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University of Virginia

Early Years, The Twentieth Century and Future Directions

The University of Virginia, known since its founding in 1819 as "Mr. Jefferson's University," has personified, in past and present, a distinctive approach to public higher education whose integration of academic vision and architectural environment attracts national and international acclaim.

The University of Virginia remains one of Thomas Jefferson's greatest legacies. The former president led a commission that chose the institution's location, devised the architectural plans for the grounds, and crafted the curriculum. The Board of Visitors nominated Jefferson as the university's first rector. His desire to build a strong faculty encouraged hiring distinguished national and international scholars rather than local clergy.

Early Years

Jefferson's "academical village" consisted of eight independent schools and offered a radical departure from the rigid curriculum, strict discipline, and theological dogmatism that characterized many American colleges. Students chose their own classes and earned a degree after meeting a school's requirements. In place of the customary bachelor of arts, Virginia offered a master of arts degree to students completing programs in five of the colleges. To encourage self-government, the university vested power in the rector and in the faculty chair rather than in a president. Governing rowdy students, however, became a problem. Serious student riots occurred throughout the 1830s and climaxed in 1840 when a student shot and killed a professor. In the wake of this unrest the university implemented a student honor code, one of the institution's greatest legacies. Virginia students displayed both "honor and dishonor" in their conduct before the Civil War. The university's regional provincialism also precluded attracting a true "aristocracy of talent," and its relatively high tuition prevented attendance by modest-income students. Its presumption of racial and gender exclusion also prohibited the enrollment of African Americans and women.

The university prospered during the antebellum years, but the Civil War brought great hardship to Charlottesville. Prewar enrollments exceeded 600, while literary societies and student groups flourished. In contrast, attendance during the Civil War averaged sixty-four students. U.S. General George Armstrong Custer spared the campus from destruction in 1865. Unlike many other universities in the South, Virginia rebounded quickly.

Growing enrollments and institutional complexity prompted the board to appoint a president. After Woodrow Wilson declined the board's invitation, Edwin Anderson Alderman accepted the presidency in 1904. That same year Virginia accepted a membership invitation from the Association of American Universities, making the university the first southern institution to receive such an honor.

The Twentieth Century and Future Directions

Along with changing curricula, Virginia responded selectively to social justice issues. In 1920 the university first admitted women to some graduate and professional departments, although women were not accepted on the same basis as men in Charlottesville until 1970. African Americans first attended Virginia in 1950. When a court order mandated admission, the university complied and avoided much of the strife that engulfed other southern campuses during the civil rights movement. In 1953 it became the first major university in the South to award a doctorate to an African-American student.

After World War II Virginia expanded its programs while distinguishing itself as one of the nation's best universities. Enrollment for the school year beginning in 2001 totaled 18,848 students. In 2001 Virginia achieved the highest graduation and retention rates of any public institution. The library system includes fifteen libraries with more than 4 million holdings. In addition, the Cavaliers compete in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) division I athletics as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

A continuing legacy of the university is its architectural design. Original construction of Jefferson's "academical village" provided a symbol of his Enlightenment faith. On October 27, 1895, fire destroyed the Rotunda, the architectural centerpiece that housed the library. The university rebuilt the structure, which underwent renovation during the 1970s. Other institutional reforms during the late twentieth century included curbing the tradition of excessive student drinking. The historic student honor code faced a severe test in 2001 when a computer program detected widespread plagiarism in a physics class.

During the tenure of John T. Casteen III, who became president in 1990, Virginia's capital campaign raised more than $1.4 billion–the largest effort of any state university. The institution used its good fortune to promote sound educational programs. Casteen's remarkably thoughtful presidential addresses acknowledged Virginia's unfortunate heritage of racial inequity in admissions and committed the university to correcting that social injustice.

Virginia offers forty-eight bachelor's degrees and fifty-five doctoral degrees along with other graduate and professional programs. U.S. News and World Report ranked Virginia among the top public universities in the nation for 2002. Its schools, including the McIntire School of Commerce, the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, the Law School, and the Medical Center, have received national academic recognition. Virginia has accepted its role as a leader in higher education to promote sound educational values of which Mr. Jefferson would be proud.


ABERNETHY, THOMAS PERKINS. 1948. Historical Sketch of the University of Virginia. Richmond, VA: Dietz Press.

BRUCE, PHILIP ALEXANDER. 1920–1922. History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919. New York: Macmillan.

DABNEY, VIRGINIUS. 1981. Mr. Jefferson's University: A History. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

WAGONER, JENNINGS L., JR. 1988. "Honor and Dishonor at Mister Jefferson's University: The Ante-Bellum Years." History of Education Quarterly 26:155–175.

WILSON, GUY, and BUTLER, SARA A. 1999. The Campus Guide: The University of Virginia. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.




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