I took my degree from the University of Virginia in 1981, the year Dumas Malone published The Sage of Monticello, the finale to his authoritative and reverent six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, the hot graduation gift that season. It was the era of “Mr. Jefferson,” uttered in a hushed tone as if the founder were in the next room. With like solemnity, the cognoscenti used to tell visiting speakers, “It’s always good to begin your remarks with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson,” followed by a pause, and then: “It’s nice to end with one too.”
When I returned to Charlottesville 35 years later, I reported a story I never could have foreseen. A group of faculty and students had taken up a petition to protest the University president for quoting Thomas Jefferson at all. That arc of change, both in the scholarship and the culture, is an astounding phenomenon. Now, as you’ll see in this issue’s special report, we can graph it.
That’s one of the products of a survey we conducted in August and September. Working with the experts at the Center for Survey Research within UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, we sampled undergraduate classes at five-year intervals, 1970, 1975, 1980, and so on through the Class of 2020, a continuum spanning half a century.
The survey is the inaugural project of a sweeping initiative the Alumni Association is launching called Vox Alumni. It aims to gain a greater and more textured understanding of alumni sentiments and, in turn, to share insights. The name keys off the Alumni Association’s mission “to represent the voice and perspectives of alumni.”
Our special report is a start at trying to identify that voice and, more realistically, to identify the multiple voices that reflect the multiplicity of alumni experiences and perspectives. We used our survey to take soundings.
We threw a lot at the participants, some topics more controversial than even Jefferson. We tested an array of conventional assumptions, confirming many, upending others and, in just about all cases, gaining a more contoured sense of the alumni community. We identified generational and ideological fault lines, and a striking difference in UVA priorities between older and younger alumni. Yet, on some of the University’s and higher ed’s most divisive issues, we also tallied remarkable concurrence and moderation.
Much of the analysis will test your conventional assumptions too. As I said, our report is just a beginning and just one piece of a larger undertaking. Let us know what you think. In that spirit, you’ll see we’ve added the Vox Alumni icon to our letters section. In these and all matters, we’d like to hear your voice.
Richard Gard (Col ’81)
Vice President, Communications, UVA Alumni Association