His name was invoked no less than four times during the first five minutes of our UVA tour. Thomas Jefferson is known for many things, and his legacy endures in manifold ways, yet it is astonishing that his vision of higher education is still standing so tall in Charlottesville after 200 years. Disenchanted by the limitations of his own alma mater, William & Mary, which had fallen into decline at the time, Jefferson sought both to expand the scope of study beyond ministry, law and medicine and tighten the relationship between student and teacher.
Ever the architect, Jefferson drew what he saw. It was a place where students lived downstairs from their teachers in a long quadrangle, set on a great lawn. At the head was not the steepled church common to most colleges at the time, but rather a great, domed library. At the foot, off in the distance, farmlands and a mountain range, suggesting an agrarian ideal as much as wide open, future possibilities. Jefferson termed his concept the “Academical Village” (apparently, he also liked to invent words). A few chosen students, as well as professors and even the university’s president, occupy it to this day. That the structure lacks indoor plumbing makes living there no less an honor.
It’s impossible not to feel Jefferson’s centuries-old influence while walking its “grounds,” which other schools would call a campus, but not UVA. It’s all about the grounds. Students enthusiastically buy into other curiosities of the founder’s chosen vocabulary, referring to themselves not as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, but as first-years, second-years, third-years and fourth-years. Jefferson thought this reinforced a commitment to lifelong learning.
Even more noteworthy is a tight embrace of Jefferson’s notion of self-governance. This was self-evident during our 90-minute tour of the grounds. Our guide declared at the outset that tours are conducted independent of the admissions office and that he was not paid or compensated in any way. The school had little to worry about, as his presentation was a nearly relentless rave review, which is in itself testament to the return on self-governance. The only lapse concerned the cafeteria food, which our guide compared to a warm glass of water on a hot day. “You’re going to drink it,” he said, “but you’re never going to crave it.” Clearly, our guide writes his own material.
He also confessed some sense of isolation during his first year or so, in part because the sheer size of the school made it challenging to find his peeps, but also that the academic rigor consumed his waking hours. Ironically, it seems axiomatic that the larger the school, the more alone you are, at least at first. Our outwardly extroverted guide said he made a conscious effort to remedy this simply by reaching out to others, and also joining clubs, of which there are some 600 at UVA.
The most profound evidence of Jefferson’s lasting legacy is in the academics itself. Jefferson wasn’t kidding about expanding the horizons of academic pursuit, originally offering an unprecedented total of eight schools: law, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, ancient languages, modern languages, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy — yet notably no divinity school. Today, it’s a total of eleven schools: arts & sciences, leadership/public policy, education, business, commerce, architecture, law, medicine, and nursing. UVA also runs the Wise College, a four-year liberal-arts school serving Appalachia.
If a single idea might pull these disparate disciplines into a coherent focus or philosophy, it would be Jefferson’s penchant for design, and the very modern idea of “design thinking,” or seeking solutions based on human need and behavior. It’s an approach that informed Jefferson’s design for the school itself, and is perhaps the best explanation for why it is one of America’s most renowned universities today.
If you visit, try to allow extra time for a self-tour.At the very least, do take the time to explore Jefferson’s famous serpentine walled gardens and step inside his breathtaking rotunda. While the guided tour was outstanding, it took us inside just one building: a quick lap around a very quiet library. Consistent with our guide’s one-star review of the food, we didn’t get to see a cafeteria, and if you’ve seen one dorm room you’ve pretty much seen them all. No great loss there. But to get a true sense of the school, it’s essential to see students in their natural habitat, at least at a student center or something like that. UVA really should open its doors a bit wider.
Consequently, our main impression is that most students walk the grounds alone, by themselves; we didn’t see many pairs, much less groups of students as is common on many other campuses.
While the University has grown considerably over the past two centuries, it is comforting that it has held fast, and proudly, to the principles on which it was founded, not unlike certain other products of Jefferson’s imagination. Yet, it must be noted that Jefferson was not the only U.S. president with a central role in realizing the UVA vision. James Madison, who was in office at the time, was on the school’s organizing board, along with former president James Monroe, who sold the land on which UVA was built. Chief Justice John Marshall was yet another distinguished UVA founding father. They all would certainly be amazed to see their university today, but just as surely would easily recognize the vibrant community of citizen-scholars they envisioned back in 1819.