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Prepared Remarks for the State of the University: ‘Something Very Great and Very New’

September 12, 2016

Good morning. I hope all of you are getting off to a good start at the beginning of the academic year. The start of a new year is an appropriate time for us to pause briefly to take stock of our University, and to look to the future that we face together.

The future looks especially bright right now, because we’re approaching a momentous period in our University’s history, one that will draw together every member of our community — those of us here in Charlottesville, and others across the nation and around the world.

Just 13 months from now, in October 2017, we will launch the University’s bicentennial commemoration. The first events will take place on October 6th to mark the 200th anniversary of the laying of the University’s cornerstone at Pavilion VII. 

Events will continue through the anniversary of the University’s charter in January 2019, and culminate in May 2019 with the graduation of students who will become the first alumni of UVA’s third century.

Next month, we will launch the Bicentennial Commission that will provide oversight for the commemoration. The co-chairs are Dr. Bobby Battle and Tom Farrell. Bobby is a UVA alumnus, parent, School of Medicine faculty member, and UVA Health System doctor.  Tom is a UVA alumnus, parent, and former Rector.

The Commission will develop plans for the bicentennial, including academic activities, exhibits in our museums, special publications, and social events. To bring a broad range of perspectives to the planning work, the Commission will seek advice from UVA stakeholders including the Board of Visitors, deans, faculty, students, alumni, and parents.

Faculty, staff, and students will be heavily involved, both in planning the celebration and participating in events. Faculty Senate Chair Mimi Riley will be part of a steering committee that will guide the work of the Commission. Faculty members will be involved in advisory groups focused on three areas: commemorating our history, envisioning the future, and promoting the celebration itself.

The bicentennial is coinciding with a significant increase in the University’s international activities, and this will allow us to make the bicentennial a truly global experience. Major events will take place in Charlottesville, but the celebration’s reach will extend to all of the UVA Clubs across the U.S. and the 19 Clubs in foreign countries.

With the bicentennial fast approaching, we’ve just completed the renovation of the Rotunda. This is no coincidence: From the beginning we saw the Rotunda renovation as an essential step in preparing the University for its moment in the spotlight.

With the reopening this fall, the Rotunda is once again serving as a center of student life and learning. About 20 classes are being held in the Rotunda, and there are new, comfortable spaces for students to study. Many of the classes being taught in the Rotunda this fall are College Advising Seminars for first-year students, and one is an architecture class — which is a nice perk for our students. Not many students get to attend class in a  UNESCO World Heritage site and acknowledged masterpiece of American architecture.

If we want the bicentennial to tell the complete story of UVA — and we do — we know that it needs to include recognition of the historical role of slavery at UVA. In 2013, I established the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University to explore and report on UVA’s relationship with slavery. Through the efforts of the PCSU and the support of the UVA community, we have accomplished many things, including:

  • Restoring and commemorating the rediscovered African American Cemetery at UVA.
  • Naming a new dorm Gibbons House, after William and Isabella Gibbons, a couple who were enslaved at UVA and who became community leaders after emancipation.
  • Hosting a national symposium titled “Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery,” and forming a national consortium named “Universities Studying Slavery,” which includes institutions across the country that are examining their own histories related to slavery.
  • Establishing a new course titled “Slavery and Its Legacies.”

And developing new interpretive material in the Rotunda Visitor’s Center … among other initiatives.

Like the Rotunda restoration, the work of the President’s Commission on Slavery is another necessary step as we prepare UVA for its bicentennial.  The bicentennial will give us an opportunity to look back at UVA’s past 200 years, and we’ll do that in appropriate ways.

But also — and more importantly — this is our moment to look forward.

When Thomas Jefferson founded the University, John Adams wrote these words to him: “I congratulate you and Madison and Monroe … From such a noble triumvirate, the world will expect something very great and very new.”

The great, new University that Jefferson and his colleagues created has stood as a standard of excellence in higher education for 200 years.

With the bicentennial around the corner, this is the right time to ask ourselves: What will the world expect of this University in its next 100 years? Or its next 200 years?

The answer now is the same as it was in Jefferson’s time: the world will continue to expect something very great and very new from UVA.  Those two qualities — greatness and newness — are mutually dependent. UVA will continue to be great in its third century only if we commit ourselves to make it new, again and again, in a continuous cycle of innovation and reinvention.

Today I’ll talk about some of the things we’ve accomplished over the past year to sustain that tradition of innovation at UVA, and some of the things we’ll do in the years ahead to ensure that UVA remains both great and new.

New Faculty

We know that UVA will be neither great nor new unless we successfully recruit and retain an excellent faculty for the University’s third century. Last year, we hired 107 new tenure/tenure-track (T/TT) faculty. The number rises to more than 200 if we add non-tenure/tenure-track faculty to the count, and this includes a larger number of clinical medical faculty — for example, physicians whose primary role is providing care.

This was the most diverse new class of faculty ever – 40% of our T/TT hires were women, and 31% of our T/TT hires were underrepresented minorities. We plan to continue to hire a more diverse, and more interdisciplinary, faculty in the coming year.

The schools and departments have worked hard to evaluate what UVA’s needs will be in future decades. Fields that are important today are often different from those that were important 30 or 40 years ago, and our hiring reflects that.  For example, last year, we hired in many fields that we had not previously targeted, including environmental history, Latin American literature, and development economics.

Arts & Sciences made a particular effort to hire scholars in a variety of fields whose research focuses on the Global South, with generous help from the Mellon Foundation.  Engineering engaged in a multi-position, cross-departmental search for faculty in cyber-physical systems, which are used in smart cars and smart phones.

Arts & Sciences continues to seek faculty in areas of growing interest, with searches ongoing in fields that include neuroscience, sociology of health, data science, and coastal and wetland ecology.

Our business schools are also seeking new faculty to further distinguish their ranks — McIntire in the finance and management fields; Darden in data analytics, global economies, marketing, and operations management. Engineering is searching in several cross-department areas, including biomedical data science, neural engineering, soft materials and advanced manufacturing for biological applications.

This year, we will continue our centrally-supported, pan-University cluster hires and target-of-opportunity searches, known as TOPS. For cluster hires, we identify an area of important scholarship spanning disciplines and schools, then seek multiple faculty members in that area. These searches often result in joint appointments in more than one school or department.

Our cluster hires this past year included Global Markets;   Cloud-Scale Data Analytics; Design Thinking; Biomedical Data Science; Education Policy; Youth Violence Prevention; Autism Spectrum Disorder; Energy Systems and Molecular Modeling; Neuroscience; and Traumatic Brain Injury. Several of these cluster hiring initiatives will continue this year, including potential new hires in Neuroscience and Autism Spectrum Disorder designed to complement the launch of the new UVA Brain Institute. The Provost has also just approved new cluster hires for this year in African Urbanism; Cybersecurity; and Digitally-Mediated Learning.

The TOPS hiring occurs when a school identifies an exceptional candidate who can bring extraordinary value to UVA, even if there’s no search under way in that field. TOPS hires have brought us many super-star faculty, including Jayakrishna Ambati, one of the world’s leading researchers in macular degeneration.

For the coming year, we have authorized and encouraged each school to seek out a TOPS hire. This will give school leaders the opportunity to think expansively and ambitiously about top faculty whom they would like to recruit.

Other faculty who have joined UVA recently are working at the frontiers of their fields. Yen Do came to UVA last year as an assistant professor of mathematics, following a three-year appointment at Yale. Do’s research focuses on the application of harmonic analysis to research problems in mathematical physics and probabilistic analysis.

Maurice Wallace joined us last year as associate professor of English and associate director of the Carter Woodson Institute. A scholar of African-American and American cultural studies, Maurice studies the history of photography and its convergence with black freedom struggles, from emancipation to the current Black Lives Matter movement.

Anne Ming joined the faculty this August as an assistant professor in the Politics Department. Her research focuses on political institutions in dictatorships, using game theory and statistical methods.

Trey Lee came to UVA from the National Cancer Institute and now serves as assistant professor of pediatrics. He focuses on immunotherapy that harnesses the power of the immune system to battle cancer.

These are just a few examples of the new, diverse generation of faculty who are strengthening UVA in our approach to its third century. Their international profile reflects UVA’s increasingly global character, as we recruit top talent from around the world.


Just as building a great third-century faculty is an urgent priority for us, enhancing the research enterprise is one of our top goals.  We also want to enhance our research infrastructure so that we’re able to support the work of our extraordinary faculty.

By many measures, the past year has been a banner year for UVA research. Research awards increased by more than 8% in the last fiscal year, and we managed to achieve this growth in spite of flat federal budgets for research.

More important than the percentages are the stories of how UVA research is improving the human condition. You’ve probably heard about the breakthrough discovery by researchers Jonathan Kipnis and Antoine Louveau, which revealed that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by lymphatic vessels — vessels that were previously thought not to exist.  This discovery will alter the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s disease.

What you may not know is that 10 of our undergraduate students are working in the Kipnis lab, along with three graduate students. We encourage our undergraduates to seek out these kinds of opportunities. We created the Undergraduate Student Opportunities in Academic Research Program, known as U-SOAR, to match undergraduate students with research positions. We want students to embrace these opportunities because they provide great experience and valuable connections to faculty. And occasionally, if students are lucky, they may end up on the front lines of a revolutionary discovery.

There are many examples of how UVA research is improving lives. Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine carried a story about the use of focused ultrasound to cure essential tremor, using a technique that was pioneered and perfected by UVA neurosurgeons.

This Friday, Dr. Ariel Gomez, professor of pediatric nephrology and Director of the UVA Child Health Research Center, will receive the American Heart Association’s 2016 Excellence in Hypertension Research Award – the most prestigious national award offered by the AHA’s Council on Hypertension.

Assistant professor of microbiology Melissa Kendall recently received the American Society for Microbiology’s Merck Irving Sigal Memorial Award for her research investigating how bacterial pathogens establish infection.

Our research often translates into exciting start-up companies. UVA faculty member Ben Calhoun and his colleagues launched PsiKick, which manufactures some of the lowest-power wireless sensors in the world. These chips could lead to a technology revolution in which everyday items, from doors to gym equipment, are embedded with wireless sensors that enable new “smart” behaviors. PsiKick recently raised $16.5 million in financing.

These are just some of the most recent examples of the quality and variety of research happening at UVA.

We continue to focus on cross-disciplinary research. The new UVA Brain Institute is a good example, because it draws together faculty and students and recent cluster hires in Arts & Sciences, Medicine, Engineering, the Curry School, and the Data Science Institute.

These colleagues are developing better methods for understanding the brain, seeking new ways to prevent, treat and cure brain diseases and injury, and teaching students what they learn.

Corporate and government partners will be increasingly essential to the success of our research enterprise. This past summer, UVA hosted its third annual Conference on National Defense and Intelligence at our Applied Research Institute. This conference attracts companies from across the nation, agencies within the Department of Defense, and a number of universities.

We created UVA’s Applied Research Institute in 2011 to create pathways for government and industry partners to connect with our research enterprise, our teaching capabilities, and our human talent.  In recent years, the Institute has worked with partners on projects related to cyber-security, infectious disease, bio-informatics, and other global challenges.

We are working aggressively to expand our network of research partners, and to strengthen our research capacity. Succeeding in this effort will be essential to the University’s future.

College Curriculum

Our effort to make UVA “great” and “new” in its third century includes making the curriculum new. The effort to create a new undergraduate curriculum—led by the faculty of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences—had a breakthrough year this past year, and momentum is building this fall. The changes are designed to build on UVA’s historic academic strengths while better preparing our students to succeed as professionals and as active, articulate citizens. 

In May, the College faculty voted, by an 83% majority, to pilot the new curriculum beginning with a cohort of students in next year’s entering class. In preparation, Arts & Sciences just announced its first class of College Fellows, the group of faculty who will lead the design of the first component of the new curriculum. They met for the first time about a week ago.

The new curriculum will be based on three components: Engagements, Literacies, and Disciplines.

The first component, Engagements, will be designed to help students engage the world from the moment they arrive at UVA. The two-credit courses will frame students’ intellectual journey, encouraging them to embrace innovative, ethical, and critical thinking.  There will be four Engagements:

In Aesthetic Engagement, students will learn to identify, describe, and analyze aesthetic phenomena.

In Empirical and Scientific Engagement, students will analyze claims about the material and social worlds by testing questions and hypotheses based on observation and experience.

In Engaging Difference, students will reflect on their own perspectives in relation to their expanding knowledge of other human experiences.

And in Ethical Engagement, students will learn to evaluate human conduct, to consider the ethical components of individual and collective behaviors, and to engage in moral deliberation.

The College Fellows will be responsible for designing and teaching the Engagements, and they will represent a rotating cohort of faculty drawn from across departments and disciplines.

The second component of the new curriculum, Literacies, is designed to help students navigate an increasingly global society that’s becoming more dependent on data analysis. The Literacies to be covered under the proposed new General Education requirements include: World Languages; Rhetoric for the 21st Century; and, Quantification, Computation, and Data Analysis.

In the third component of the curriculum, Disciplines, students will explore a range of subjects from various perspectives grounded in disciplinary thinking and scholarly practices.

Thomas Jefferson wrote these words in 1805: “Science is progressive. What was useful two centuries ago is now become useless …What is now deemed useful will in some of its parts become useless in another century.”

Constant reinvention, including curricular reinvention, will be an essential part of our effort to prepare students for success in the careers and communities they will enter after graduation.

Planning and Prudent Investments

As we approach the beginning of UVA’s third century, the Cornerstone Plan continues to guide us forward. In our second year of implementation, the Plan produced a number of new programs and initiatives.

  • We established, and now lead, the Academic Preservation Trust — a consortium of research universities focused on the preservation of digital scholarship.
  • We enrolled the second class of fellows in the Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership.
  • We developed a new semester-long study abroad program in Dehli, India.
  • We launched Phase I of ResearchUVA to streamline and support the administration of sponsored research projects.

Our Licensing and Ventures Group (LVG) executed 203 invention disclosures and 80 commercial transactions, and was awarded 38 US patents. All of those numbers are the highest in history.

These are just a few highlights of the products of the Cornerstone Plan. To keep UVA new and great in its next century, we must continue to make strategic investments that will keep our University affordable while strengthening the faculty and expanding research programs.

UVA has a long-standing record of prudent financial stewardship, and that history of careful management — together with strong investment earnings — enabled us to create the new Strategic Investment Fund.

The Fund will allow us to make significant, ongoing investments to enhance the quality of our University. To help us carry out this work, we formed a faculty evaluation committee, chaired by former Law dean John Jeffries. The evaluation committee is making recommendations to an advisory committee, which will, in turn, make recommendations to the Board of Visitors. 

The Board will consider the first round of investments at its meeting later this week.

The Strategic Investment Fund will help us advance priorities that we’ve identified in the Cornerstone Plan and the Medical Center Strategic Plan.

Proposals could include strategic recruitment of top faculty; specialized equipment or laboratories; initiatives that enhance student life; matching funds to leverage philanthropic priorities; and seed funds for endowed student scholarships. We plan to carefully monitor and measure each investment to make sure that we’re accomplishing our objectives.

Closing – Writing UVA’s Third Chapter

I want to allow time for questions and comments, so let me close with a word of thanks. As we prepare to embark on a uniquely momentous period in the University’s history, I’m grateful for the commitment of the faculty, staff, and students who help us advance the mission of this University every day.

As we approach the bicentennial and reflect on UVA’s first and second centuries — what we might call the first two chapters in the UVA story — we understand that we are the ones who will be responsible for creating the next chapter.

That is, the hard work we do together now — today and tomorrow — will become, in later years, the history of UVA’s third century.

That’s a big responsibility, and a great opportunity, and I’m grateful to everyone in the UVA community who embraces the task every day. Thank you.