October 16, 2009 — The University of Virginia presented two Thomas Jefferson Awards today, one recognizing excellence in service and the other recognizing excellence in scholarship. They are the highest honors that the University bestows.
The award for service was given to President John T. Casteen III, who will step down from the presidency next August. The award for scholarship went to J. Thomas Parsons, chairman of the Department of Microbiology and F. Palmer Weber Professor of Medical Research.
Casteen and Parsons are the 57th and 58th recipients of the Thomas Jefferson Award. The original award, established in 1955 by the Robert Earll McConnell Foundation, recognizes long-term service to the University. This year, the Alumni Board of Trustees of the University of Virginia Endowment Fund established a second award to recognize excellence in scholarship.
Each in his own way, Casteen and Parsons have raised U.Va.'s profile nationally and worldwide. During Casteen's presidency, U.Va. has been consistently ranked among the top public institutions in the U.S. and has built its global reputation through enhanced focus on international programs and partnerships. Parsons, who joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1974, is widely recognized as a leading researcher in the field of cell signaling, an important avenue of cancer research.
The Convocation included recognition of 401 third-year U.Va. students who earned intermediate honors and a keynote address by Meredith Jung-En Woo, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
John Casteen: An Extraordinary Legacy of Service
In 1961, a 17-year-old first-generation college student from Tidewater came to the University of Virginia to study. Before he was done, he would earn not one, but three degrees in English.
His career aspirations then were to become a professor of English, which he did. Little did he expect to return to his alma mater to become one of the longest-serving and most-respected presidents in higher education. He currently holds the George M. Kaufman Presidential Professorship.
Some of Casteen's accomplishments have been summarized in the two-page citation that was delivered at Convocation today. In part, it reads:
"As we reflect with gratitude on his long-time leadership, we recognize that our modern University is in many ways the product of Mr. Casteen's singular intellect, his powerful imagination, and his visionary leadership. He is a proud alumnus who has lived the University's values, a president who is known personally in every corner of the world where alumni and friends gather, and a tireless advocate for this University that has become a global symbol of excellence in higher education under his leadership. The thousands of students who have earned degrees here during his presidency and the future generations of students who will live and learn in the modern University that Mr. Casteen conceived and built during his two decades as president – these are the beneficiaries of his achievements."
Casteen, 65, who became president in 1990, announced in June that he plans to step down at the conclusion of his 20th year on Aug. 1.
His legacy runs both wide and deep. There is no part of the University – from Charlottesville to the College at Wise – that has not been in some way touched by Casteen's vision and hard work.
During his time at the University, he has been an outspoken advocate on issues that were often controversial, including increasing the number of students who are women, minorities and of low socioeconomic backgrounds. In 2003, he directed the creation of AccessUVa, the University's groundbreaking – and extraordinarily successful – full-need financial aid program.
Seeking a solution to drastically declining state support and securing funding from private sources have been two hallmarks of his presidency. His vision regarding the financial future of higher education in Virginia – and his aggressive steps to protect the University – helped solidify its financial future and relieve its dependence on what continues to be erratic state support.
He has also led two of the most ambitious fundraising campaigns in American higher education. Last month, after a year of a global financial crisis, the University reached the $2 billion mark of its current $3 billion campaign goal just weeks after its initial deadline.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics and a University Professor of Politics, wrote a letter nominating Casteen for this year's award. In it he listed many of the changes that have occurred at the University during Casteen's tenure, including the dramatic improvements in the quality of faculty, students and academic programs in many of the University's schools and departments.
"These things don't just happen," he wrote. "It takes strong, unerring leadership, day after day, year after year. John Casteen has provided that leadership."
Sabato went on to write about Casteen's commitment to student financial aid and diversity. "Every year the University has looked more like Virginia, America and the world, as the numbers of women, minority, and international students and faculty have grown substantially. The quality of life and the educational experience have been considerably enhanced as a result."
Casteen returned to U.Va. in 1975 to become its dean of admission, but left in '82 to serve as Virginia's secretary of education, where he directed reforms in both secondary and higher education, revamped Virginia's college desegregation efforts and initiated programs of state support for research. He was recruited three years later to become the University of Connecticut's president and five years after that – in 1990 – a similar call came from the University of Virginia.
In June, W. Heywood Fralin, former rector of the University, summarized Casteen's contributions when he told the Board of Visitors, "John Casteen will be remembered as the person who understood Jefferson's vision of this place and catapulted it into the 21st century. He will leave an indelible mark and will be remembered as the father of our modern University."
Casteen, who was named the Outstanding Virginian in 1993, has served on numerous national higher education boards and committees, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the College Entrance Examination Board, the Association of Governing Board's Council of Presidents, and the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. He recently completed a term as chair of the Association of American Universities.
Casteen and his wife Betsy have five children.
Tom Parsons: Blazing New Paths in Cancer Research and Treatment
J. Thomas Parsons and his co-principal investigator, Alan F. "Rick" Horwitz, lead the Cell Migration Consortium, which unites top researchers from around the globe in the quest to understand the complexities of cell movement.
The $80 million National Institutes of Health award for the effort is called a "glue" grant because it unites scientists in a common effort to understand cell migration, a factor critical in diseases such as cancer, arthritis and osteoporosis, as well as wound repair, embryonic development and tissue engineering.
Parsons, recipient of the 2009 Thomas Jefferson Award for scholarship, is also the "glue" in U.Va.'s microbiology department, say those who nominated him for the recognition.
Parsons, who came to U.Va.'s School of Medicine as an assistant professor in 1974, is credited with helping to create the now-thriving field of cancer cell signaling, an area of study that is opening new avenues of cancer research and treatment.
In doing so, he has brought U.Va. worldwide recognition for cell-signaling research – "the study of the ways that mis-regulation of intracellular signals can drive the malignant behavior of cancer cells," according to Michael J. Weber, Weaver Professor of Oncology and director of U.Va.'s Cancer Center.
Those who nominated Parsons also herald his generosity as a colleague, teacher and mentor, as well as his leadership as department chairman, a post from which he will step down in the coming year.
Earlier this year, Parsons was recognized as a Distinguished Scientist at U.Va. This award, created by the Office of the Vice President for Research, honors longtime faculty members in the sciences, medicine and engineering who have made extensive and influential contributions to their fields.
Parsons, 67, was born in Chicago. He earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1964 at DePauw University and his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Duke University in 1968. He trained in chemistry and molecular biology at Duke, St. Louis University and Universitat Zurich before coming to the U.Va. Department of Microbiology in 1974. Parsons earned tenure in 1984 and for the past 15 years has served as chairman of microbiology.
He has published 178 papers, including six that have been cited more than 500 times. He has been very successful in attracting external funding, including the $80 million NIH award, the largest research grant ever made to the University.
Martin Schwartz, professor of microbiology and biomedical engineering at U.Va.'s Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center, noted that the NIH project puts U.Va. at the forefront of research.
"Tom has been a leader at U.Va., helping the institution rise to its current prominent place as a world leader in cancer and cell signaling," he wrote.
Parsons' early work was among the first to address how certain genes, called "oncogenes," could cause cancer, wrote Amy H. Bouton, professor of microbiology. "As the field has moved forward over his 35-year research career, so has Dr. Parsons, making seminal contributions to our understanding of cell adhesion and its role in the development and progression of solid tumors."
Parsons opened new lines of inquiry with his discovery and characterization of several novel proteins. One of these proteins, focal adhesion kinase (FAK), was found to have a role in disease progression, particularly in cancer. Parsons' research has led to FAK-inhibiting drugs now in human trials against metastatic cancer.
Bouton wrote that FAK is now also known to be a critical regulator of normal cell functions, associated with embryo development, wound repair and cardiac development.
Joan S. Brugge, chairman of the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard University, noted that nearly 3,000 published reports deal with some aspect of FAK's activity.
"Tom has played a key role in advancing our understanding of oncogenic transformations, as well as the regulation of cell behavior by extracellular matrix receptors and their targets, and the intersection of these two areas of biology," she wrote in her nominating letter.
Horwitz, Harrison Distinguished Professor of Cell Biology, cited the wide impact of Parsons' research.
"Tom is among the top couple percent in total citations among biochemists and cell biologists," he wrote. "Many researchers at U.Va. and around the world owe their careers to FAK and Tom's discovery."
Dr. Irving L. Kron, S. Hurt Watts Professor of Surgery and chairman of the Department of Surgery, recognized Parsons' collaboration.
"Tom may be the greatest collaborator one could hope to work with," Kron wrote. "He has mentored several of my faculty. … He has done this out of his own volition, his interest in young faculty and his overall ability to communicate their shared mission."
Ian J. Glomski, assistant professor of microbiology, said that collaborative environment is what attracted him to U.Va. Parsons, he wrote, "creates a space of sufficient comfort to allow us to lift our heads from our focused research for a bit and look around to see the world from a slightly larger perspective."
Parsons has also served on University and School of Medicine committees, including the Faculty Senate and the Cancer Center Advisory Committee.
Kevin S. Lee, Harrison Foundation Professor and chairman of the Department of Neuroscience, said Parsons' frequent appearances at symposiums, seminars and lectures have brought national and international recognition to the University. He's on the editorial boards of many journals, and he co-authored a textbook, "Essentials in Microbiology," that is widely used at other universities.
Parsons and his wife Sarah Anne have a son, Scott, and daughter, Rebecca Anne.