U.Va. Profiles: W. Dexter Whitehead: Physicist, Administrator and Painter

November 26, 2007
Nov. 26, 2007 — For 36 years, W. Dexter Whitehead was a physicist, professor and administrator at the University of Virginia. During his tenure, he recruited nearly 70 outstanding scholars and boosted graduate student enrollment by 50 percent. Following his retirement from U.Va. some 17 years ago, he continues to take an interest in the institution that he helped lead to national prominence, by making it the focus of many of his art works.

His greatest contribution to the University may have come as the director of what is today the Shannon Center for Advanced Studies. From its inception in 1965 until 1989, Whitehead helped bring distinguished faculty to the University across all major disciplines, establishing the University's national reputation as one of the best public universities in the United States. Thousands of U.Va. graduates who benefited from classes taught by those faculty — whose ranks include English professor and poet Rita Dove, Kenneth Thompson of the politics department, Michael Fowler in physics and chemist Robert Ireland — have Whitehead and the center to thank.

Walter Dexter Whitehead was born in San Diego, Calif., in 1922. He received three degrees from the University of Virginia: a B.S. in chemistry in 1944, an M.S. in physics in 1946, and his Ph.D. in physics in 1949. From 1945 to 1946, Whitehead carried out research and development on behalf of the U.S. Navy on photonuclear reactions. The Navy recognized him with the Navy Ordnance Development Award for that work.

Whitehead began his post-graduate career as a physicist in 1949, working for four years as a research fellow at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Bartol Research Foundation of the Franklin Institute in Swarthmore, Pa. He was at Bartol during the rapid expansion of its research program on nuclear physics. While there, he wrote or co-authored nearly a dozen peer-reviewed research articles on the physics of neutron scattering and photonuclear reactions.

Coming back to U.Va.

After four years at the Bartol Institute, Whitehead entered academia, teaching physics at North Carolina State College until 1956. He then returned to his alma mater, where he was soon promoted to associate professor of physics. He became a full professor in 1961 and served as chair of the department in 1968-1969. Except for a one-year research fellowship as a guest physicist at the Instituut voor Kern Physisch Onderzoek in Amsterdam in 1959, Whitehead spent the rest of his career focused on enhancing U.Va.'s national reputation in the sciences and liberal arts.

Though Whitehead taught and wrote papers published in the leading physics journals for almost 30 years, his most lasting contribution to the University was as a skilled, dedicated administrator. "I enjoyed administration very much," he said. "I considered my job to be a facilitator, rather than a director."

The list of Whitehead's titles is impressive: in addition to directing the Center for Advanced Studies (later named the Shannon Center), he served as the dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences from 1969 to 1989 and dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences from 1971 to 1972. He also served on or chaired more than two dozen committees, overseeing University concerns as diverse as the Committee on the Interplay of Engineering with Biology and Medicine, the Committee on Scholarships, Grants-in-Aid, Loans & Employment and the Outdoor Graphics Committee.

The University enters a new era

In the late 1960s, U.Va. began the transition from being an all-male, regionally regarded academic institution. By the late 1980s, it was a co-educational university ranked among the best in the United States.

Whitehead was a fierce advocate for strengthening the University's academic departments and programs. He said of his mission as head of the Center for Advanced Studies, "We were not merely trying to fill vacancies. We were out to recruit the most distinguished faculty we could find." He fulfilled this goal first by helping the University win nearly $6 million in National Science Foundation grants to establish the Shannon Center, then through helping the departments woo and retain key faculty.

In recognition of his service, in 1975 the University awarded Whitehead its most prestigious honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award. Besides praising his research, teaching and administrative abilities, the award cited his "broad appreciation and active involvement in the other branches of science as well as the liberal arts." Under his leadership, the center had been instrumental in recruiting 67 outstanding new scholars and, at the same time, boosting graduate student enrollment by 50 percent.

At the center's helm and beyond

At its peak in 1990, the center's $1.8 million budget annually supported up to 15 faculty members for one- or two-year terms, providing 12-month salaries, research support and more flexible schedules to some of U.Va.'s most productive teacher-scholars. But the University still lacked space for new laboratories, a challenge with which it still grapples despite expansion of its physical space in the last 30 years.

Even 17 years after his retirement, Whitehead still holds strong opinions on the subject: "The University needs to do more to support faculty, especially in the basic sciences, and it needs to better support graduate students."

Whitehead retired as dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 1989, the same year he stepped down as director of the Shannon Center. He continued as Alumni Professor of Physics until 1992, when he retired and turned to his private avocation: painting.

As far back as the 1960s, Whitehead had rented a studio in the space above what was most recently the Starr Hill Brewery on West Main Street. Today he has a studio behind his Crozet home, where he lives with his wife, Lois. (Coincidentally, their house was the boyhood home of Leonard Sandridge, the University's executive vice president and chief operating officer). Whitehead is a prolific artist who creates oil and watercolor paintings, pen and ink drawings and mobiles. Two of his favorite subjects are U.Va. architecture and the landscapes near his house in Tenant Harbor, Maine, where he has spent his summers since 1953.

With his long career as a physicist, energetic administrator, champion of the sciences and accomplished artist, Dexter Whitehead is a true man of the liberal arts tradition.

Written by Margaret Edwards