On Oct. 6, 1817, former U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and sitting President James Monroe presided over the laying of the University of Virginia’s cornerstone. Thus began a great experiment in higher education, one designed to support the American experiment in democracy by educating citizens for national leadership.
Exactly 200 years later, the UVA community in Charlottesville and around the world will commemorate this moment, which launches the University’s historic, multiyear bicentennial celebration.
A Bicentennial Commission with broad representation from the University community is providing guidance and oversight for the celebration. The commission co-chairs are Dr. Robert W. Battle and Thomas F. Farrell II. Dr. Battle is a UVA alumnus, parent, School of Medicine faculty member and UVA Health System doctor. Mr. Farrell is a UVA alumnus, parent and former Rector. The commission’s diligent work has produced an exciting schedule.
Events in Charlottesville will include activities on the Oct. 5-7 launch weekend—multimedia performances, lectures and a concert at the John Paul Jones Arena—as well as ongoing exhibits in the Fralin Museum of Art and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. More than a birthday celebration, the bicentennial will feature rigorous academic activity, research and scholarship, including publications and symposia focused on Jefferson, the University’s historical relationship with slavery, women’s leadership and other interests.
UVA has become an increasingly global institution, and the bicentennial will be an international experience. Though many large-scale events will take place in Charlottesville, the celebration will extend to UVA Clubs, alumni groups and other constituents across the U.S. and around the world.
The celebration will extend to 2019, 200 years after the year Virginia’s General Assembly formally established the University of Virginia. Six more years passed before the University opened for classes in 1825, and in those years Jefferson and his colleagues worked hard and overcame numerous obstacles to raise financial support, plan the curriculum, hire faculty and oversee construction of the Academical Village. It is entirely appropriate that the bicentennial should be a prolonged celebration, because UVA’s birth was a heroically prolonged effort.
Even as we remember and celebrate the University’s past, we are fulfilling commitments we have made to UVA’s future through the Cornerstone Plan. For example, we just announced the formation of two new multidisciplinary research institutes, one to address environmental resilience and the other focused on infectious disease.
The Environmental Resilience Institute will leverage UVA’s strengths in environmental science, engineering and policy to focus on “wicked problems”—problems so complex and daunting that they resist straightforward resolution. Such problems include coastal erosion and rivers that have been destroyed by mass urbanization and pollution.
The Global Infectious Diseases Institute will address three major 21st-century health concerns: diarrheal disease in children, pandemic threats such as Ebola and the treatment-resistant infectious organisms known as superbugs.
And further reflecting the University’s increasingly global character, this fall we are launching a new program in London. About 25 of our first-year students will begin their UVA undergraduate work in the London First program, at our partner school, Regent’s University London. The program combines classroom instruction with exploration of London’s history, cultures, politics and architecture.
Our Office of Global Internships arranged more than 90 internships for UVA students in the past year, with opportunities located in 38 cities in 27 different countries. One strategy of the Cornerstone Plan is to expand international opportunities for our students to prepare them for today’s global economy. These new programs are helping us fulfill that ambition.
As we look to the University’s future, it can be instructive to look back to its inception. About a month before Jefferson joined Madison and Monroe for the laying of UVA’s cornerstone, he wrote a letter to a friend about his construction plans for the University. These plans, he wrote, had “advanced so favorably as to get into a course of execution.”
With the beginning of the bicentennial, we have arrived at another watershed moment. Our plans for the University’s third century have “advanced so favorably” that we are now fully engaged in executing those plans and building an illustrious future for UVA. Every member of the University family now has good reason to believe that UVA’s next 200 years will be as worthy of celebration as its first 200.
Teresa A. Sullivan