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Making the Case for College

A conversation with Ian Baucom, the new dean of the College of Arts & Sciences

Ian Baucom, the new dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, speaks with students outside Bryan Hall. Dan Addison

Ian Baucom took over as dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences this past summer, succeeding Meredith Jung-En Woo, who held the post for six years. Baucom spent the previous 17 years at Duke, where he served as an English professor, department chair and director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.

In a recent conversation, Baucom explained why he believes UVA can be one of the nation’s most important players in providing answers to core questions about the value of higher education, and discussed some of the changes that might be in store as the University addresses those emerging challenges.

Virginia Magazine: What factored into your decision to come to UVA?

Ian Baucom: There’s an ongoing national debate on the place of public higher education within the social arena, and the University of Virginia can play a central part in taking on the challenges of this deeply transitional time.

There are two features that I point to in how I try to make sense of the nature of this moment. One is that over the last decade or so, what had been a virtual, almost unspoken but strong, social contract on the place of higher education within our common civic life has become unraveled. The nature of that contract, of that social consensus, has been that the well-being of the republic is tied to the existence of a free and educated citizenry, and that the well-being of a free and educated citizenry depends upon the excellence of the universities providing a final, highest round of public education. My sense is that the contract dates back in its deepest sense to the Jeffersonian founding of the University of Virginia. It is the founding of UVA that connects the well-being of the republic with the strength and excellence of universities, putting the pursuit of the liberal arts and the pursuit of higher education at the core of the future of the republic.

If the founding moment of the social contract is the establishment of the University of Virginia, then the more recent history of this contract dates to the signing of the GI Bill, the flourishing and growth of America’s great universities following the Second World War, in which ever greater numbers of people from every order of society were invited in to become part of university life. That continues to build through the civil rights and women’s rights movements. There was an understanding that the way you bring citizens more deeply into the life of the republic is to open the doors of universities to them. That’s the consensus that has been put into question over the last decade or so.

The second feature is that while that ongoing national and international debate has been taking place, there’s been incredible dynamism inside universities. There’s been an explosion of new research and teaching and knowledge fields, led by revolutions in the life sciences, neuroscience and genomics. There’s also the emergence of big data—it’s changing how we research, and how we teach.

If the unwritten contract between universities and society has unraveled, what are some of the consequences of that, and what do you think have been the underlying causes of this?

There have been significant reductions in the overall federal support for education and research and significant reductions in state support nationwide for public higher education. If you look at our particular case, in 1987 the Commonwealth of Virginia provided about 33 percent of our base operating budget. That is now down to between 8 and 9 percent. There’s also significant anxiety among parents that was accentuated by the recent financial crisis, as well as uncertainty about whether the investment they’re making in their children’s futures by sacrificing and sending them to college is an investment that will be rewarded.

If there’s some causal explanation, it might be that, on a national level, we have not been as clear as we could be about the purpose of a liberal arts education, and how a liberal arts education is fundamentally attuned to advancing the possibility and the promise of the young lives of all the individual students we teach. Also, the role of excellent public higher education in advancing the well-being of common civic life and the good of the Commonwealth has not been as fully articulated as it should be.

What role can UVA play in the national debate about the value of higher education?

Over the next five to 10 years, a handful of leading universities and, crucially, a handful of leading public universities, have an opportunity to write a new social contract, to establish a new consensus, on the place of education in the liberal arts within our common civic life, while pioneering these emerging new teaching and research fields in the life sciences, digital, global and quantitative arenas and advancing the historical fields of knowledge that have been at the heart of the liberal arts since their founding—the study of history, philosophy, literature, medicine, mathematics and other key fields.

It needs to be done via a core rearticulation of the purpose and principles of a liberal arts education. That core purpose is to equip our students for lives of purposeful vocation and informed and engaged citizenship, while simultaneously ensuring that the University itself is a citizen of the Commonwealth, of the republic and of the world. That’s the challenge and the opportunity. That’s why I’ve been so attracted to the University of Virginia. I’m convinced that among the great privates—Yale, Harvard, Princeton—and the great publics—Virginia, Berkeley, Michigan, UCLA—UVA has a distinct, truly unique set of histories, characteristics and advantages that provide the University the opportunity to lead that national conversation, to write that new contract and lead these new knowledge fields.

What qualifies the University to lead that effort?

Of UVA’s distinct advantages, some are deeply historical, and some are more contemporary. The historical strength emerges from its Jeffersonian founding, from that Jeffersonian determination to link the well-being and fate of the republic with the University itself. Jefferson made this clear in the Rockfish Gap Report (see box).

We stand at the core of that conviction, that yoking of the health of a free, democratic society depending on a free and educated citizenry, educated within great public universities. We’re unrivaled and unmatched by any other university in that.

And flowing from that are the distinctive character of this place, the traditions of student self-governance, the enduring key value of the Honor Code, and the culture of the Academical Village, where students and faculty live, think and learn together.

For the contemporary features, I point to three things. The first advantage is that the University has great leaders with vision who have taken on this challenge, beginning with President Sullivan and the provost, and including all my fellow deans. The second is that we are embarking on a once-in-a-generation round of hiring, where over a 10-year period we’ll recruit half of our faculty. That’s an extraordinary opportunity. And third, for the first time in 40 years, we’re revising the undergraduate curriculum for students in the College.

What should the purpose of higher education be in 21st-century society?

In a certain sense, the core purpose remains. It’s always been about ensuring that our students have rich and meaningful vocational lives ahead of them, and that they are equipped for the challenges of citizenship. That is enduring. What changes is that the world is ever more globalized and interconnected, while at the same time, vocationally, we know that over the course of their lives, our students will not have one job, but five or 10 or more jobs. So we want to help ready them for life in a global world and for a meaningful career of work within a vocation that gives meaning to them wherever they find themselves working and living over the next 5 or 10 or 50 years.

I’ve been trying to use the word “vocation” quite deliberately. It’s a word for something that presents a deep, meaningful, fulfilling claim on someone’s life, and then offers many careers and jobs as avenues for fulfilling that vocation and delighting in it. For example, medicine is a vocation, surgery is an amazingly great, rewarding and challenging career within that medical vocation. The arts are a vocation, and the careers can range from being a practicing artist, a curator, an art historian, an arts manager or someone who works on the philanthropic side of securing support for the arts. One of our deep purposes is to equip students for that full range of vocations, to make sure that they are sufficiently knowledgeable, curious, grounded and bold to take those big vocations on by the time of Final Exercises. At same time, we want to be sure that they’re not only starting their careers but taking what they learned on Grounds into their civic and public lives, taking their places as citizens in towns, cities, states, nations and the cosmopolitan world all around us.

What’s the purpose of thinking about all these things? One is a resolve and a commitment to being excellent: to being excellent in teaching, to being excellent in research, to being excellent in discovery, to being excellent in providing solutions to great social and economic problems.

But it’s not excellence for its own sake. The excellence has a purpose. The excellence is directed toward flourishing: The flourishing of young lives; the flourishing of our students as they move on from Grounds into their careers, into their vocations, into their membership of civic communities; and the flourishing of the Commonwealth itself, the flourishing of a free and democratic society, the flourishing of a republic, the flourishing of a global world.

What are the differences between what the University has taught students during the last three decades and what it will be teaching in the next decade?

We’re beginning the process of revising the curriculum. We haven’t made any decisions, but the process is underway.

But here are some of the things that we would look at. Right now, our curriculum is divided between areas of knowledge and competencies. Our competencies in the College are in foreign language and in writing. I am certain that those will continue to be required competencies, and we want to bring even more attention to writing. I also want to be sure that we’re advancing the study of foreign languages. The question now is whether there are other competencies that have risen to the level of writing and foreign language in equipping students for the 21st century. Is a deep fluency in data, quantitative reasoning and computational method now a key language of the 21st century?

On the other hand, is there value in reinvigorating the attention that was given to rhetoric, to public speaking, to the capacity to stand in a room and argue and make a presentation? Those are the kinds of questions that we’re raising on the competency side.

Baucom believes UVA can provide leadership in reframing the role of higher education in America. Dan Addison

It seems as if good writing is losing ground in today’s world of email, texts and tweets. Can you elaborate on your comment about placing more emphasis on writing?

My sense is that to be an educated person, we need to be able to not only think and speak well but also to write well. We need to be able to convey our understanding of the meaning of things. We need to be able to argue persuasively, and deep grounding in writing is simply key to that. More than 30 percent of our students currently test out of their writing requirement. That sometimes conveys the impression that writing is remedial—that it’s for the students who weren’t able to test out. What we want to say is that writing is not remedial; writing is fundamental. It’s key to sharpening the critical and analytical capacities of our minds, in our worlds of work, and in our worlds of civic commitment, so we should recommit ourselves in intensified fashion to the study and teaching of writing.

You mentioned that half the faculty will be replaced over the next decade. How do you successfully manage that transition?

We’re in a sweet-spot moment. Over the next five to seven years we’re going to bring in this new faculty cohort, in many ways as a consequence of a generational wave of retirements. What that means is that over these coming years, in this sweet-spot moment, we need to find a way to live thoughtfully, sweetly, through this once-in-a-lifetime period of overlap between the recruitment of this new group of faculty and the final years of amazing teaching and research commitment by a generation of faculty who have given their lives to the College of Arts & Sciences and the University and to countless students for the last 20, 30, 40 years. What I want to ensure is that as we welcome this new cohort of faculty, we’re also challenging them to learn from that generation of professors that went ahead of them. In this transitional moment I want to be sure that we are recognizing and saluting and learning from that generation of faculty who are handing off a legacy to all of us that we need to continue.

Along with your conversations with faculty and staff, what do you hope to learn from students and alumni?

The students have a lot to teach all of us. They live the culture of the Academical Village. They live the Honor Code. They live student self-governance.

Our students, along with alumni, can help advise me as dean, and advise our new faculty on answering this question: “Who are the faculty members that you shouldn’t pass a year without meeting, without spending time with and building a relationship with?”

I welcome thoughts from alumni on the curriculum. What aspects of the curriculum did they get the most from? Based on their experiences after Final Exercises, what served them best? What was key to their being able to move forward richly in life, vocationally and as citizens?

With the wave of new faculty hirings and upcoming revisions to the College’s curriculum, change is in the air. Given the importance of tradition, how will the University evolve without losing its essential character?

There’s a line from one of Salman Rushdie’s novels that is really important. Rushdie asks this question: “How does newness enter the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? ”

It’s always struck me that the second set of questions answers the first. Newness doesn’t enter as something radically new, as something never seen before. What is new emerges by bringing together a series of histories, cultures and traditions that have come before and putting them into a new configuration. Gary Wills, in his book Mr. Jefferson’s University, writes about the architecture of the Lawn as part of Jefferson’s great genius. Jefferson combined a number of classical architectural forms, fused them and made something new, from which a tradition emerged. As we bring in new faculty from around the world, they’re joining the faculty who’ve come before. The new thing that happens is bringing together what has been, and what’s emerging, so that every person new to the University is transformed by its history, and the history is always remade by the new people coming to it.