“Finis Origine Pendet: The end depends on the beginning,” said then-University Rector Edward Elson, welcoming John T. Casteen III to his inauguration as the University of Virginia’s seventh president.
Nearly 20 years have passed since Elson’s words echoed across the Lawn that October morning, and, now, the end is near. The curtain will fall on John Casteen’s presidency on Aug. 1, closing one of the longest running and most successful terms in the modern era of higher education. But for the full measure of Casteen’s transformative influence on the University, it’s best to go back to the beginning.
The year was 1990, and as John Casteen settled into his new home on Carr’s Hill, a budget crisis brewed at the state capital—one that would forever change the way UVA is funded. The University was a smaller place, in terms of both facilities and the number of students. Progress was evident in diversifying the student body and faculty, but much work remained. The financial structure of the University was somewhat precarious with its heavy reliance on state support, and there was comparatively little financial aid available for students who needed it. Research and science lagged behind peer institutions, and, while renowned in the U.S., the University had negligible international presence.
What a difference two decades can make.
“In virtually every category, we are in a much better place than we were 20 years ago. Just look at the number of new buildings and programs, the increase in the faculty’s quality, and the dramatic rise in students’ qualifications and diversity,” says politics professor Larry J. Sabato (Col ’74). “This last element should be emphasized. Thanks to John’s unceasing efforts, today’s impressive student body at the University finally looks like Virginia, America and, indeed, the world. This is the mark of a world-class university.”
Other changes are less visible, including the efforts that Casteen has led to restructure the University’s administrative and governance models, and to create a new financial model that allows the University to move forward and grow in any economic climate. While these internal changes seem subtle to the outside observer, their impact is powerful and far-reaching. In fact, the position of strength enjoyed by the University today would be impossible without initiatives like the restructured status UVA attained in 2004, which established greater freedom from bureaucratic constraints in conducting its day-to-day business.
The advances made under Casteen’s leadership are all the more remarkable when weighed against the enormous reductions in state support. In 1990, the state supplied 22.9 percent of the University’s operating budget; now, it’s 6.7 percent.
Much has been accomplished since those first days of John Casteen’s presidency. But his inauguration wasn’t the real beginning of the work that would define his presidency.
For that, go back another 30 years, to the day a 17-year-old son of a Portsmouth shipworker arrived in Charlottesville and unpacked his bags in Lefevre dorm, becoming the first member of his family to attend college. Casteen would go on to earn three degrees in English from the University—a B.A. with high honors in 1965, an M.A. in 1966, and a Ph.D. in 1970. He taught English at Virginia and Cal Berkeley. He was UVA’s dean of admission from 1975 to 1982, and afterward served as Virginia’s secretary of education. From 1985 to 1990, he was president of the University of Connecticut.
Early in his career, Casteen cultivated a devotion to making public education accessible and an appreciation for the opportunities it brings to people in all walks of life. He developed a commitment to building diversity and academic excellence, and a broad understanding of the business of higher education, including the vagaries of politics and state funding.
“If ever there were a man placed on this earth for the purpose of being president of the University of Virginia, it is Dr. John Casteen,” wrote Michael Winerip in a 1999 New York Times article.
Casteen may not have been born with the presidency on his mind, but it was something he contemplated as a young man.
“In the mid-1970s, John and I were having a relaxed conversation about many things and he happened to mention that he hoped at some point to be either the governor of Virginia or the president of the University,” says Ernest H. Ern, UVA’s former vice president of student affairs. “For obvious reasons, I never forgot that conversation, nor did it surprise me, then or now. As a young man, he was mature beyond his years, forward thinking, energetic, a solid and committed academic, and devoted to this University.”
Casteen does not recall that conversation but surmises he was probably being only half serious.
“I never really had a career goal,” says Casteen. “I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to live on themes or issues that interested me or that happen to have some value to the University and to the state.”
That sense of good fortune was tested soon after Casteen took office. The massive recession and significant reduction in state support in the early ’90s required that he set aside teaching and other academic pursuits, and instead dedicate the lion’s share of his time to raising money.
“The bottom line is that the job changed,” says Casteen. “The advice from state officials at the time was that we plan to be a less prominent university, which we did not intend to do.”
Casteen has been a tireless fundraiser for the University, spending up to 25 weeks a year on the road. During a typical week, he meets with 700 to 1,000 people. His BlackBerry is a constant companion, and Casteen estimates he hears from another 200 people via e-mail on a daily basis.
The schedule is demanding, but he says that the quality of UVA’s students makes the job easier. “Our donors have been motivated by the notion that the University teaches a responsible, and ultimately a very ethical, version of what it is to be an American, and our students are the best possible demonstration pieces for that,” he says.
Through two capital campaigns—the current campaign will conclude in 2011—the results speak for themselves. The endowment has grown from $487 million in 1990 to its current level of $4.6 billion.
Robert D. Sweeney, senior vice president of development and public affairs, has led UVA’s development efforts since 1991 and has worked with Casteen during the last two campaigns. “Frankly, John Casteen may be seen as the greatest president in our University’s history,” Sweeney says. “Along with his strong vision for its future and mastery of the complexities of a global research university, John’s skills as the University’s lead fundraiser have propelled the University to the top ranks of higher education philanthropy.”
While many of Casteen’s travels led him to meetings with alumni and other potential donors, another frequent destination was the General Assembly in Richmond, where he has championed the cause of higher education across the Commonwealth.
“John knows the system of higher education not only in Virginia, but nationally,” adds Leonard W. Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the University of Virginia. “He has been able to anticipate the future as it relates to state support and has developed alternative funding options for the University. His plan to create a strong system of need-based financial aid has given us flexibility on tuition that few institutions have.”
The ripple effect of the work done by Casteen, Sandridge and others extends well beyond Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village. Universities around the country have taken note of UVA’s extensive restructuring and planning efforts. “One of John’s greatest accomplishments is the establishment of an important model for the sustenance of our nation’s public research universities in an era of rapidly declining state support,” says Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities. “He created a potential path for other flagship public universities facing similar challenges.”
“Universities that don’t plan perpetually are always at risk,” says Casteen. And, of course, that commitment to planning includes the University’s primary mission: academic excellence.
Casteen points to the work done by faculty in developing the “Virginia 2020” strategic plan as one of the most important initiatives during his presidency. The 2020 plan, completed in 2001, identified four areas in which the University would grow: fine and performing arts, international activities, public service and outreach, and science and technology.
“The four academic plans that came out of the 2020 plan really were predictive of the areas where the University was able to become stronger in the next decade,” Casteen says. “I would not personally claim a great deal of credit for any of that. It was a movement whose time had come. It was a method of planning that was unknown elsewhere, but it was clearly the way we needed to do it.”
Casteen’s foresight and planning have helped raise the academic stature of the University both nationally and internationally. Some academic improvements have manifested themselves in physically tangible ways, such as the growth of the library system and the UVA Medical Center. The University library system has grown from 3.2 million books in 1990 to 5.1 million in 2010, and Special Collections now houses its 16.1 million items in its own building, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.
While Casteen loves books, he embraces the broader avenues of scholarship made possible by evolving technologies. “He was an early and strong supporter of digital scholarship when others were highly skeptical,” says University Librarian Karin Wittenborg. “He encouraged the library in its groundbreaking work in digital initiatives, and he supported the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.”
Along with libraries and other facilities, the Health System has grown significantly under Casteen’s watch. Square footage for medical research and patient care has grown by almost 2 million square feet in the last 20 years, to a total of 4.5 million. “President Casteen’s passion for education is evident across the UVA Health System,” says R. Edward Howell, vice president and chief executive officer of the Medical Center. Howell says the addition of so much clinical and research space has put the University “at the forefront of patient care, medical research and education.”
The explosive growth of the Health System accounts for just a portion of the new buildings that have been added to Grounds—the overall square footage of UVA has grown by 42 percent during Casteen’s tenure.
“When John became president, he realized that we lacked many of the facilities that were necessary if the University was to achieve true excellence,” says Sandridge. “He understood that new academic, medical, research and athletics facilities were key to our future and set out to do something about it. He did not build for today’s capacity but envisioned what the University could and would be in the future.”
But the building, planning, fundraising, lobbying and restructuring are just means to an end. For Casteen, behind it all lies a higher calling, that of a public university that’s not just financially accessible to all, but that can also stand toe-to-toe with any university in the world—public or private.
“I think the public university, whether it’s this one or any other, has a special obligation to deliver the kinds of opportunities for personal growth guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and, in particular, the 14th Amendment. Those sections of the U.S. Constitution have tremendous impact on what public universities ought to do,” says Casteen. “We don’t, and we ought not be able to, discriminate on the basis of who comes from a privileged background and who doesn’t. We’re simply not in the private sector. We are a creature of the public. So the best argument for doing the kind of work that we’ve done in the last 20 years to diversify the University’s faculty, student body and staff is, simply, that’s what public universities do.”
The creation of AccessUVa, a financial aid program that makes UVA affordable for all admitted students regardless of economic circumstances, ensures that the University will fulfill its public mandate for years to come.
Not all of the changes instituted under Casteen have been as well received as programs like AccessUVa—controversy and unpopular decisions are part of the job. The replacement of the Pep Band with a marching band angered many who felt that it was a move away from tradition and toward “State U-ism.” Still more were upset by Casteen’s backing of Virginia Tech’s successful bid to enter the ACC, feeling that an archrival had been the beneficiary of an overly generous assist from UVA.
Charles W. Steger, president of Virginia Tech, praises Casteen’s willingness to take a stand on important issues. “He is considered by his colleagues to be both thoughtful and courageous,” Steger says. “John Casteen [has] combined a national and indeed international perspective on higher education with broad experience and a love for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Other issues on Grounds, like a series of racial incidents in 2003 and 2005, were decidedly more serious, but Casteen faced them head-on and encouraged the University community to come together and attempt to learn from the painful events.
The Office of Diversity and Equity was created in the wake of those racial incidents and is just one of the ways Casteen has demonstrated a commitment to broadening the University community. The composition of the faculty has become steadily more diverse in terms of gender, race and nationality during Casteen’s tenure. Data was not kept on international faculty in 1990; today there are 230 international faculty. Women now make up 25 percent of the faculty, and 15 percent of faculty are nonwhite. “He has brought the work focused on faculty diversity in front of the Board of Visitors and to the center of thinking about institutional excellence,” says Gertrude Fraser, UVA associate professor and vice provost for faculty advancement.
The international focus doesn’t end with faculty. In 1990, fewer than 500 students studied abroad. Last year, 1,900 students participated in the Study Abroad program, placing UVA among the top three public U.S. universities for international study.
“John Casteen takes an international perspective on our students’ growth as individuals who can make a difference,” says Meredith Jung-En Woo, dean of Arts & Sciences. “He has worked steadily to create an ever-expanding set of opportunities for them to broaden both their intellectual and their cultural horizons.”
The quality and diversity of the student body begin with the office of admission, a fact the former admission dean understands well. “I don’t know of any place where the admission office is such a big deal as it is here,” Casteen says. “It’s something peculiar about the place. And it has to do, I think, with the fact that we are public and also excellent, and that we don’t apologize for either.”
“President Casteen’s commitment to equity, affordability, diversity and access has transformed this University,” says Greg W. Roberts, UVA’s dean of admission. “He and [the late]Dean Jack Blackburn made bold and often difficult decisions on issues that continue to shape the face of the undergraduate population on Grounds.”
Casteen has accomplished all of this with a leadership style that is calm and reflective. “One should not underestimate the power of the quiet force of John Casteen the individual,” says Gerald L. Baliles (Law ’67), director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs and former governor of Virginia.
But that quiet nature doesn’t mean that Casteen hasn’t pushed the University and those around him out of their comfort zones. Behind all of the changes, he has been a constant force, demanding that the University accept nothing less than the best. “John Casteen has been uniquely successful in challenging the University, its faculty, staff, students, alumni and other constituents to achieve new heights that few imagined possible,” Sandridge says. “He led us to strive for what many thought was out of our reach and proved that we were perfectly capable of achieving those heights—his leadership and extraordinary vision turned our aspirations into realities.”
Casteen is quick to share credit not only with those he’s worked with during his time at the University, but also with his predecessors. “Each [president] has simply stood on the shoulders of the one who came before,” says Casteen.
“Building on the work of Presidents Edgar Shannon and Frank Hereford—and on his own work as dean of admission—he has strengthened both the faculty and the student body,” says Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam (Col ’55), UVA’s protocol and history officer and former secretary to the Board of Visitors. “Building on the work of President Robert O’Neil, he has made the University a more diverse place, and he has worked to raise the international stature of the institution.”
And how does Casteen want to be remembered?
“I hope that what survives is the conception of the University as a place that really does belong to the people, as a place where excellence is pursued because it makes people free, as a place that is able to confront its weaknesses and find ways to remedy them, and finally as a place that is capable of large ambitions, and makes no apology for being ambitious.”