A Look Back: Moments That Helped Define UVA’s Last Decade

From the triumphant celebration of the University of Virginia’s bicentennial to the creation of a new School of Data Science and the inauguration of two presidents, UVA saw a lot of change in the 2010s.

The University was also thrust into the headlines in 2017 when neo-Nazis and white supremacists came to Grounds seeking to spread hatred – and were met with a resounding response from students, faculty, staff and the greater Charlottesville community.

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As the world prepares to ring in 2020, UVA Today looks back at these and other moments of the past decade. While not meant to be an exhaustive list, these points in time have played an important role as the University community works to be both great and good and to achieve President Jim Ryan’s goal of making UVA the best public university in the nation by 2030.

UVA’s Bicentennial

The Bicentennial Launch Celebration in 2017 included an impressive light show. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)
The Bicentennial Launch Celebration in 2017 included an impressive light show. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

UVA heralded the arrival of its third century on Oct. 6, 2017 with a stunning celebration on the Lawn that featured an eye-popping projection-mapping show, broadcast on the Rotunda. Then-President Teresa A. Sullivan and then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe welcomed a crowd of 20,000 for the Bicentennial Launch Celebration, which also featured Tony Award-winning Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr., Grammy Award-nominated R&B singer Andra Day and rock band the Goo Goo Dolls, as well as performances by more than 800 UVA students and faculty.

Famous alumni including Katie Couric and Jason George took the stage as well, while Hoos Tina Fey and Malcolm Brogdon delivered special video messages marking the 200th anniversary of the laying of UVA’s cornerstone at Pavilion VII.

Commemorations of the bicentennial continue, and the University recently launched “Honor the Future,” a $5 billion campaign for UVA’s third century. The campaign aims to help the University maintain its exceptional quality and value and meet its aspiration to become the nation’s best public university. 

A Renovated Rotunda

An extensive renovation, completed in 2016, brought new life to UVA’s iconic Rotunda. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)
An extensive renovation, completed in 2016, brought new life to UVA’s iconic Rotunda. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

A painstaking two-year project brought the centerpiece of the University into modern times with work honored by the American Institute of Architects as the recipient of one of only nine 2019 Institute Honor Awards for Architecture.

From 2014 to 2016, John G. Waite Associates, Architects, PLLC of Albany, New York, led the project. Workers installed a new copper dome; restored the Carrara marble capitals atop the Rotunda’s exterior columns; added modern mechanical systems, including underground service and support rooms; and upgraded the signature Dome Room.

The Rotunda was heavily damaged in 1895 by a large fire that destroyed much of the building’s interior. One space, however, was spared damage because it had been sealed off in one of the lower-floor walls in the 1850s: a chemical hearth that dates back to the 1820s, used as a teaching tool in the original Rotunda. Possibly the only surviving example of a chemical hearth from that period, it is now part of a historic display in the Rotunda.

In 2018, the Rotunda renovation received a Silver rating from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, a certification developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to recognize environmentally responsible practices in construction and renovation.

Today, the Rotunda is a living, breathing place of academic activity, with beautiful student study spaces and oval-shaped rooms where professors and young scholars often gather for class.

Blockbuster Research: The Brain Immune System

Researchers at the School of Medicine found the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. (Image contributed by the School of Medicine)
Researchers at the School of Medicine found the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. (Image contributed by the School of Medicine)

In 2016, researchers in the School of Medicine announced a stunning discovery that overturned decades of textbook teaching. Namely, they found the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels never before identified.

“I really did not believe there were structures in the body that we were not aware of. I thought the body was mapped,” said neuroscience professor Johnathan Kipnis, the lead researcher and director of the University’s Center for Brian Immunology and Glia.

The implications of the discovery are enormous. The newfound connection will impact the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism and Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and glaucoma.

Kipnis said researchers no longer need to ask questions like, “How do we study the immune response of the brain?” or “Why do multiple sclerosis patients have immune-system attacks?”

“Now, we can approach this mechanistically, because the brain is like every other tissue connected to the peripheral immune system through meningeal lymphatic vessels,” Kipnis said. “We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role.”

‘Take Back the Lawn’ Vigil of 2017 and A Concert for Charlottesville

Thousands attended the vigil. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)
Thousands attended the vigil. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

In a powerful repudiation of hate and bigotry, thousands of UVA and community members congregated on the Lawn on Aug. 17, 2017, for a candlelight vigil organized by students to denounce the hatred that torch-bearing neo-Nazis and white supremacists expressed during marches and violence at UVA and in Charlottesville the previous weekend.

The large crowd retraced the steps of the racist mob, beginning at 9 p.m. at Nameless Field, winding through Grounds down McCormick Road and pouring onto the Lawn, filling its tiers from the steps of the Rotunda back to Old Cabell Hall.

Bearing candles, the crowd joined in song, including such pieces as “We Shall Overcome,” “Amazing Grace,” “Lean on Me” and “The Good Old Song.”

A hush settled on the Lawn during a moment of silence to remember Heather Heyer and Virginia State Troopers H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates. The three lost their lives during the violent events of Aug. 12, when white nationalists and counter protesters clashed in downtown Charlottesville. Heyer was killed when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, while Cullen and Bates died when their helicopter crashed near Birdwood Golf Course after monitoring the day’s events from the air.

The UVA vigil aimed to be peaceful and powerful, in marked contrast to that violence. A few weeks later, hometown favorite Dave Matthews Band organized A Concert for Charlottesville to bring the community together and raise money for victims. Thousands sang and danced as a raft of superstars performed at Scott Stadium, including Stevie Wonder, the Dave Matthews Band, Chris Stapleton, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Brittany Howard, Cage the Elephant, Pharrell Williams and The Roots.

To massive cheers, Wonder joined Matthews onstage and declared, “This is truly the example that love can win.” He urged the crowd, “Use your gift, your song, your musicianship, your voice to spread the never-ending cry for love.”

The Inauguration of Two Presidents and Pursuit of a ‘Great and Good’ University

Teresa A. Sullivan speaks at her 2011 inauguration. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)
Teresa A. Sullivan speaks at her 2011 inauguration. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The past decade saw the inauguration of two University presidents, including the first woman to lead the University.

Teresa A. Sullivan was sworn in April 15, 2011, as UVA’s eighth president.

Sullivan came to UVA from the University of Michigan, where she served as provost. In her inaugural address, Sullivan compared the revolutionary times of UVA’s founding with the present-day “knowledge revolution.”

“The revolution led by Jefferson and his collaborators was a political and military revolution,” she said. “Our revolution is a knowledge revolution playing out in classrooms, laboratories and libraries around the world.”

They are worth comparing, she said, “because the stakes were so high then, and the stakes are so high now.”

Current University President Jim Ryan, who began his tenure as UVA’s ninth president on Aug. 1, 2018, was officially sworn in on a sunny fall afternoon last year. It was a homecoming for Ryan, who graduated from UVA’s School of Law and was a beloved law professor there for 15 years before becoming dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Jim Ryan, UVA’s ninth president addressed the crowd at his inauguration. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)
Jim Ryan, UVA’s ninth president, addressed the crowd at his inauguration. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Speaking from a stage in front of Old Cabell Hall, Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University during Ryan’s tenure there, praised him as “the perfect president for UVA and for this very challenging moment in higher education.”

A successful university, Ryan said, requires a certain kind of faith – faith that research will lead to progress not currently possible; faith that work students do today will help them become wise leaders tomorrow; faith that faculty and staff members can use their work here to make an impact and change the world.

“This is the grand faith of universities and those who participate in them: faith in the possibility of progress,” Ryan said. “Progress toward a more prosperous, healthier, just and peaceful society, and progress toward lives that are more meaningful, purposeful and passionate.

“This is not, or should not be, a blind faith, but instead a realistic one, even a critical one. It is a faith that understands that progress is rarely linear, it’s often messy, and it’s sometimes impossible to fully grasp in the moment.”

In June 2019, UVA’s Board of Visitors approved Ryan’s 10-year strategic plan. “A Great and Good University: The 2030 Plan” aims to make UVA the best public university by 2030. The plan’s goals include expanding financial aid, improving faculty recruitment and working with the community to address issues like wages, affordable housing and access to health care.

So Many National Championships

The UVA men’s basketball team celebrates after winning the 2019 national championship. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)
The UVA men’s basketball team celebrates after winning the 2019 national championship. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

To make sense of the success of Cavalier athletic teams in the 2010s, one must go back to 2002.

That’s when then-Director of Athletics Craig Littlepage unveiled the “Uncompromised Excellence” initiative, which set ambitious targets for the next decade: 70 Atlantic Coast Conference championships, 12 NCAA titles and a degree for every UVA student-athlete.

The goals were audacious; UVA had earned 58 ACC championships and 12 NCAA titles in its entire history to that date. But UVA Athletics reaped the rewards in the 2010s. Cavalier teams amassed 11 NCAA championships between 2010 and 2019, and the men’s tennis program added four more Intercollegiate Tennis Association championships for indoor tennis, a sport for which the NCAA does not sanction a national championship.

Two other Cavalier programs won a pair of NCAA titles in the 2010s: women’s rowing (2010 and ’12) and men’s lacrosse (2011 and ’19). Men’s soccer (2014) and baseball (2015) also each added NCAA hardware to the trophy case.

The highest-profile championship of all, however, came this spring when the Cavalier men’s basketball team finally survived “March Madness” and cut down the nets at the Final Four in Minneapolis, setting off wild celebrations throughout Wahoo Nation.

Athletics Director Carla Williams and player Mamadi Diakite share an embrace after UVA wins the NCAA championship. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)
Athletics Director Carla Williams and player Mamadi Diakite share an embrace after UVA wins the NCAA championship. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

Another memorable moment from the decade: In 2017, UVA named Carla Williams as successor to Littlepage. With the appointment, Williams became the first African American female athletics director at a “Power Five” conference institution. And in July she was named the Women Leaders in College Sports’ 2019 Administrator of the Year for all NCAA Division I FBS athletics programs.

School of Data Science

President Jim Ryan speaks at the ceremony announcing the creation of the School of Data Science. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)
President Jim Ryan speaks at the ceremony announcing the creation of the School of Data Science. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

In January, UVA announced it would create a School of Data Science, the University’s 12th school and the first since the establishment of the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy in 2007.

The new school is being created in part by the largest private gift in UVA’s 200-year history, a $120 million gift from the Charlottesville-based Quantitative Foundation, led by Jaffray and Merrill Woodriff, both UVA alumni. It will build on the work of the Data Science Institute, which the Quantitative Foundation also supported.

“The time is right to establish a school which will not only train the finest data scientists in the world, but will also collaborate with schools across the University to evaluate and shape policy with respect to the ethical, privacy and regulatory aspects of data science application,” Jaffray Woodriff said at a ceremony in the Rotunda Dome Room.

Ryan said the new school will position the University as a global leader in efforts to improve society through teaching and research based on the powerful, emerging field of data science, cited as one of the fastest-growing professions in the U.S.

“This is a historic announcement, both because of the gift itself and because of what it means for the future,” Ryan said. “Data has the potential to shape our world in ways we are only now beginning to understand. With this gift, we have an opportunity to establish one of the first schools of data science in the nation – one driven by the discovery of new knowledge and a commitment to the public good.”

After the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia approved the establishment of the school on Sept. 17, UVA Provost Liz Magill appointed Phil Bourne, a professor of biomedical engineering and the head of the former Data Science Institute, as its first dean.

As the school launches this academic year, it will rely on a strong mix of existing faculty and researchers with expertise in systems engineering, education, politics, biomedical data science, digital humanities, finance, ethics, open hardware and civic technology, and business analytics. In coming years, the faculty and fields will be expanded.

Commissions on Slavery and Segregation and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers

A rendering of the Memorial the Enslaved Laborers. (Image courtesy of Höweler + Yoon)
A rendering of the Memorial the Enslaved Laborers. (Image courtesy of Höweler + Yoon)

At the direction of then-President Sullivan, the University established the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University in 2013, and subsequently, the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation in 2018.

In announcing the President’s Commission on Slavery, Sullivan said its work would build “on the effort of many members of our University community who have worked to raise awareness of the University’s relationship with slavery and to commemorate the role of enslaved persons in appropriate ways.”

Her specific charge to the commission was to “provide advice and recommendations on the commemoration of the University of Virginia’s historical relationship with slavery and enslaved people.” Over the next five years, that is exactly what the group of faculty, staff, students alumni and local residents did.

A final report, available online, describes the commission’s work and includes almost 40 pages detailing the African American presence and community in and around the University, both pre-Emancipation and into the early 20th century. Other sections describe the range of initiatives the commission undertook – new educational opportunities, community involvement, dedicated events and ideas for future research and commemoration.  

One tangible outcome of the commission’s work is the creation of a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on Grounds, which is set to be dedicated April 11.

Sullivan followed up on the work of the slavery commission by appointing the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation on Feb. 5, 2018, just before she left office.

Announcing the new body at the School of Law, she said it will “explore and report on UVA’s role in the period of racial segregation that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

“As with many universities and many states at the time, UVA and the Commonwealth of Virginia were involved in segregation and other practices related to racial inequality,” Sullivan said.

The commission will provide advice and recommendations on appropriate documentation and recognition of this historical period. Sullivan chartered the body for four years, in consultation with then-President-elect Ryan.

Growing Diversity, From Women and First-Gen Scholars to International Students

Students rejoice at this year’s graduation. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)
Students rejoice at this year’s graduation. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

It’s no secret that the face of the University, founded in 1819 as a school for young white men, has changed over time. UVA became fully co-educational in 1970 and its demographic has continued to shift. The undergraduate student population for fall 2019 is 17,011, and women outnumber men by nearly 1,700.

The female population in UVA’s senior leadership has also shifted. Sullivan became UVA’s first female president in 2011. In 2019, UVA welcomed its first female provost, Liz Magill, formerly dean of Stanford University’s Law School and before that, a UVA law professor of 15 years. Ryan also brought on UVA’s first female chief operating officer, Jennifer “J.J.” Wagner Davis, in the 2018 academic year. Carla Williams joined UVA in 2017. In 2014, Virginia Evans was named UVA’s first female chief information officer.

Overall, undergraduate minority enrollment has increased nearly 40% in the past decade.  UVA also has continued to increase the number of first-generation and low-income students enrolled, an initiative that has grown under Ryan, himself a first-generation student. First-generation students make up nearly 13% of UVA’s Class of 2023, a 20% increase over last year.

In October, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation announced a new scholarship program aimed at attracting talented first-generation students, established as part of a $100 million gift from David and Jane Walentas. David Walentas is a New York real estate developer, one of the nation’s most successful self-made entrepreneurs and a 1961 alumnus of UVA and 1964 graduate of its Darden School of Business. He was the first in his family to attend college. The bulk of the gift – $75 million – is committed to scholarships and fellowships for first-generation students, with the remaining $25 million dedicated to fellowships and professorships through the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and the Darden School.

In the past decade, the University has also redoubled its efforts to create a global community on Grounds as well as encourage students to study abroad. Currently, 2,674 international undergraduate students from 105 countries attend the University. UVA has 477 international faculty members and 201 international partnerships. During the 2018-19 academic year, more than 3,000 students studied abroad in 460 programs and projects in 75 countries.

Big Names Visited Grounds

Katie Couric, a 1979 UVA grad, speaks at the bicentennial celebration. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)
Katie Couric, a 1979 UVA grad, speaks at the bicentennial celebration honoring some of the first women to attend UVA. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

UVA has drawn countless personalities from politics, arts, entertainment, media and more to Grounds in the last 10 years, a list far too long to enumerate here. The following is a sampling of those who came to share their wisdom and talents with the UVA community.

Famous alumni Katie Couric and Tina Fey visited several times. In 2013, Fey addressed students as the inaugural President’s Speaker for the Arts. In 2017, the duo surprised students in Anna Katherine Clay’s “Women and Television” course by joining them for a video discussion. They both also appeared at the bicentennial celebration, Couric in person and Fey by video feed.

Finals Weekend also proved to be a draw for big names. Musician and activist Pharrell Williams, NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, NFL champion and UVA alum Chris Long, actor and comedian Ed Helms and talk show host Stephen Colbert regaled graduating classes. Novelist David Baldacci spoke at the 2010 Valediction ceremony and U.S. Sen. Jim Webb spoke at 2013’s Final Exercises. (2015 was the first year UVA began holding two Final Exercises ceremonies.)

Pharrell Williams spoke at the 2019 Valediction ceremony. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)
Pharrell Williams spoke at the 2019 Valediction ceremony. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs recently hosted Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry chose UVA to make his first remarks regarding U.S. foreign policy in February 2013. Also in 2013, spiritual leader Deepak Chopra and prize-winning journalist Arianna Huffington visited the Lawn, where Chopra led a mass meditation.

Looking ahead, author and cultural critic Roxane Gay will be the keynote speaker for the 2020 Community MLK Celebration in January.

Student and Alumni Successes

UVA’s latest Rhodes Scholar Eileen Ying’s current research is at the intersection of Asian diasporic speculative fiction, queerness and biopolitics. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)
UVA’s latest Rhodes Scholar Eileen Ying’s current research is at the intersection of Asian diasporic speculative fiction, queerness and biopolitics. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

In the history of the school, UVA has produced 54 Rhodes Scholars, nine in the last decade alone. Fourth-year student Eileen Zijia Ying of Maryland is the most recent Rhodes Scholar, one of 32 named in the United States in November.

Ying, an honors politics and English (modern and global studies) major will pursue Master of Studies degrees in world literatures in English and in women’s studies next fall at Oxford University.

UVA has excelled at supplying Peace Corps volunteers as well. This year it jumped to No. 2 among large universities who send students to the service. With 74 alumni currently serving worldwide, the University ranks just below No. 1 University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has 75 volunteers. Since the Peace Corps’ founding in 1961, about 1,220 UVA alumni have served as volunteers.

And there is more good news. A Gallup survey showed that UVA graduates are likely to thrive in wonderful jobs and lead rewarding lives. The survey looked at the long-term success of college graduates across the United States. University of Virginia alumni surpassed national averages in employment, engagement at work, well-being and attachment to their alma mater.

An Eye to the Future

As the decade draws to a close, Ryan is keeping his eyes on the horizon, forging ahead with his 2030 “great and good” strategic plan.

“We should strive not simply to be great, but also to be good, recognizing that in the not-too-distant future, it will likely be impossible for a university to be truly great if it is not also good,” Ryan explained in the plan’s vision statement. “The very best faculty, students and staff are going to want to live, work and study at institutions in which they can believe wholeheartedly; institutions that are both outstanding and ethical; institutions that are excellent, but excellent for a purpose.”

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications