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Prepared Remarks for Presidential Forum: "What Makes a University Great?"

May 27, 2016

Superb Faculty

The best measure of a university’s greatness is the quality of its faculty. This is especially true when discussing what makes a university great for its students, because the faculty members are responsible for shaping the students’ learning experience — for better or worse.

Among U.S. universities, the competition for top faculty is fierce. Most universities are experiencing a large wave of retirements now, and this will continue over the next several years, as America’s Baby Boomer generation — people born after World War II, between 1946 and 1964 — begin retiring in large numbers.

During this period of large-scale hiring, U.S. universities are competing with each other for the best faculty from around the world. Building faculty excellence during this period is a top priority in UVA’s strategic plan.

We know that the quality of the student experience at our University depends on the quality of the faculty.

Faculty-Student Interaction

For a university to be “great for its students,” having faculty who are good teachers and preeminent leaders in their research fields is not enough. A great learning experience for students requires direct interaction between faculty and students.

Thomas Jefferson, who founded UVA, designed its original buildings as a village — he called it the “Academical Village.” The first professors lived on the second floor of two-story houses, and taught in classrooms on the first floor. The students lived in one-story rooms interspersed between the houses. By design, this village encouraged student-faculty interaction and created a culture of shared learning.

Close connection among students and faculty remains a defining strength for UVA today. Faculty members engage students formally in the classroom and informally outside of classes. We expect our faculty to be committed to advising and mentoring our students, because our university will not be “great for its students” without that interaction.

Quality of Curriculum

The quality of the curriculum is another important factor in the quality of students’ education. Because the global economy is changing so rapidly, university curricula must change to meet 21st-century needs.

At UVA, we just announced that our College of Arts & Sciences will undertake a pilot study of changes to its undergraduate curriculum. The new curriculum is designed to better prepare students for our rapidly transforming world by emphasizing open inquiry, shared intellectual experiences, and synthesis across disciplines and fields of knowledge.

In making this change, we drew inspiration from our founder, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote these words in 1805: “Science is progressive. What was useful two centuries ago is now become useless …What is now deemed useful will in some of its parts become useless in another century.”

Constant reinvention is necessary in universities to keep pace with the rapid pace of knowledge development, discovery, and innovation in the economy that our students will enter.

Research Opportunities

Connecting students with faculty research opportunities is another way to make a university great for its students. For example, at UVA, we have a new program that matches UVA undergrads with research work being done by UVA faculty.

For students, the matching service eliminates the unknowns of how to find faculty, how to ask if a professor is looking for an undergrad research assistant, and so on. The program currently includes faculty in the sciences and medicine, but will soon expand to include all disciplines.

Also, UVA has a new research partnership with Germany’s Max Planck Society, one of the foremost research institutions in the world. UVA was selected to be the only U.S. member of the MAXNET Energy initiative, which will develop solutions for clean, renewable energy sources.

This partnership will provide great opportunities for our undergraduate and graduate students, allowing them to work with some of the world’s leading scientists on projects in innovative energy-science fields.

Global Programs

In this century of connected nations and economies, students need to be prepared for leadership on a global scale. This means we need to offer them a variety of international experiences, both curricular and extra-curricular.

At UVA, we launched a major in Global Studies with four concentrations: Global Development; Global Public Health; Environments and Sustainability; and, Security and Justice. About 120 students enrolled in the major in its first year in 2014-15, and that number doubled this academic year.

We have also increased our offerings in study-abroad, global internships, research, and service. Back in 1990, UVA had fewer than 10 faculty-led study-abroad programs, with even fewer exchange agreements. Today, we have more than 50 study-abroad programs, with agreements with more than 80 universities, including HKUST and other universities in China. More than 900 students from China are currently enrolled at UVA, including 15 students from Hong Kong.

Another example of international collaboration that involves UVA and HKUST students is the Jefferson Global Seminars. This program combines instruction by faculty from UVA and HKUST, offering students a multi-faceted perspective on their coursework, opportunities to build relationships with students from a foreign nation, and the chance to develop a global frame of reference.

In addition to study abroad, we believe students should have the opportunity to work abroad. UVA’s Career Center has just created a new Global Careers Taskforce to help UVA students from all nations obtain internships and other career-oriented experiences outside of their home countries. The taskforce provides a streamlined approach to advising, employer relations, and alumni engagement for students pursuing career experiences around the world.

Leadership Training

A great university responds to the needs of its nation. America needs strong leaders now, and UVA produces educated leaders who are capable of sustaining a free nation. Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.” Our first rector, Mr. Jefferson, wrote the American Declaration of Independence, and our second rector, James Madison, wrote the U.S. Constitution. Together, they shaped a young nation.

To sustain this tradition of leadership at UVA, we created the Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership. Named for the man whom Thomas Jefferson appointed to lead the Lewis and Clark Expedition across the U.S., the Lewis Institute prepares students for the significant levels of leadership at UVA, and for lives of leadership after graduation.

Students are selected for this program in the fall semester of their 2nd years and begin by enrolling in a spring academic course titled “Leadership across the Disciplines,” which examines leadership from various disciplinary perspectives, including business and the liberal-arts disciplines.

During summer, Fellows participate in a six-week program covering a broad range of leadership topics, including public speaking, team building, and budgeting. All this prepares them for their continued involvement as student leaders working on a range of issues and independent projects at the University.

The Issue of “Fit”

One final thought about what make a university great for its students: universities are not one-size-fits-all. A university that’s great for one student may not be great for another student. When considering their education options, students and their families should consider the size of a university, its setting, the make-up of the student body, the curricular focus, and so on. These factors vary from university to university, and each student needs to find the university that will be “great” for his or her individual preferences.