We who work and live within Mr. Jefferson’s University sometimes overlook the energy our founder devoted to other pursuits in his spare time. Among his many avocations, science and the arts were perhaps his most compelling lifelong fascinations. Jefferson was an accomplished draftsman, dancer, musician, architect, author, and art collector—and also, on the other end of what one might imagine as an intellectual and creative spectrum, a skilled astronomer, archaeologist, paleontologist, physicist, botanist, and horticulturist.
Given Jefferson’s devotion to the arts and to science, we may wonder at the irony of our modern University’s slow growth to maturity in the fine and performing arts and in the sciences—on the opposite ends of the imaginary academic spectrum—when compared with our strength in the middle: in humanities, law, social sciences, medicine, and other fields. Discussions about how to accomplish the University’s goals in the sciences and in the arts have gone on here for decades. Serious work toward them occurred in the early 1970s, when Drama and Architecture finally acquired modern, purpose-built structures for their programs, and again in the late 1990s when the Virginia 2020 planning groups laid out plans to further improve our arts facilities and programs. In the late 1990s also, Virginia 2020 defined multi-school initiatives in science to achieve excellence in nanoscale technologies, morphogenesis, and digital technologies, and made the argument for building science facilities of appreciable size or scale to meet the needs of departments whose facilities, if they were ever adequate, had reached the breaking point well before the late 1990s. More recently, the Commission on the Future of the University carried forward this planning work, reaffirming our commitments to science and technology and to the arts.
Elements of the University’s evolution created centers of excellence in the middle disciplines while allowing and often causing weakness on the ends. Because the University began in 1825 as a boys’ school and did not become fully co-educational until the 1970s, and (sadly) because the arts were not considered necessary elements of a young man’s preparation for adult or professional life, arts programs were largely ignored here for 150 years. Then, when the University became co-educational in 1970 or so, we missed an opportunity seized by other schools (Princeton, Yale, others) to use the tuition generated by a new population to build arts programs. We understand now that the study and enjoyment of the arts must be the centerpiece of University life and must provide opportunities for performance and creation for all students.
We have made progress in recent years. Old and now-new Fayerweather Hall, home of Art History within the McIntire Department of Art, and its Carl H. and Martha S.Lindner Center for Art History, which supports teaching and research programs, is one bit of evidence. Ruffin Hall, for Studio Art; a renovated and expanded Campbell Hall for Architecture; and most recently, the renovated Art Museum are other bits of evidence. Others plans include a 20,000-square-foot expansion of the Museum; expansion of Drama, including a thrust-stage theatre for dance and other performances; and a new conservation lab at Millmont for books, rare materials, and artworks. During the current financial crisis, while many peers have cut arts programs and, in some cases, sold or threatened to sell parts of their collections, we have continued to invest. This momentum created a need for new leadership. In January 2008, Beth Turner, senior curator at the Phillips Collection, joined us as the University’s first vice provost for the arts—our first officer responsible for all of the fine and performing arts. Ms. Turner is not backing away from challenges, and is providing strong leadership that we have lacked in the past.
The development of science here has been equally complex. Like America generally, our University was slow in grasping the Enlightenment science that Jefferson learned from his Scottish mentors and intended to be taught here. (A fascinating book about Jefferson and the Scottish Enlightenment was published this year: Scientific Jefferson: Revealed by Martin Clagett. The University Bookstore [www.uvabookstores.com] has a limited number of copies available.) As most of us will remember, American science has experienced revolutions at least twice in our time—during and just after World War II, and again after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the National Defense Education Act transferred millions of dollars to colleges and universities to strengthen teaching, to build up science and engineering, and to build national competitiveness. In other states and in the Land Grant universities, means to continue these initiatives continued after the NDEA. Generally speaking, however, state funds like those that continued to build UNC and the University of Maryland and state initiatives including the Research Triangle in North Carolina did not develop here, and the University lacked other sources of funding. We built strength elsewhere, especially in disciplines where excellence does not require major investments in buildings and equipment, but we lost ground in science.
Times are changing. Prior to Virginia’s Restructuring Acts of 2005 and 2006, we lacked both state support for science and the financial autonomy to build top-tier science facilities. Restructuring, private philanthropy, and success in maintaining AAA bond ratings have made what was impossible in earlier times doable now. In October 2007, the Rector and Visitors approved three major research buildings—one for Medicine, one for Engineering, and one for the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. The buildings for the College and for Engineering are under construction now. They will go into use in August 2011. The medical research building is behind this schedule, but moving properly. These buildings represent aggressive steps to use our new autonomy to build capacity in science, and thus to grow stronger as a research university.
As we focus on building distinction in the arts and the sciences, complacency about our current strengths in the middle disciplines can weaken the larger enterprise. The challenge for the years ahead differs only in degree from what it has been since Virginia’s governor decided in 1991 or so that higher education was no longer important: We must continue generating a broad range of resources to sustain excellence in our service to Virginia and the nation, and at the same time continue expanding into global fields of learning. Focus, discipline, and constant planning and validation of what we accomplish will be our best preparations.