Jefferson Medal Recipients in Law, Architecture and Citizen Leadership Share Thoughts in Public Talks

April 15, 2009 — From an artist's view of the world, to a diplomat's view of world events, to efforts to make the world more just, each winner of this year's Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals provided insights into their work during Founder's Day activities at the University of Virginia.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals in Architecture, Citizen Leadership and Law, which are presented jointly by U.Va. and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello, are the highest external honors bestowed by the University, which grants no honorary degrees.

They recognize achievements of those who embrace endeavors that Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, third U.S. president and U.Va. founder, excelled in and held in high regard.

The 2009 recipients gave public talks during their visits to the University this week. Below are capsule reports on their speeches.

Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture
Robert Irwin, American artist

Robert Irwin's questioning ideas of perception began early in his career as an artist.

"There are no frames in the world. That's not how I see the world," said the 80-year-old abstract artist. Irwin's public talk, "On the Nature of Abstraction," was delivered Tuesday to artists, architects and scientists in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium.

Irwin is one of America's most influential artists, working in engaging the viewer in heightened awareness of light and space. His paintings, sculptures and land art have influenced artists, architects and landscape architects, said Architecture School Dean Karen Van Lengen in her introductory remarks.

Visual perception and the "relationship between the sentient realm and the intellectual realm coexists in the world," Irwin said as part of his discussion of abstract art and its reexamination of that relationship in the 20th century by artists who experimented in creating non-object art.

These modern artists moved away from pictorial logic of representation toward a philosophical approach to art that embraced feelings and the new scientific understanding of how the world works and the relationship between humans and the natural environment. He called on the theories of philosophers, psychologists and physicists to explain the history of modern art as an exercise of inquiry.

"It's about looking from another perspective and another kind of truth," Irwin said, as a way of explaining "a big shift in relationship and representation of an idea as an expression of a visceral existence.

"The role of the artist is to continually explore and introduce ourselves and others to the pure potential of a human being to perceive the world," he said.

— By Jane Ford

Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Citizen Leadership
Warren M. Christopher, former secretary of state

Warren Christopher, who served as secretary of state under President Clinton, spoke Tuesday at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, reflecting on his politics, diplomacy, public service and his recent role as co-chairman of the National War Powers Commission, brought together last year by the Miller Center.

The commission, co-chaired by Christopher and fellow former secretary of state James A. Baker III, recommended last July that Congress repeal the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and substitute a new statute – the War Powers Consultation Act of 2009 – that would set up a clear process for more meaningful consultation between the president and Congress on decisions to go to war.

Since last summer, Christopher and other members of the commission have met privately with the Obama administration and testified before the U.S. House of Representatives, and will testify before the Senate in a couple of weeks, said Gerald L. Baliles, Miller Center director and former Virginia governor. A crowded docket of Obama's other legislative priorities may push back a vote on the legislation, Christopher predicted.

Christopher lauded Obama's performance thus far, saying he handled perfectly both the recent pirate hostage crisis off the coast of Somalia, and a recent speech and appearance in Turkey that was part of a "successful" trip to Europe.

Americans don't know how seriously their reputation has been eroded around the world over the past decade, Christopher warned, noting that much of the world also resents and blames the U.S. for the current global financial crisis.

Going forward, America must get accustomed to being one among multiple major powers in the world, rather than a sole superpower, he said.

"We will not have the kind of dominance that we thought we had for a time," Christopher said. "I think we will regain our position in the world — not as high as it was at the zenith, but nevertheless we will be a very, very important actor in the world."

After noting that his career of public service was inspired in part by the advice of his law school dean that he model his life on Dean Acheson, secretary of state under President Harry S. Truman, Christopher reflected, "I've led a wonderfully lucky life. ... Secretary of state may be the best non-elected job in the world.  The chance to go around the world and be representing the United States, it makes you worry at night and hold onto your stomach sometimes, but speaking for the United States is a tremendous honor and privilege."

— By Brevy Cannon

Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law
Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld, co-founders of the Innocence Project

In 1992, Peter J. Neufeld and Barry C. Scheck co-founded the Innocence Project, which has since used DNA testing to clear the names and win the release of more than 200 wrongfully convicted inmates, including 17 on death row.

On Monday at the Law School's Caplin Pavilion, they discussed some of their cases and how such miscarriages of justice can be prevented going forward through better use of science by the legal system.

Recent research by Neufeld and U.Va. law professor Brandon Garrett found that in 60 percent of 137 wrongful conviction cases involving forensic evidence, the forensic experts had provided testimony on subjects such as bite marks that was scientifically invalid as judged by the normal professional standards at the time of the trial.

Such problems are becoming better known thanks to a National Academy of Sciences report released in February that called for better science in the justice system.

On the heels of that report, Neufeld and Scheck are hoping that a federal regulatory agency is created to oversee the criminal justice system, similar to how the FDA regulates food and health safety. The new agency could do basic research in forensic science, establish standards and set parameters for expert testimony and forensic report writing, all grounded in basic scientific principles, Neufeld said.

There should also be an independent agency that closely examines cases of wrongful convictions, to learn from specific mistakes, much as the National Transportation Safety Board looks into plane crashes and train derailments to better prevent them.

In the meantime, the more than 40 Innocence Project clinics that have proliferated at law schools around the nation, including at U.Va., will continue to fight for justice one case at a time. That work offers unique rewards, Neufeld said.

"When law students go with you when you finally exonerate somebody, and they go down into the prison and they take that man or woman by the hand who was wrongly convicted, and walk them into sunlight, it is a life-transforming experience ... that they will carry with them until the day they die," he said.

— By Brevy Cannon