Thomas Jefferson Awards Highlight Research and Service to the University

Thomas Jefferson Awards Highlight Research and Service to the University

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Recognizing top researchers and successful administrative leaders, the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson Awards honored four recipients this year – two for scholarship and two for service – after the awards were cancelled last year due to the pandemic.

The honorees include: Dr. William A. Petri, a top scientist pursuing the secrets of the deadly new coronavirus and sharing the latest knowledge with anxious citizens; Colette Sheehy, a financial specialist who broke the glass ceiling for women after rising through the ranks of the UVA administration; Dennis R. Proffitt, whose contributions in research and teaching have helped to create a new approach to psychology that could continue to impact the field far into the future; and Carl Zeithaml, who as dean of the McIntire School of Commerce established programs to prepare students with rigorous skills and opportunities to work with business leaders to solve complex, real-world problems.

Selected by a committee in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, the group of four were celebrated June 4 at a Board of Visitors meeting.

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Established as “the top awards for faculty and staff at UVA,” the Thomas Jefferson Awards are the highest honors given to members of the University community who have exemplified in character, work and influence the principles and ideals of Jefferson, and thus advanced the objectives for which he founded the University. Recipients must have worked full-time at the University for at least 15 years.

The original award, sponsored since 1955 by the McConnell Foundation, recognizes excellence in service to UVA. A second award, established in 2009 by the Alumni Board of Trustees Endowment Fund, recognizes excellence in scholarship.

Thomas Jefferson Award for Excellence in Scholarship: Dr. William A. Petri

Petri said the award led him to reflect on the founder’s “inspiring words” and “human failings” while UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, near which he stands, is important in realizing democracy.

Petri, who serves as Wade Hampton Frost Professor of Medicine and is stepping down as chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health at UVA, has worked at the University continuously for more than 30 years as a physician, scientist and educator. Last year, he shifted his work to pursue understanding of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. He became a trusted voice of reason and comfort to the UVA community – extending his knowledge to the nation via online media – during the stressful time of the pandemic.

“No discussion of Bill would be complete without mentioning what he has done over the last year-plus, during the pandemic,” Executive Vice President and Provost Liz Magill said, in presenting the award to him. “I can say Jim [Ryan] and I are grateful for his constant availability, tenacity and servant leadership throughout this dark time.”

Petri isn’t just good at explaining science. He’s also been at the forefront of research, leading a multi-center team effort. He has applied his expertise in vaccine development to produce “a mucosally administered, nano-formulated vaccine against the virus responsible for the COVID-19 illness. In addition to his design of the vaccine technology, he is also a most adept and capable team scientist, leading a multicenter effort in this timely, important work,” as the citation notes.

Among his responses to this pandemic, he has cared for multiple patients infected with COVID-19, and along the way, educated numerous medical students and young physicians on its medical management.

An expert in infectious diseases, he has focused on several gastrointestinal illnesses and their impact on peoples’ health and lives, particularly children. Magill pointed out that he is world-renowned for this research, adding, “None other than Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH and himself a household name, said, ‘Petri is the world’s premier investigator on diarrhea as well as a consummate physician-scientist, training program director, and institutional leader.’”

Magill said, “His research and publications on understanding and treating these diseases have had life-changing impact for millions of patients the world over.”

At UVA, he earned his medical degree and a Ph.D. in microbiology, as well as fellowship training in infectious diseases in the School of Medicine, before returning to join the faculty.

Proffitt’s research has helped to create a new approach to psychology and an interdisciplinary program in cognitive science at UVA.

The award citation for Proffitt, Commonwealth Professor of Psychology Emeritus, describes him as “a visionary” in his research, teaching and administration.

“He is a visionary scientist whose research has fundamentally changed our understanding of human perception and behavior. He is a visionary teacher whose clear and compelling lectures have enthralled and educated thousands of students at the University of Virginia. And he is a visionary administrator who served as chair of the psychology department and created the cognitive science major in the College of Arts & Sciences in 1992,” a nominator wrote.

UVA’s interdisciplinary program in cognitive science (the scientific study of the structure, acquisition and use of knowledge) includes cognitive psychology, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience and philosophy.

In his 2020 book, “Perception: How our Bodies Shape our Minds,” Proffitt writes, “We are each living our own personal version of ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ where the size and shape of the things we see are scaled to the size of our bodies, and our ability to interact with them. Stairs look less steep as dieters lose weight, baseballs grow bigger the better players hit, hills look less daunting if you’re standing next to a close friend, and learning happens faster when you can talk with your hands.”

“Innovations based on Proffitt’s research can be seen in, among other things,” Magill said, “virtual reality systems that are used in medical rehabilitation contexts, in the design of brain-computer interfaces, and in the optimization of immersive displays.

“Professor Proffitt is rightfully lauded as a ‘visionary’ whose research has fundamentally changed our understanding of perception and action,” Magill said. “His work has left its imprint on multiple fields, including social, clinical, and evolutionary psychology; human behavioral ecology; architecture; and the behavioral neurosciences.”

Because his scholarship has helped to create a new approach to psychology, his colleagues believe it will continue to impact the field far into the future.

Sheehy rose through the ranks and in 1993 became one of the first two women to serve as a vice president in the University’s history.

UVA’s senior vice president for operations, Sheehy has been “a faithful, loyal, and steadfast servant of the University and all who seek to work, teach and study here,” her citation reads.

“She has proven indispensable to UVA as a trusted colleague and friend to many. Her institutional knowledge far surpasses my own, and she is someone to be relied upon when the stakes are highest,” according to UVA President Jim Ryan.

First arriving on Grounds in 1982 as a budget analyst, Sheehy advanced quickly, and in 1993 became one of the first two women to serve as a vice president in the University’s history, shattering the proverbial glass ceiling and paving a path for others who were inspired by, and came after her. She has been “a role model to other women across Virginia who have risen through the ranks to leadership positions,” one nominator wrote.

Through her dedicated work over almost 40 years, Sheehy has overseen the construction of new, improved or enhanced facilities where students live and study and faculty teach and do research, ensuring better and more productive experiences. She has created a more stable financial footing for UVA’s increasingly sophisticated academic enterprise. 

Volunteering and lending her leadership to the local community have been important parts of her life. She serves on the Charlottesville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors, is the current executive board chair of the Emily Couric Leadership Forum and is a former president of Leadership Charlottesville.

Sheehy assumed her present position in 2015, leading a team of nearly 2,500 employees and a vast array of critical operational units: Facilities Management, Business Operations, Real Estate and Leasing Services, State Government Relations, the Office of the Architect and the Office of the University Building Official, to name a few.

Thomas Jefferson Award for Service: Carl P. Zeithaml

As dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, Zeithaml made bold changes and led the creation of several innovative programs.

Taking the McIntire School of Commerce in new directions after he arrived as dean in 1997, Zeithaml made bold changes that paid off and led to his extraordinary five terms.

Under his 23 years of leadership, the Commerce School’s undergraduate program earned a stellar reputation. In the nine consecutive years, from 2006 to 2014, that Businessweek ranked American undergraduate business programs, McIntire’s B.S. in Commerce was the only program to be ranked either first or second each year. In 2018, the business education website Poets&Quants named McIntire “B-School of the Year,” citing its strengths in alumni satisfaction, career outcomes, student experience, tuition return-on-investment and global curriculum.

Ryan said Zeithaml “transformed the school and changed business education for the better.”

Zeithaml, the F.S. Cornell Professor of Free Enterprise, restructured the third-year curriculum into a single “Integrated Core Experience,” known as ICE, to prepare students “with rigorous analytic, strategic, and behavioral skills while providing them with opportunities to work with business leaders to solve complex, real-world problems,” as the citation says. He taught in the program for 22 years.

He used the same integrative teaching approach to establish another innovative degree program in 2008, the M.S. in Commerce degree. The program adds specialized tracks and a capstone three-week “Global Immersion Experience.”

He partnered with the Darden School of Business to launch a master’s degree in business analytics program in Northern Virginia, increasing collaboration between the two schools and serving a growing need for this area of business education.

Zeithaml also has been a tireless fundraiser, with some of his efforts leading to the Commerce School moving back to the Lawn – into a refurbished Rouss Hall and newly built Robertson Hall.

“Carl’s leadership and contributions to the University will leave a lasting legacy on generations of students and scholars,” Ryan said.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications