Aspirations and achievements

Dean Melvyn P. Leffler on the State of Arts & Sciences

By Melvyn P. Leffler
At the end of this academic year, I will step down as dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. When I accepted the position in 1997, I sought to create a more intellectually stimulating and challenging environment for our students and faculty. I also committed myself to improving the College’s financial resources. In the four years since then, we have made significant progress. With hard work and adequate resources, I know we can meet the challenges of the new century and achieve our highest aspirations.

I believe in academic excellence, cutting-edge research, and substantive discourse among faculty and students. College is a time when students should be excited by new ideas. As dean, I have worked hard to enrich the curriculum throughout Arts & Sciences and I have been privileged to work with a highly motivated group of alumni, students, and faculty on a number of exciting new initiatives. We have had great success promoting digital-technology initiatives to enhance the humanities and social sciences, establishing new interdisciplinary programs and centers, improving the fine and performing arts and bolstering several areas in the sciences.

Digital technology initiatives

The University is already a world leader in integrating digital technology into the humanities and social sciences. Our digital centers and institutes — such as the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Virginia Center for Digital History — are renowned for their innovative research, and our faculty are discovering exciting ways to utilize technology for teaching and public service. Through a coordinated series of new programs, new faculty hires, and new facilities, we are embarking on a bold plan to capitalize on our existing strengths. We seek to use digital technology to enhance our eminence in the humanities and social sciences and to create a “Digital Academical Village” at the University of Virginia.

The vision for the Digital Academical Village emerged from conversations with key alumni, including Halsey Minor (Anthropology ’87), the founder of CNET, who pledged $25 million to the initiative. Together, we are working to make U.Va. the best place in the world for utilizing digital technology in research and teaching, as well as the best place for understanding the impact of the information technology revolution on society, culture, the economy and the individual.

The Digital Academical Village, as I envision it, will include a new, cutting-edge academic building, an adjacent residential college and academic programs, all organized around the theme of digital technology. The facility will have classrooms equipped with the latest educational technology to enable our students to interact with and learn from students and scholars around the world.

Its intellectual core will be the new Center for Digital Initiatives, which promotes multi-disciplinary collaborations in digital research, teaching and outreach. Our outstanding digital centers will be located here, along with other academic units that can use technology to examine our heritage, values and ideals and share our discoveries with a global audience.

The Digital Academical Village embodies the concept of a “bridge center” — put forth in the report of the President’s Virginia 2020 long-range planning Commission on Science and Technology — that would bridge computer science and the humanities. We aim to integrate digital technology seamlessly into traditional humanities and social-science disciplines, to bring together computer scientists and humanists and to transform the College for the digital age. This is a compelling vision, one that requires significant additional support to be realized.

New interdisciplinary programs and centers

We have designed new interdisciplinary programs to ignite the interest of our students and to help them understand an increasingly complex world. For undergraduates, we have created four new interdisciplinary majors in the College. The media studies program, which began admitting majors in 2000, offers students a rigorous course of study focusing on the social, economic and cultural dimensions of media. We are developing a program in environmental literacy that will focus on a wide range of ecological issues. The Jewish studies program, established in part with gifts from College alumni, complements and enhances our internationally renowned Department of Religious Studies. And the new bachelor’s degree program in political philosophy, policy, and the law will promote an intellectually coherent approach to understanding the philosophical and political assumptions undergirding the law as well as its economic and social consequences.

Late last year, the College established a major new interdisciplinary research center, the Center on Religion and Democracy. Funded by a $10 million gift from private benefactors, other private gifts and a grant from the Pew Trusts, the Center will sponsor research, teaching and public programs that explore the relationships between religion and civil society.

Two landmark graduate programs will soon join the Arts & Sciences curriculum. A unique master’s degree program in digital humanities will begin admitting students in 2002. The only one of its kind in the world, this program will provide students with the skills to apply cutting-edge digital technology to the humanities. It will train the next generation of digitally savvy professionals for museums, libraries, education, publishing, government, communications, entertainment and more. Beginning next year the University will also offer its first Ph.D. in music. This doctoral program will dramatically raise the profile of the Department of Music and enhance our overall reputation in the fine and performing arts.

Enhancing the arts and the sciences

My dream has been to transform U.Va.’s fine and performing arts, which foster creativity and help our students understand human culture in all its diversity. The President’s 2020 Commission on the Fine and Performing Arts proposed new buildings as well as the renovation and expansion of our existing arts facilities. Realizing this ambitious vision will require large investments of private and public money during the next several decades. Recent pledges of private support for music, drama and art as well as state support for a new studio art building infuse us with optimism.

We have also taken strides toward enhancing the sciences. In the Department of Environmental Sciences, for example, a $10 million private gift combined with state support is funding a major new addition to Clark Hall that will provide critical laboratory space for faculty and students. Another $10 million gift to the Department of Astronomy will help purchase telescope access, strengthen the faculty, and enrich the curriculum. The Department of Psychology has made exceptionally strong faculty hires, including three recent appointments funded by privately endowed chairs. These successes are encouraging, but major challenges lie ahead, including financing the rising cost of new laboratories. Strong science departments are absolutely essential to providing a quality liberal arts education. We must continue to invest in the people and facilities on which our programs depend.

Emphasis on academic rigor

As dean, I have championed the highest academic standards. I believe we should aim to be in the top 10 of all universities, private and public, by 2020. To do this, we must build quality departments in all areas, recruit and retain top faculty and attract the best students. During the last four years, I have insisted that criteria for faculty hiring, promotion and tenure be rigorous. I have emphasized quality academic advising. I have fought the grade inflation that devalues our students’ achievements. I have tightened standards for intermediate honors, so that our most outstanding students receive the recognition they deserve. I rejoice that our students embrace the service ethic, but I also think they should spend more time interacting with faculty, studying and pondering fundamental existential issues.

There is ample evidence that the students and faculty of Arts & Sciences are doing extraordinary things. In the U.S. News & World Report rankings, U.Va. has gone from number 22 to number 20 overall since 1997. Our academic-reputation ranking is even higher at number 15. Notwithstanding our financial resources ranking at number 64, we are currently tied with Berkeley as the number 1 public university in the nation. Our student body is among the most talented anywhere, with high entering SAT and GRE averages, stellar graduation rates and the most Rhodes Scholars of any public university in the country. Arts & Sciences faculty continue to win prestigious awards, grants and other honors, including membership in the national academies.

Achievement despite limitations

Our achievements are even more impressive when contrasted with the College’s financial resources. As dean, I established a process for evaluating the financial position of the College and for determining the magnitude of our funding shortfall. The disparity between current resources and needs is great. Expenditures per student, staff support levels and operating budgets are well below those of other units at the University. They also fall far short of the resources available to the arts and sciences units of such other public institutions as UNC-Chapel Hill, Berkeley and UCLA. There is no space for new faculty and interdisciplinary programs. Many of our once-dignified buildings are in poor shape and need renovation. Consider that during the next five years, Arts & Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill will receive $165 million in state funds for new construction and renovation. By contrast, U.Va. Arts & Sciences has received about $50 million from the state for such purposes over the last 14 years.

Despite the significant disparity in financial resources and physical infrastructure, our faculty and students perform extraordinarily. We cannot expect, however, to maintain our current stature for long while our closest competitors outspend us in every category. We must vigorously convey our financial needs to the University, the Commonwealth, our alumni and our friends. In today’s increasingly competitive higher-education market, if we do not make major investments in the College’s people and facilities, the quality of the institution will suffer dramatically.

The College can have a magnificent future. We can and should aim to be in the top 10 of all universities by 2020. We can have top-10 departments in all the humanities and many of the social sciences. We can have strong science departments and flourishing programs in the fine and performing arts. We can have outstanding, innovative interdisciplinary programs that ignite our students’ imaginations. We can enhance our international activities and promote creative forms of community outreach. And we can integrate digital technology into the very fabric of teaching and research, preparing our students for life in a world permeated by technology.

We can do all of these things, but first we must embrace the challenges that they pose. We must invest in recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty that is second to none. We must do a better job attracting outstanding women and minority faculty.

We must be able to recruit the very best graduate students, who interact with our undergraduate students in discussion sections and laboratories and who are so critical to faculty recruitment. We must enhance administrative support in the College, which is desperately under-staffed. We need new facilities equipped with the latest in educational technology to house our teaching and research initiatives. And we must renovate the aging buildings that form the physical core of the College.

After four years as dean, I feel a tremendous sense of appreciation for what our faculty, students and alumni have achieved. I am particularly indebted to the officers of the former Alumni Council, who provided the leadership to form the new College Foundation. For the first time, the College will have a fund-raising vehicle similar to the foundations that have done so much to rebuild and energize the Law School and The Darden School. I am deeply grateful to Chris Gustafson (Interdisciplinary ’82), Alan Roberts (History ’64), John Nau (History ’68) and other alumni whose ambitions for the College inspired organizational change.

Our aspirations are great, and we have an extraordinary group of people working together to move Arts & Sciences forward in the new century. The challenges we face, however, are no less formidable than our ambitions. In 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote that he envisioned U.Va. as “the future bulwark of the human mind in this hemisphere.” We are all heirs to Jefferson’s legacy and we should heed his call to excellence. As dean, I have been guided by the ideal it represents. As friends of the College, we all have the power to make it a reality.

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Sidebar: College Foundation helps shoulder financial burden

Sustaining excellence requires significant financial investment. During the past decade, U.Va. has become increasingly dependent on private support to remain competitive with other top universities.

One of my chief aims as dean has been to engage alumni and friends in a conversation about our aspirations and to invite them to play a major role in shaping the future of the College. Their response has been extraordinary. When the Campaign for the University of Virginia began in 1994, the fundraising goal for the College was $76 million. At the conclusion of the campaign on Dec. 31, 2000, the College had raised approximately $220 million, nearly three times the original goal and more than any other school on Grounds.

The prospects for the future look even more promising. In April, a group of Arts & Sciences alumni announced the creation of a new, non-profit foundation that will dramatically increase the College’s ability to communicate its needs and mobilize support. The College Foundation will work with the dean to develop bold strategies for advancement, including implementation of an ambitious plan to raise an additional $250 million for the College by 2005.

The incredible generosity of alumni and friends provides essential support for the personnel, programs, and facilities that sustain excellence in the College. Major gifts help launch exciting new interdisciplinary programs, hire outstanding faculty, recruit talented graduate students, renovate older buildings and construct cutting-edge new facilities. The Annual Fund, which comprises smaller, unrestricted gifts, allows the dean to make strategic investments in high priority areas.

Private support and the creation of the College Foundation have been absolutely critical to our recent success and inspire us with optimism for the future.