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Presidential History

A look back at those who led UVA

Wary of hierarchy, Thomas Jefferson never wanted a president for his University. He decided the power would be shared by a Rector and a Board of Visitors, with the Chairman of the Faculty overseeing the day-to-day functioning of the University.

However, as UVA grew in the late 1800s, it became clear presidents were needed.

In 1905, Edwin A. Alderman—previously the president at the University of North Carolina and Tulane—became UVA’s first. The University has had seven more since then.

Suffice to say, President Teresa Sullivan’s job today is a lot different from Alderman’s.

“There are just larger bureaucracies to contend with,” says Brian Balogh, a professor of history, “and of course we live in a much more public world with news breaking on a 24/7 basis.

“I think managerial skills are more important on one hand; fund-raising skills are more important on the other hand because of the size of the budget and the size of the operation.”

What would Jefferson think if he were around today?

“I think he wouldn’t want the job,” Balogh says, with a laugh.

As the University’s Board of Visitors searches for another president, take a look back at the men and woman who have served at the top:

Edwin A. Alderman

Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Years as President: 1905–31

Known for: Advocating for universal access to elementary and secondary education, especially for women; increasing the size, scope and prestige of the Medical School; instituting academic robes, which some students wore proudly year-round; having the library named after him.

Toughest hurdle: Creating a UVA women’s college (legislation required one to be at least 30 miles away from Charlottesville).

Greatest accomplishments: Providing higher education for women at the graduate level; founding the Curry Memorial School of Education and building Peabody Hall to house the school; increasing the size of the faculty and student body; increasing the endowment. “The Curry School was a major accomplishment in terms of improving the quality of secondary education and primary education statewide,” says UVA Professor Emerita of History Phyllis Leffler, “because it was a training ground for administrators and teachers.”

John Lloyd Newcomb (Engr 1903)

Historical Collections & Services, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Years as President: Acting president from 1931–33; president until 1947

Known for: Instituting financial management that helped the University get through the Great Depression and World War II; recognizing the importance of departmental specialization; annually hosting the entering and graduating classes at his Carr’s Hill home. “He took advantage of a lot of the Depression-era federally based funding programs to really try and be constructive,” Leffler says.

Toughest hurdle: A 10 percent state-funding cut across the board, with faculty and administrative staff salaries slashed by 20 percent.

Greatest accomplishments: Using private gifts and federal money to construct the Bayly Art Museum, Thornton Hall and Alderman Library; acquiring the McGregor collection of rare Americana that is the basis of today’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library; instituting the Honors Course program.

Colgate W. Darden Jr. (Col 1922)

Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Years as President: 1947–59

Known for: Turning down a U.S. Senate seat in order to serve the University; attempting to democratize life at UVA by reining in the social power of fraternities; building Newcomb Hall, which was known as “Darden’s Folly” because of the belief a nonfraternity student activity building wasn’t needed. “As an undergraduate student from the South Side Virginia, he had really felt quite isolated from the rest of the student body,” Leffler says. “When he came back as president, he was determined to do something about that.”

Toughest hurdle: Bringing in a wider mix of students from different backgrounds. Says Leffler, “Many claimed that Darden was creating ‘State-U-ism’ at Virginia, effectively turning an elite men’s college into a traditional state university.”

Greatest accomplishments: Leading the restoration of pavilions II, III and VI; overseeing construction of the hospital, medical school, physics building and the annex to Cabell Hall; establishing the Judiciary Committee; advocating for the graduate business school that would eventually be named in his honor.

Edgar F. Shannon Jr.

Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Years as President: 1959–74

Known for: Implementing full coeducation.

Toughest hurdles: Implementing full coeducation; recruiting African-American students.

Greatest accomplishments: Tripling the size of UVA through the recruitment of students and faculty; leading the construction of several buildings, including University Hall, the Law School and the Alderman Road dorms; restoring the Rotunda to its Jeffersonian design and signing an agreement to make it a National Historic Landmark; increasing the number of endowed chairs nearly tenfold; building the science and humanities into nationally known centers of scholarship and research. “He was enormously influential and very farsighted in his thinking about how to make the University a major, modern university,” Leffler says.

Frank L. Hereford Jr. (Col ’43, Grad ’47)

Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Years as President: 1974–85

Known for: Recruiting a vast number of alumni in his fundraising efforts; playing a major role in the establishment of the Center for Advanced Studies; overseeing the decision for how the restored Rotunda should be used.

Toughest hurdle: The racial climate in Charlottesville. “It was a hard slog in terms of both convincing African-American students that they should come to the University—that it would be a welcoming place—and making it happen,” Leffler says.

Greatest accomplishments: Establishing a capital campaign that accumulated almost $150 million and raised the endowment by more than $40 million; building the University Hospital and Clemons Library; increasing the number of African-American students and faculty.

Robert M. O’Neil

Historical Collections & Services, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Years as President: 1985–90

Known for: Having the shortest stint of any UVA president; being an “outsider”—he came to UVA after serving as president of the statewide University of Wisconsin system.

Toughest hurdles: Being an outsider; improving student and faculty representation of African Americans and women, an area in which Hereford had made strides.

Greatest accomplishments: Establishing the Holland Scholarships to attract African-American applicants; creating the University’s Women’s Center; attracting a record number of undergraduate and graduate applicants; developing biomedical ethics, environmental science, women’s studies and Tibetan studies programs; inaugurating the master’s of teaching degree at Curry. On his creation of the women’s studies program, Leffler says: “He was really using his law background in some ways to think about ways to make the University a more equitable kind of place.”

John T. Casteen III (Col ’65, Grad ’66)

Media Relations, UVA Office of Public Affairs

Years as President: 1990–2010

Known for: Fundraising and financial restructuring; being the second-longest serving president, after Alderman.

Toughest hurdle: Funding cuts in the early 1990s.

Greatest accomplishments: Increasing the endowment from $488 million to $5.1 billion; entering the University into an agreement with the state that gave it more control of its financial resources; overseeing construction of a number of new buildings, including one for the nursing school and John Paul Jones Arena; creating more than 20 new undergraduate and graduate degree programs; instituting the office of Vice President for Diversity and Equity. “Under his administration, the University’s reputation continued to rise,” Balogh says. “He provided stability and predictability. He was very committed to making the University a more diverse place.”

Teresa A. Sullivan

Dan Addison

Years as President: 2010–2018

Known for: Guiding the University through a series of public relations storms, including her own temporary ouster and a since-discredited Rolling Stone story on sexual assault at UVA, all of which prompted Fortune magazine in 2015 to dub her “The unluckiest president in America.”

Toughest hurdle: Being forced to resign in 2012, after two years on the job, and then winning reinstatement 17 days later amid the student and faculty outpouring of support.

Greatest accomplishments: Establishing the Cornerstone Plan, including increased faculty hiring; the creation of the fully endowed Data Science Institute; fundraising more than $2 billion in new commitments; restoring the Rotunda; planning the Bicentennial; leading the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. “She worked on commemorating the work of the enslaved workers who helped build the University for a very long time,” Balogh says. “As you can imagine, that’s not the easiest thing politically to push through and raise money for. I’m impressed she’s been able to do that. The plans for it look very impressive.”