Casteen Reviews Progress Made, Obstacles Surmounted Over His 20-Year Tenure

February 09, 2010

February 9, 2010 — Retiring University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III used the occasion of his final State of the University speech Tuesday to take a sweeping look back at his 20-year tenure – outlining both the challenges the University has faced and the transformations it has undergone.

"This is my 20th State of the University report, and also my last," he told a near-capacity audience in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium, which would honor him with a prolonged standing ovation at its conclusion.

Among the changes he noted since 1990:

• The University has purchased, constructed or is currently constructing 134 buildings, from the Central Grounds Parking Garage and University Bookstore (opened in 1994) to the first buildings of the South Lawn Project (opened in December) to the Physical Life Sciences Building and Rice Hall (slated to open in 2011). There are new facilities for teaching, research, the arts, athletics, student life, libraries and health care.

• The Medical Center now serves twice the number of patients as it did in 1991 with a workforce that has nearly doubled.

• The student body has become more diverse (from 17.8 percent minority to 25.5 percent) and more female (from 50 percent female to 56 percent). Global ties, in international student enrollment and study abroad, have increased dramatically.

• The curriculum has become much more interdisciplinary. Public service opportunities for faculty and students are rising. There are at least 10 new majors, three new minors, and four new concentrations. Even in the Digital Age, the number of books in the University Library have grown from 3.2 million in 1990 to 5.1 million today.

• Technology provides fingertip access to a wealth of information that was simply unthinkable 20 years ago. The Library of Congress, Casteen noted, has 74 terabytes of digitized material online; with the University's current Internet pipeline, it would take 17 hours to download all of it. Using the University's 1990-era connection, it would have taken 13 years. The University has become a national leader in the use of technology in humanities.

• Personal technology has undergone a similar revolution. "In 1990, a blackberry was something you ate," Casteen quipped. E-mail was "a constant adventure. It never worked." Now, 99.9 percent of students arrive on Grounds with a computer, and 99 percent of those are laptops, he noted.

All of this growth and change, however, has occurred despite a "collapse of state support," he said, which caused the University to get serious about private fund-raising.

Echoing themes he has sounded throughout his tenure, Casteen lamented the long-term decline of state support for higher education. The portion of state general funds allotted to higher education has dropped from 16.7 percent to just 10.7 percent in 2010.

As a result, the University has had to look elsewhere for money to sustain its quest for excellence, he said. Tuition and fee increases become increasingly important in making up the state funding gap, now accounting for 16.9 percent of the University's revenues, a number that "inevitably will go up," Casteen predicted. Research grants have risen.

Most importantly, gifts and endowment income have become essential. The current $3 billion campaign remains on track, he said.

"As state support has fallen, even in a recession, private giving has risen," he said. " It is very clear that those who can assess the value of the product – education – are prepared to give, regardless of the surrounding economy.

"… I think the product of the work that we have done together over the last 20 years is a robust and remarkably flexible University."

The recession continues to bedevil the University's finances. At the beginning of the academic year, U.Va. had already absorbed three cuts amounting to $32 million, or 20 percent of its state funding, he noted – although the cuts were blunted by funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"It's important to remember always that the stimulus funds end in fiscal year 2011," Casteen warned, "which means 2012 is when the real budget reckoning will occur." The current projection, he said, has the University absorbing another cut of $36.6 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Despite the many successes of his tenure, Casteen did admit to some regrets. He would like to have seen a total overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum, "from beginning to end in every school," with more of an emphasis on math and science.

He would like to have put together a more comprehensive plan for the arts precinct, rather than tackling it piecemeal, and lamented that U.Va. is still "the largest university in the country without a concert hall."

The University was slow to begin building new research facilities. "We are behind target on the Virginia 2020 science initiatives; we need to acknowledge that, and as we plan for our next era, faculty members and our new president and others need to focus on the reality that we have not made the targets that external and internal experts defined for us when the Virginia 2020 science plan was published," he said.

Overall, though, he said that he has found great satisfaction in this era of his life.

"I think there's a sense in which our greatest successes at any time have occurred when strengths have mated appropriately with what we can and need to be; that this momentum that is built into the University's fiber, and is part of your fiber, as a member of the community – this momentum toward excelling is simply a characteristic of the place.

"It's one of dozens of things that have made my life and Betsy's life here such a tremendous thing of joy," he said, referring to his wife.

"We have found that external observers – alumni, faculty members from other institutions, the parents of our students and former students – support and want to assist, want to give life to the University in the form of various contributions.

"The final observation I would make is that they and you have made these 20 years the high point of my own life and a time of constant pleasure and joy."

— By Dan Heuchert