What brought you to UVA?
I sensed that there was a thirst here for fresh ambition, that this is a place where the community wants to improve while at the same time preserving valuable aspects of UVA’s identity, particularly the reputation of fostering close personal interaction between teacher-scholars and students. That was pretty seductive. [When I asked one alumna] how she would characterize her undergraduate experience, she answered with one word: “Magical.” I thought, “Wow, now that’s a place where I’d like to be.” It is the perfect metaphor for the best in higher education, which, like magic, is about transformation, but it also evokes connotations of wonder and joy. That’s education at its best.
What are your goals for the University?
I share the ambition of this community to make UVA the model of the best university in higher education. My first priority is bolstering research and scholarship through new faculty hiring, spousal hiring and investing in current faculty by encouraging them to attain their loftiest scholastic ambitions. This is also an especially collaborative time for UVA, and we believe that the University is at its optimal size: There is no department large enough to have enough resources to pursue its greatest ambitions all by itself, and there is a need for every department to reach across to get the partnerships to go after these big challenges for society and education. Yet the school is large enough that when departments do partner, there is broad strength. We’re in a sweet spot; we can be that model university.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the University?
We need to get back to our focus on research and scholarship, and the scale of that is truly grand. Similarly, we need to grow the diversity of the faculty, administration and the student body. Ethnic diversity is a particular issue here. Both ethnically and intellectually, we are not representative nor at the threshold where we get the richness of ideas that comes from different perspectives and prevents isolation of the spirit and mind.
As far as challenges for students are concerned, we expect a lot from them, but that’s what makes it special to be at UVA At Convocation, I began to get a sense of where that aforementioned magic comes from. Thousands of students are sitting on the Lawn and the president really turns over the keys to a 200-year-old institution to them, and immediately they’re responsible for it. They’re responsible for the Honor Code, and it’s a huge challenge to learn so much over a short period of time; they don’t have four years to learn values, it’s all right there at that moment. It’s a challenge, but it’s also quite exciting.
What are your hobbies?
Anything to do with water. I’m a sailor, and have been since I was a teenager, and I was an ocean lifeguard in Los Angeles County, California, for 30 years. Here in Virginia, I’m very fond of lake life, water skiing and swimming at Smith Mountain Lake. When I get a chance, I try to get to North Grounds gym and get in a swim workout in the middle of the day.
What are you reading right now?
Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. It’s about asymmetries and brings in all kinds of insights, from the story of David and Goliath all the way up to modern insurgencies in towns. It even quotes [Curry School dean] Bob Pianta about how looking at the breakdown in classroom decorum and a teacher’s loss of control helps us gain insight into insurgencies in cities. So, insights from our school of education are being applied to understanding when governments lose control over insurgents. There are certainly common threads in both cases.
What else makes UVA unique?
Back in September, I attended the UCLA v. UVA football game and welcomed local alumni at Western Wahoo Weekend. There was a dean’s panel and I was impressed at the thoughtful questions asked by alumni, in particular about how education is changing. Our alumni aren’t just concerned with how our school can be ranked better. They’re deeply interested in how education can be better. I haven’t seen that before from an alumni group, so I think that’s something special here.
I’ve heard that alumni really opposed the new changes to the Honor System [informed retraction]. I think it’s important for alumni to keep in mind that to insist that students can make no changes to the Honor Code is essentially a change in itself. What they’re saying is, We no longer trust the students to own it. So in some sense, if you really believe in the tradition of students owning the code and culture, you have to give them the opportunity to shape it.
Tom Katsouleas, UVA’s new executive vice president and provost, has big plans for the University. A renowned scholar of electrical engineering and a respected higher education administrator, Katsouleas is also delighted by UVA’s history, especially the fact that Monroe Hill was James Monroe’s farm.