate addition to Frank Hereford’s native gifts, which were apparent in his keen, analytical intelligence, and a talent for making friends. As provost under Mr. Shannon, Mr. Hereford acted as the University’s chief academic officer.

Together with Mr. Hereford, an eminent physicist in his own right, Mr. Shannon built both the sciences at the University and the humanities. The Departments of Physics, Astronomy, English, History, and Medicine became nationally known centers of scholarship and research.

Restructuring the Administration

With this gathering of human talent, the University was becoming a vast hub of knowledge that required a restructuring of its administration. In 1970, Mr. Shannon created five vice presidencies: vice president and provost, vice president for business and finance, vice president for medical affairs, vice president for student affairs, vice president for public affairs, and the following year, vice president for health sciences. Long gone were the days when the chairman of a ten- or twenty-member faculty could see to the business of the University. Also departed were the times when the University president had a hand in all the University’s business.

With 950 faculty members and 11,000 students, the University needed multifaceted administrative instruments to oversee passing along and creating knowledge, appropriating and disbursing money, building infrastructure, and hiring personnel.

Physical Growth

Mr. Shannon was also responsible for continuing the physical growth of the University; new buildings included Gilmer Hall, Wilson Hall, Campbell Hall, Jordan Hall, McLeod Hall, Fiske Kimball Library, University Hall, a new Law School, and the Alderman Road dormitories. Additions were made to Alderman Library, Garrett Hall, Mary Munford dormitory, and to Newcomb Hall. Money was also committed to the restoration of the Rotunda to its original Jeffersonian design.

Political Activism

In addition to the growth of the academic enterprise, Mr. Shannon had to manage a growth in political activism at the University. Unlike other universities in the late sixties and early seventies, the University of Virginia was rarely afflicted by student or police violence. Mr. Shannon believed the relative quiet of political protest in Charlottesville resulted from the greater autonomy and self-governance University students were accorded, compared to students at other universities around the country.

To ensure communication of mutual values, he had monthly meetings with the editors of the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, and consulted with University scholars on student rights and responsibilities. Not a few students came to see that the University of Virginia already possessed what those in other places were demonstrating for - autonomy, self-rule, and a say in the University’s operations.

Kent State

Still, students did demonstrate a couple of times at Carr’s Hill. After members of the Ohio National Guard killed four students during antiwar demonstrations at Kent State in May of 1970, students at Princeton called for a strike at all American universities. University students occupied the Naval ROTC building and demonstrated on the steps of the Rotunda. They demanded that ROTC be removed from the Grounds and that African-American students make up 20 percent of the student body.

During a rally in University Hall, the national antiwar figures William Kunstler and Jerry Rubin urged students to shut down the University and exhorted the crowd to storm Carr’s Hill. In response, a number of law students raced out of U-Hall ahead of the crowd and formed a human ring around Carr’s Hill to hold off the protestors until the police could arrive.

Speech on Rotunda Steps

On May 10, President Shannon addressed students from the Rotunda steps. He noted that the University was the only one on the East Coast to remain open, and that he intended it to stay open. He told students that he was proud of them: “All of our students are deeply concerned about the war, some to the point where in an agony of conscience they want to act, not to study.” He condemned the “anti-intellectualism and growing militarism in the national government.”

He condemned the Nixon administration’s decision to invade Cambodia. And then he urged Virginia senators Spong and Byrd to act with fellow members of the Senate “in reasserting the authority of the Senate over the foreign policy of the United States and the use of armed forces in its support.” Soon after this speech, at graduation, Mr. Shannon received a standing ovation from students, faculty, parents, and alumni.

With five children, the Shannon family needed play equipment near the president’s house. In 1965, they placed a swing set near the old dormitory building, then servant’s quarters. Photo courtesy of Eleanor Shannon.

Life at Carr’s Hill

For the Shannons, life at Carr’s Hill was usually not quite so exciting, but neither was it ever completely quiet. In a house with five children, there is always some kind of excitement. In March of 1960, the president’s family, consisting of Edgar and Eleanor Shannon and their first two daughters, three-year-old Eleanor and fifteen-month-old Elizabeth (Bess), moved into the president’s residence.

The house had been unoccupied since Colgate and Constance Darden moved out seven months earlier. During the months it lay empty, Carr’s Hill received its first major renovation, new plumbing, a new kitchen, and redecorating that Mrs. Shannon designed with the help of Frederick Nichols, then associate professor of architecture.

Shannon in Retirement

In the years following Mr. Shannon’s retirement from the presidency, he rejoined the English Department and, with his colleague Cecil Lang, edited the three-volume collection The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, a work that won wide acclaim in the scholarly community. In 1990, the Shannons established the Foundation for Excellence in Public Education for the Charlottesville/Albemarle region. Renamed the Edgar and Eleanor Shannon Foundation in 1997, the foundation raises and distributes money to teachers for the advancement of education. After Mr. Shannon’s death on August 24, 1997, President John Casteen wrote, “Edgar Shannon became to those of us who followed in his office the kindest and most thoughtful of friends. He saw scholarship as essential to the life of a democracy, and citizenship as a thing to cherish. He contributed in ways great and small to the values that endure in this community.”

UVA Presidents