This year marks our bicentennial. Two hundred years ago, the Virginia General Assembly voted to grant a state charter to Central College, which was the original name Thomas Jefferson gave to what would become the University of Virginia.
Jefferson did not set out to create a school that was like others in existence at the time. From the layout of the Grounds, to the type of faculty hired, to the structure of the curriculum and the courses offered, to the secular nature of the University, to its overriding purpose—to serve our new democracy—UVA was distinctive. Jefferson’s vision was far from perfect, and it excluded more students than it included. But the core elements of his design were visionary and, in some respects, revolutionary.
As we enter our third century, we would do well to retain that revolutionary spirit. Higher education is more firmly established today than it was two centuries ago, but we are in a period of remarkable instability and uncertainty. The public is increasingly skeptical of the value of a college degree and the contributions of higher education to American progress. To remain true to our core tradition of innovation, our aim should be to build toward a university that is not like others already in existence.
We should strive not simply to be great, but also to be good, recognizing that in the not-too-distant future, it will likely be impossible for a university to be truly great if it is not also good.
To this end, we must reimagine what will be expected of universities in 2030. My belief is that universities will be, and should be, judged quite differently than they are today. With the growing skepticism of higher education, combined with the explosion of data that give insight into what happens on campus and after our students graduate, I believe that colleges and universities will be—and should be—assessed by criteria that better capture the true value of an institution.
If I am correct, colleges and universities in 2030 will be judged by the quality of their classroom and residential experiences and how these contribute to the future success of our students. They will be judged by how well students are prepared to secure their first jobs and also how well they are prepared to lead meaningful, satisfying lives. They will be judged by how long it takes students to graduate and how much debt they will carry when they leave. They will be judged by how well students are prepared to lead in a diverse and globally connected world. They will be judged by how well they promote social and economic mobility. Their faculty will be judged by their research productivity, their influence, and their impact—on students, on other scholars, and on the world around them.
In 2030, universities will be judged in part by how well they are run and whether they are ethical institutions— whether they are great places to work and good partners with their surrounding communities; whether they are engines of economic growth; and whether they reach students, of any age or walk of life, who do not have the good fortune to enroll as full-time students. Attention will be paid to the return on investment, whether it is the investment that families make when paying tuition or the investment that legislatures make when allocating funds to support universities. Attention will also be paid to, and I believe there will be ways to measure, how well universities serve the public through their alumni, their research, and their medical care.
We must begin building toward that future today—asking ourselves what truly matters in higher education and setting our sights on excelling in each and every one of those areas.
In all this, we must never forget that our ultimate purpose, especially as a public university, is to serve the public through an unending and fearless search for truth and through our teaching, our research, and our health care.
But there is a larger point that captures the essence of our task: We should strive not simply to be great, but also to be good, recognizing that in the not-too-distant future, it will likely be impossible for a university to be truly great if it is not also good. The very best faculty, students, and staff are going to want to live, work, and study at institutions in which they can believe wholeheartedly; institutions that are both outstanding and ethical; institutions that are excellent, but excellent for a purpose.
If we reach this goal, I believe we will also achieve a more concrete goal: We will be the leading public university in the country in 2030 and one of the very best in the world, whether public or private.
In all this, we must never forget that our ultimate purpose, especially as a public university, is to serve the public through an unending and fearless search for truth and through our teaching, our research, and our health care. In a sense, then, to build toward the future requires nothing more and nothing less than that we rededicate ourselves to the original, animating purpose of UVA—to serve. If everyone involved with UVA—students, faculty, staff, and alumni— understands that this is our ultimate aim and their primary obligation, I have no doubt that we will be the leading public university, and one of the very best overall, in 2030—and for good reason.
James E. Ryan
President, University of Virginia