Call it the American Dream, academia-style. Gene D. Block arrived on Grounds as an assistant professor of biology in 1978; two years later, Edward L. Ayers joined the history department. Over the next quarter-century, both men built stellar careers on a solid foundation of outstanding scholarship, Ayers becoming a nationally renowned expert on 19th-century Southern history, Block exploring the mysteries of biological clocks. They rose through the ranks, first earning tenure, then full professorships, then leadership positions—Ayers eventually becoming dean of College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Block rising to vice president and provost.
Thus, the news that both homegrown scholars will leave UVA this summer to head other universities—Ayers as president of the University of Richmond, Block as chancellor of UCLA—was met on Grounds with both a sense of pride and a sense of loss.
A brilliant lecturer, Ayers is well known among UVA alumni—at least those who were able to get into one of his popular classes. In 2003, he was recognized as the U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation, and in October the University accorded him its highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award. His scholarship matched his teaching; his 1992 book, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and a digital project, “The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War” was hailed as pioneering in its application of technology to the humanities.
Block built his considerable reputation in the lab, where he sought to unlock the secrets of biological clocks. The founding director of the National Science Foundation Center for Biological Timing and director of the Biodynamics Institute, Block became a leading advocate for raising the profile of science at the University—an emphasis reflected in UVA’s current $3 billion capital campaign.