Sullivan to Students: University's Intangibles Make it 'Good'

September 7, 2010 — Members of the University of Virginia community filled the seats of the University Chapel Friday night to hear U.Va.'s new president, Teresa A. Sullivan, present a heartfelt and inspirational speech titled "How Will We Know We Are Good?"

Sullivan was the first in a weekly speaker series hosted by the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, a longtime student organization.

Sullivan noted that the newly released U.S. News & World Report rankings placed the University in the No. 25 slot for best university in the nation, tied with the University of California, Los Angeles and Wake Forest University, and the second-best public university in the nation.

"Does that mean we are good?" she asked rhetorically.

She then cited several of the University's attributes ¬– including student self-governance, an abundance of undergraduate research opportunities and a wealth of study-abroad programs – as reasons why the University is indeed "good."

She wondered aloud if "maybe it's because of these intangibles that defy the tools of measurement" that students elect to attend the University over other – even higher-ranked – institutions.

Sullivan invoked the memory of the University's founder in considering the value of the University.

"We keep a close eye on our curriculum to make sure we set our standards as high as Thomas Jefferson did 200 years ago," she said. Indeed, she said the University's current selection of degrees and concentrations is strikingly similar to the study of "useful sciences" that Jefferson had envisioned at the University's founding.

Not only has the University retained many of the original courses of study, but Sullivan noted that it has made an effort to appropriately add degree offerings as they became necessary. Over the past 20 years in particular, she said, the University has begun to offer such degree programs as media studies and computer science to remain relevant and competitive in the evolving modern world.

Sullivan also expressed pride at the expansion of the University's study-abroad programs, as well as its growing relationships with other nations

"Twenty years ago, U.Va had fewer than 10 faculty-led study-abroad programs, and even fewer exchange relationships," she said. Now, the University boasts more than 50 such programs reaching all areas of the world.

Additionally, Sullivan said that the number of international students at the University has skyrocketed over the past two decades, to the benefit of both American and foreign students. She spoke of a conversation she overheard between two first-year Chinese students and their American roommates in which they compared their respective upbringings and high school experiences.

"Classes had not even started, and there was already a valuable cultural exchange happening," she said. "If Jefferson were alive today, I think he would have been pleased to eavesdrop on that conversation."

Following her speech, Sullivan fielded a number of questions from the audience.

The conversation quickly turned to the question of privatizing the University, based on the fact that the University receives so little funding from the commonwealth. Though Sullivan acknowledged that the amount of funding will likely only decrease in the coming years, she said she is not in favor of privatization.

"It's not just where the money comes from," she said. "One of the things that makes us public is our mission, and I think Mr. Jefferson would be very disappointed if we ever gave up that mission."

That mission is to serve the public, she said, noting that the University not only accomplishes this by remaining accessible to the greater population, but also through the University Health System, a major health care provider. In particular, she noted the hospital's efforts in treating residents of Southwest Virginia, who are often without adequate medical attention.

"The miracle is how well Virginia has done with relatively mediocre funding," she said.

Sullivan also spoke on some of her goals for her term. She said that while she does not have immediate plans for major construction projects on Grounds, she does want to make restoring the Rotunda a priority.

She hopes to add more students to the incoming classes, but likely to schools other than the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, she said. This, of course, will necessitate an increase in faculty.

The audience at large, and especially members of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, seemed pleased with the event's outcome.

"I was really glad to hear her perspective," said Betsey Graves, a fourth-year College student and Ways and Means Chair for the Jefferson Society. Graves said she was especially interested in Sullivan's take on state funding.

Sullivan was the first guest in the society's weekly speaker series.

"I felt we pretty much filled up the Chapel," said Chris Mullen, a third-year College student and vice president of the society. "I saw lots of people from outside Jefferson Society membership.

"The idea is really to provide a speaker series that fosters the 'collision of the minds,'" he said.

— By Samantha Koon