February 5, 2009 —The University of Virginia formally launched its Tibet Center at a luncheon Jan. 30. The new center consolidates, integrates and significantly expands the University's world-renowned Tibet-related resources and programs.
The establishment of the Tibet Center represents the latest evolution in more than four decades of Tibetan studies at U.Va., a history that has been marked by "seemingly magical transformations," explained Tibet Center co-director David Germano, translating a phrase from Buddhist philosophy.
In addition to promoting the traditional scholastic goals of increased knowledge about Tibet, Germano and co-director Tashi Rabgey said they hope it can become an innovative model for how study, research and engagement can provide a neutral forum for constructive analysis and action on the pressing issues confronting Tibet, from bilingual education challenges to tourism's toll on the environment.
Bringing Tibetan and Chinese scholars and leaders together for dialogue and engagement on these issues will be the mission of the new Tibet Sustainable Governance Program, also unveiled Jan. 30.
"We will offer critical thinking about important subjects by bringing together leading experts on a variety of issues from around the world — academic research at its best," said Germano, an associate professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies. "We will combine that with social and political leadership by coming up with practical policy proposals and, in partnership with the nonprofit Machik, networking with Tibetans and Chinese on the ground to create working examples of our proposals."
The time is right for this new direction in Tibetan studies, Rabgey said. "In the wake of the Tibetan political unrest of 2008, a new generation of Chinese academics and scholars are taking their first serious look at the Tibetan region, and many are interested in addressing the problems that confront Tibet."
The launch of the Tibet Center is "a magnificent and crucial development that bodes very well for a wider range of Tibetan studies," said emeritus professor of religious studies Jeffrey Hopkins, a former translator for the Dalai Lama who led U.Va.'s Tibetan Buddhist Studies program for nearly 30 years. "This move into attempting to assist dialogue between Chinese and Tibetans is very, very important."
From its new Minor Hall offices, the Tibet Center will continue Germano and Rabgey's work to promote Tibetan "geotourism," a more holistic approach to tourism that considers the many facets of tourism's impact on a place. The National Geographic Society coined the term in 2007, using the prefix 'geo' — meaning 'place' — to express the concept of "tourism that cares about the place, in the holistic sense," Germano said.
Later this month, the Tibet Center will bring five leading Tibetan tourism officials, including the director of tourism for the Tibetan Autonomous Region, to Grounds for U.Va.'s second Geotourism Institute.
In addition to geotourism, the center will next focus on the challenges of education and language policy on the Tibetan plateau, with help from the Curry School of Education.
"We're very eager to increase our international education partnerships by working with the Tibet Center," said Rebecca D. Kneedler, an associate dean at the Curry School. In April the center plans to host a closed-door meeting of high-level Tibetan and Chinese educational leaders.
On Friday afternoon, the center hosted its first guest speaker, Lodi Gyari, who has served as the Dalai Lama's chief political negotiator for more than 25 years.
"I am amazed at all that is going on here at U.Va. and all the potential," said Gyari, reflecting on his first visit to U.Va. "Everything happens by collective action. No one accomplishes things alone."
The History of Tibetan Studies at U.Va.
Since the 1960s, the University of Virginia has been a preeminent institution of advanced study and learning on Tibetan Buddhism, including housing one of North America’s premier collections of Tibetan literature.
Starting in the 1970s, emeritus professor of religious studies Jeffrey Hopkins, who served as the Dalai Lama's translator from 1979 to 1989, built the largest and most famous Tibetan Buddhist Studies program in North America. One of the field's most respected scholars and the author of 39 books, Hopkins organized the Nobel Peace Laureates Conference that brought the Dalai Lama and other dignitaries to the University in 1998.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Germano worked with the University Library and U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities to establish the Tibetan and Himalayan Library, a digital model of the Tibetan plateau that links a vast library of scholarship, photos, video and audio related to Tibet, contributed by scholars and community leaders in Tibet as well as researchers and academics from around the world.
In the process, U.Va. has become the leading American university in building engaged relationships inside Tibet, fashioning unique contracts with Tibet University and the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, and hosting research and study programs in China for faculty and students from across North America and Europe, said Gowher Rizvi, vice provost for international affairs.
The Tibet Center has 11 affiliated faculty from a variety of disciplines, including Nicolas Sihlé (anthropology), Brantly Womack (politics), Dr. Leslie J. Blackhall (medicine) and Tsetan Chonjore (East Asian languages).