Big changes lie ahead for the University of Virginia: over the next decade, UVA will replace half its professors as a generation retires. Here, eight faculty members who’ve taught at the University for a decade or longer share their observations about academic and cultural changes over the years. What advice do they have for new professors? And what are the greatest challenges the University faces in the 21st century?

Jump to: Rosalyn Berne, Ed Freeman, Maurie McInnis, Beth Meyer, Larry Sabato, Lisa Russ Spaar, Melvin Wilson, Carl Zeithaml


Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

Rosalyn Berne

  • Associate professor of science, technology and society at the School of Engineering
  • Taught at UVA since 1982

What is your most memorable teaching moment?
Last January I taught a J-Term course called “Science, Fiction and the New Reproductive Technologies.” Being J-Term, the class met daily for an extended period of time. One day I asked the students to watch an hour-long documentary while I stepped out to do a live radio interview with a station out of New Mexico. The interview was about a book I’d written on the subject of horses as therapy for humans. Midway through the interview the host announced that a caller had come on with a question. To my complete surprise that “caller” turned out to be my entire J-Term class! It was very funny, but also a joyful experience for me. I was upstairs in my office. The students were in the classroom just below. Yet we were together, on the air, discussing interspecies communication. It was a teaching moment I will never forget.

What's been your biggest failure or regret as a teacher?
Our former department chair asked me to take on a large lecture course enrolling 350 students. She and another colleague had each taught the course previously and were each frustrated with the results. Feeling challenged and honored to be asked, I enthusiastically agreed. I taught the course both fall and spring semesters and I thought it had gone well. But the student evaluations suggested otherwise: too much rehashing of information many knew and too much discouraging news about the human-built world. So I revamped the course entirely and taught it again the following year. This time some of students gave the course a high rating, but of the 30 percent who bothered to submit evaluations, the majority was dissatisfied. Partly they were frustrated with the grades. But in fairness to them, most were entering first-year students and I’d pitched the course to a more mature, advanced level of student. So I failed them and I failed myself. I see the course as blight on my otherwise wonderful teaching career, an endeavor that I still regret.

Berne, when she first began teaching at the University Courtesy of Rosalyn Berne

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing UVA over the next decade?
I think the biggest challenge UVA faces is to maintain its core values under the pressures of rapid social, technological and economic changes. I arrived at UVA as an undergraduate student in the mid 1970s, and have been here in one role or another for nearly 40 years. I have seen a lot of significant changes. And even though we seem to be moving in the right direction, I sometimes worry that, in the words of poet William Stafford: “A pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”

What advice do you have for new professors?
Maintain your sense of self, no matter what. But remember that teaching is a selfless endeavor.

What are you working on now?
Using science fiction to put engineering into a social-ethical-cultural context for my students has long been of interest to me. My new book, Creating Life from Life: Biotechnology and Science Fiction is about to be released. It is an edited volume where I solicited chapter contributions by scientists explaining their research in biotechnology, and paired those with science fiction stories that brought out the social implications of their research. Most recently I have become fascinated with the growing body of scientific research on the phenomena of interspecies communication. I’ve been thinking about how what we are learning about the complexity and interconnectedness of life is likely to shift how we human beings view the world and ourselves in the greater web of life. Study of interspecies communication is the focus of my current sabbatical leave and will likely become a long-term research endeavor for me.


Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

Ed Freeman

  • University Professor and Elis and Signe Olsson Professor of business administration, Darden School of Business
  • Taught at UVA since 1986

What has been the biggest change in the University during the time you’ve been here?
The University is much more diverse in terms of faculty, students and staff, and it is much richer for it. And, at least at Darden, the students have gotten better and better as they come from many countries all over the world. The classroom discussions have really benefitted from it.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the University?
The biggest challenge is how to use the incredible new technology to be even more effective teachers and researchers.  I don't  think we have begun to figure it out yet. I did a MOOC with 50,000+ signups, but I didn't begin to take real advantage of the technology. It’s tough to get out of the medieval lecture and discussion ways.

Freeman in the classroom Courtesy of Ed Freeman

What was your most memorable or rewarding teaching moment?
I think it was giving my first lecture in the Dome Room of the Rotunda. Still sends chills down my spine.

What was your biggest failure or regret?
Not figuring out how to spend more time with students outside of Darden. Even though I'm a University Professor, it’s tough to work across schools in the University.

What are you working on now?
Helping students and researchers craft a new narrative about business so that we can see business as an institution of hope that makes the world a better place and creates value for its customers, shareholders, suppliers, employees and communities. I’m also spending time figuring out how to use the creative arts, music and theater to teach leadership skills.


Cole Geddy/UVA University Communications

Maurie McInnis

  • Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and professor of art history
  • Taught at UVA since 1998

What is your most memorable teaching moment?
There have been many, but they fall into a single category: those “aha” moments when students see places they think they know well in a new light. For example, I frequently take my students on a walk around the Academical Village. They think of the place as the place where they play Frisbee, study and hang out. But as we talk about life at the University in the first 50 years and focus on the details of the lived experience, they suddenly are able to “read” the architecture and the landscape for the history of the enslaved people who worked there chopping wood, preparing meals and cleaning rooms. Suddenly the basement and gardens are places of work and not of pleasure.

What’s been your biggest failure or regret as a teacher?
I wish I had learned sooner how to involve students directly in research. Students get so engaged in studying history when they can study buildings or art in person and sit in special collections and read original letters of students at the University.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing UVA over the next decade?
Maintaining excellence and preparing the University for its third century. With declining state support, the University must have enough financial resources to maintain excellence. These resources are necessary for financial aid to attract a diverse and excellent student body and to hire the next generation of faculty.

What advice do you have for new professors?
Our students are anxious to find ways to connect with faculty. Embrace the opportunity to bring your research and your teaching together around your students. Involve students in your research, design classes that center on community engagement, or become involved in flash seminars, second-year dinners and other events that bring faculty and students together outside the classroom.

What is your latest project/What are you working on now?
Jefferson’s University—the Early Life Project. I am working with Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and other faculty on a digital history project focused on the first 50 years of the University’s history. With support from the Office of the Provost and the Jefferson Trust, we have a team of students who are working with us to transcribe and create a digital database of the University’s archives which will allow users to search not only by name but also by “events.” Records have been tagged for a wide variety of topics from the early curriculum to numerous types of student misconduct. The team is also working to digitally rebuild the University as it would have been when students first arrived in 1826.


Sanjay Suchak/UVA University Communications

Beth Meyer

  • Dean of the School of Architecture, Edward E. Elson Professor, Merrill D. Peterson Professor of landscape architecture
  • Taught at UVA since 1993

What is your most memorable teaching moment?
A “Common Course” field trip that I co-taught with colleagues in in the late 1990s. One September weekend, we gathered the A-School’s first-year graduate students on the staircase of the U.S. Capitol’s West Front. From this elevated situation, we talked about the plan of Washington, D.C. Discussing this monumental public space, while looking out over the 2-1/2 mile prospect, underscored how urban space, architecture and landscape can embody political ideals as well as enable, or restrict, social interaction. That sublime experience is no longer possible, as a result of security measures implemented post-9/11. I took it for granted, as a citizen and an educator.

What’s been your biggest failure or regret as a teacher?
Not teaching more undergraduates! The Department of Landscape Architecture has a graduate, but not an undergraduate program. I hope to co-teach an undergraduate studio or lecture course when I return to full-time teaching.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing UVA over the next decade?
Recognizing that improving our academic standing and sense of community will require more than programs. It will require providing a residential learning experience for more undergraduates, beyond the first-year residential halls. What would it take to create a 21st century version of “living on the Lawn” for all second-year undergraduates, so that they are not frantic about figuring out where to live next?

Meyer (right) chats with colleagues in her early days at the University. Courtesy of Beth Meyer

What advice do you have for new professors?
Consider yourself a citizen of the University as well as member of a department or school. My experience on the Executive Council of the Faculty Senate was an enriching experience intellectually and personally. Our collective actions reminded me that shared governance requires participation, tenacity and optimism. It also yields amazing new friendships.

What are you working on now?
A cross-Grounds cultural landscape research initiative. We are launching a cultural landscape atlas project to research, document and interpret Virginia's urban and rural landscapes networks as the first step in changing and managing those landscapes. The Commonwealth has a rich mosaic of diverse socio-ecological landscapes; how can our cities grow and our economy thrive while reinforcing, and at times re-interpreting, this unique sense of place? That will be our mission.


Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

Larry Sabato

  • University Professor of politics, founder and director of the Center for Politics
  • Taught at UVA since 1978

What has been the biggest change in the University during the time you’ve been here?
When I first set foot on the Grounds in 1970 as an undergraduate, the University had already made great strides under President Edgar Shannon. But Shannon himself knew we had only just begun to make UVA all that it could be, a world-class university. It has been a thrill, and deeply satisfying, to watch UVA shoot to the top in many fields, draw an increasingly distinguished faculty, and first-rate students from every state and many other nations. In addition, I came with the first coeducational class 44 years ago. The University was not very diverse back then, but has made enormous strides in every dimension of diversity—and is a much stronger place on account of it.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to new professors?
Insist on high standards—our students will meet them. Support the Honor System—it helps you in the classroom, and shapes students their whole lives.

Sabato (left) invited former President Gerald R. Ford to guest-lecture in his campaigns and elections class in 1979. Courtesy of Larry Sabato

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the University?
In an age of diminishing state resources and increased political pressure to reduce the proportion of out-of-state students, how do we ensure our financial security and intellectual quality and diversity? How can we combine the best aspects of a state university and a private institution simultaneously? It can be done, but only with massive private investment in UVA by our alumni and friends.

What was your most memorable or rewarding teaching moment?
The 35 years I spent teaching Introduction to American Politics gave me enough material for a nonfiction book and a novel, too. One day I may tell some of those stories. The reward came each time a student got active in politics or government—and there have been many thousands now. They really did learn that “politics is a good thing.”

What was your biggest failure or regret?
That we have a miserably low 70 or 80 years on earth. I’d like to go on and on, and see the future, staying right here at the University.

What are you working on now?
Expanding key programs at the UVA Center for Politics, from the Youth Leadership Initiative, to paid internships for middle and low-income students in the work of politics, to new historical and political documentaries for PBS, plus a book or two on election topics.


Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

Lisa Russ Spaar

  • Professor of English and creative writing
  • Taught at UVA since 1995

What is your most memorable teaching moment?
In the fall of 2001, I taught a poetry writing class that met once a week at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays in Halsey Hall.  On the morning of September 11th, as the twin tower tragedy was making its slow, horrifying way into our collective consciousness, I wondered how many of my students would actually show up for class. My original lesson plan for the day was to start off with a free-write to John Coltrane’s “Naima,” followed by an in-class writing exercise in which we would think of figurative ways of describing a pineapple, which I’d toted along from Foods of All Nations for that purpose. As it turns out, everyone came to class that day. Instead of talking, we sat in a circle on the floor and listened to the entire Coltrane CD. We ate the pineapple. Sometimes music and silence are more eloquent and appropriate even than poetry. Student Council President Abby Fifer, a student in the workshop, possessed one of the three clamshell cell phones among the sixteen of us, and as we listened to the mournful jazz and savored the bittersweet fruit, we took turns standing out in the hallway, sharing those three phones to reach out to our loved ones. 

What’s been your biggest failure or regret as a teacher?
Biggest regret?  Never having had Edgar Allan Poe in a class.

Seriously, though, I’ve been teaching at the university level since 1980, and no doubt in all that long time I’ve let a student down, in one way or another, and I am sorry for it if I have. I’ve always tried to meet students where they are—to respect and listen to them and to help them become the people they imagine they might become, as scholars, writers, people. I love teaching because I love learning, and I’m certain that I’ve learned more from my students than I’ve imparted to them.

Spaar teaching a poetry class.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing UVA over the next decade?
How do we maintain the intimacy and rigor of hands-on, face-to-face learning, of gnosis, of creation in the arts and sciences, even as our student population burgeons, tuition costs rise, and the ways in which knowledge (more often translated as “information”) is imparted, exchanged, and made new is rapidly changing?

What advice do you have for new professors?
Take risks—in scholarship, teaching, service and creative realms. As Samuel Beckett says, “Fail. Fail better.” Better to make mistakes than to have merely passed through our academical village without exciting and provoking us, loudly or quietly—without changing us for the better.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new collection of poems and editing an anthology of poems about Thomas Jefferson and Monticello for the University of Virginia Press.


Jane Haley/UVA University Communications

Melvin Wilson

  • Professor of psychology
  • Taught at UVA since 1979

What has been the biggest change in the University during the time you’ve been here?
The size of the University has changed in the 35 years that I have been here. Also, student culture has transitioned from a place of “the gentlemen's C” to a place of academic excellence.  When I arrived, Easters was a major cultural event. Also, the big football game was an occasion of a beer-fest rather than a ball game. Those cultural changes have been for the better. In my thinking, the University of Virginia has earned an important national stature as an institution of higher learning.  

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to new professors?
I would advise new faculty to engage in the UVA experience. UVA has many cultural things that do not occur at other places. We are the Grounds and not campus, a village and not community; our freshmen are called first-year students. Also, I think it is important to form good collegial relationships with fellow colleagues and students. Both groups will prove supportive to a successful career at the University.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the University?
I think the biggest challenge involves issues of social justice for the rights of women, minority people and LGBT members of our village. Especially as our diverse peoples attend to their educational and social activities, we need to remember that all people have a right to participate at the University without fear of social or physical harassment, which includes going to class and going to parties.

What was your most memorable or rewarding teaching moment?
Initially, I had a bias that athletes were not serious students. However, I have been involved with many scholar-athletes who are as serious about their education as they are about their sport. I am amazed that they are able to do well in the classroom and in their sport. They are very talented people and I have made a 180-degrees change in my attitude about scholar-athletes.

What are you working on now?
I am involved in a research project that is following children who were at risk for behavioral problems. We are working with parents and caretakers on strategies which are aimed at positive behavior support of children. This means that parents are appropriately providing positive support and responsive interaction and appropriate limit-setting with their children as a parenting strategy. We are in the 11th year of this project and it appears that our intervention is working as expected.


Cole Geddy/UVA University Communications

Carl Zeithaml

  • Dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, F.S. Cornell Professor in free enterprise management
  • Taught at UVA since 1997

What has been the biggest change in the University during the time you’ve been here?
The University continues to evolve in many important ways, but two significant changes involve the increased number of global opportunities available to students today and the expanded involvement of our alumni in many programs and classes.

In the McIntire School, we now have 17 study abroad partners for a full semester international experience and offer almost 20 undergraduate and graduate course trips throughout the academic year to places throughout the world. We also welcome many international students to our classrooms with these students representing almost 25 percent of the McIntire student body.

We are very excited about the expanded involvement of alumni on a variety of dimensions. In addition to service on various advisory boards and financial support, many of our alumni are now directly involved in our academic programs as speakers, panelists and even teaching faculty. They often team with regular faculty to offer outstanding courses that serve as a bridge between our programs and the jobs in which students are transitioning. These connections also build mentoring relationships that are valuable for many years.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to new professors?
UVA is a place that values deep engagement of students, faculty and staff. I always tell new faculty that they will enjoy the relationships that they build with students and alumni over the years, and the intense level of engagement differentiates the faculty/student experience from many other universities. UVA is not a place where faculty teach their classes and then leave or close their doors.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the University?
I believe that the University really needs a clear strategy and new business model. Do we want to be a great, world-class university or a good state university? How do we fund the strategy that we want to implement? What are the implications for the commonwealth, tuition, the mix of in-state and out-of-state students, and many other issues?

Zeithaml outside of Monroe Hall ca. 1999, around the time he began teaching at the University. Courtesy of UVA Library

What was your most memorable or rewarding teaching moment?
Although I have had many rewarding teaching moments, perhaps my most memorable teaching day involved the first classes after 9/11. As faculty, we were very concerned about the students and their state of mind, but it quickly became clear to me that our students were resilient and determined to move forward. I wanted to help them get through the tragedy, but, in many ways, they helped me perhaps more with their positive attitudes and commitment to the future. We had great and emotional discussions, but we also returned to the job at hand—teaching and learning. I remember them all so well, even where they sat in the room. Many of them are now involved alumni, and one of them is even a member of our faculty! 

What was your biggest failure or regret?
I wish that we had been able to introduce some of our innovative or collaborative programs, courses and tracks more quickly. In some cases, we were slowed by the need to hire faculty or staff, while, in other cases, University politics and bureaucracy were the problem. We generally overcome the impediments to change and innovation, but it seems to get more difficult rather than easier.

What are you working on now?
The McIntire School is continuing its tradition of innovation with efforts to expand and/or introduce our leadership minor, new entrepreneurship minor, new graduate and undergraduate tracks in areas like business analytics and a new global graduate program. Developing new curricula and courses is interesting, exciting and fun, and it is a great way for faculty to work together and across disciplines. All of these programs will prepare students for the careers of the future, and much of the work is directly related to the research and scholarship of our terrific faculty. We look forward to introducing these programs over the next year or two.