Ian Baucom’s Plan to Change the World

Ian Baucom, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Ian Baucom, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Big Thinker on Campus.

As the University of Virginia approaches the 200th anniversary of its 1819 founding, university officials are thinking big. Very big. Change-the-world big. The university aspires to raise $4 billion over the course of a ten-year fund-raising campaign, and it has established a vision to match.

“What will it take to extend the unique promise of this place in the next century?”asked Ian Baucom, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences when addressing a gathering of UVa alumni at Richmond’s five-star Jefferson Hotel last night. His answer: Secure the university’s capacity “to bend the arc of history.” And not just on a national scale, but a global scale.

UVa’s newly defined mission is to evolve from a premier state university into an actor on the world stage addressing what Baucom called “seemingly insolvable global challenges.” Issues such as water scarcity and human health; religious pluralism and religious violence; understanding the neuroscience of autism and anxiety. In the process, UVa will produce a new generation of citizen-leaders, equipping young men and women to participate in a democratic society and contribute to the common good.

The new vision comes at a time that the university is undergoing “the largest turnover of faculty since the founding,” Baucom said, who came to UVa in 2014 after seventeen years at Duke University. The College of Arts & Science expects to hire 200 new faculty members within the next seven to ten years as the Boomer generation retires. The opportunity exists to hire the brightest young minds in the country, strengthen the university’s Ph.D. programs and bolster the university’s status as a world-class educational institution.

As part of this transformation, UVa is “re-imagining” the curriculum, Baucom said. Without going into details about how the current curricular requirements have gone astray — he merely said that it is possible to graduate without getting a grounding in writing on the one hand or math and science on the other — he described an overhaul that is scheduled to be executed by the 2017-2018 school year.

The curricular reform is not a matter of “tweaking” requirements but of thoroughly rethinking the meaning of a liberal arts education. One centerpiece, said Baucom, will be instilling a capacity to ask ethical questions — not to force-feed students the answers, but to teach them to work through the issues and reach their own answers. Another is to experience the arts “as a way of grasping the complexity and wonder of the world.”

On a more practical level, UVa’s new curriculum will hone students’ writing skills and teach them to use data as a way to understand “a world grounded in statistical and quantitative fact.”

The liberal arts should be rooted in “deep knowledge,” not just workplace skills, Baucom said. A core competency for liberal arts graduates should be the ability to express themselves well in writing, which he sees as “the articulation of thought.” He has taught at Yale, Duke and UVa, elite schools all, and has encountered students who cannot put together a grammatical, well-ordered essay. At UVa, some 30% of students test out of the university writing requirement. That will change. Mastery of writing will become a core of the curriculum. “Tweeting is not an education in how to express yourself.”

Also critical is a familiarity with data and numbers. In an age of “big data,” every profession and discipline is saturated with statistics. “Computation and data science are transforming everything.” Technology is transforming the world, creating the potential for good and bad. According to one analysis, he said, by 2050, between 25% and 40% of the workforce will be unemployable. Not unemployed, but unemployable — unable to find a job. (I believe he was referring to the world’s workforce, not the U.S., but my notes are not clear.)

To prepare UVa students for such a future, Baucom foresees more required courses and more inter-disciplinary courses. He anticipates philosophers co-teaching with biologists, historians with mathematicians. Students will be taking first-year classes in ethics and empiricism.

When asked about a recent letter issued by faculty and students expressing unhappiness with the university’s glorification of Thomas Jefferson, a slave-holder, Baucom said that he “fundamentally disagrees.” The signatories have a right to express their opinions, but he believes that they are “wrong-headed.” In an implied slap against the suppression of politically incorrect views on college campuses, he said that a university should be a place where “incredibly complicated” issues should be debated.

“It is not our job to tell students what to think. It is our job to teach them how to think,” he said. “We can’t tell them the right moral disposition.”

When addressing alumni, Baucom certainly emphasized Jefferson’s genius, vision and leadership. “We were founded by a revolutionary,” he said. And UVa needs to carry on in the same spirit as we live through “the revolutions of our times.”

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16 responses to “Ian Baucom’s Plan to Change the World

  1. I tried to keep my personal views out of the story, and the article was running too long to add a “Bacon’s bottom line.” Herewith are my observations.

    (1) I like the direction Baucom and the university are going in regards to the new curriculum, which hasn’t been changed in 40 years. The current curriculum, I believe, was in place when I attended the university, and it was loosey-goosey. While I got a great education thanks to the excellence of the history program, the miscellaneous courses I took in English, psychology, biology and calculus didn’t add up to anything useful. So, the new curriculum, with its emphasis on writing, data and computation, and interdisciplinary thinking, looks very promising.

    (2) On the downside, UVa is spinning a vision of global grandeur designed to get the alumni salivating and loosening their purse-strings — $4 billion worth by 2026. None of this talk about achieving world-class status, hiring star professors and building graduate schools seems compatible with the core mission of providing a superb but affordable education to Virginia students. Baucom had nothing to say about UVa as a Virginia institution with obligations toward Virginia citizens.

  2. And I thought Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were outrageously arrogant. It’s not much different than the penny stock telemarketers – give money and I’ll make you a billionaire.

  3. Serious ?: What’s wrong with this? Let’s be perfectly clear, that 4 billion will come from alums. And, at schools like U.Va., they have the alums who give 7 and 8 figure donations. What is wrong with private donors giving money to an institution? I have no doubt that U.Va. will raise 4 billion. Which is more than 15 years of state contributions to the school…..

    As I’ve stated, I’ve done consulting for higher ed in the past. Alums only care about their U.S. News ranking or sports. Nothing else. U.Va. is making a push to climb the rankings. From some recent hires and financial moves, they seem to be on the right track. They’ve been able to poach some Duke and Ivy professors in the past 3 years, which in about 5 years should pay dividends in the “academic reputation” aspect of the U.S. News rankings.

    Please explain what is wrong with the alums giving their own private money trying to push the school higher in the rankings.

    • I don’t disagree that a donor has the right to condition his/her/its gifts in any way that doesn’t violate the law. And I strongly support the obligation of the recipient to honor a gift’s conditions. But at the same time, one might conclude that our universities seem to be moving further and further from the purpose of educating chiefly younger people to becoming some type of self-controlled entity designed to satisfy the needs and desires of the people who operate it. And that, for public institutions, is an issue for state government.

    • Nothing is wrong with alumni (or other friends of the university) giving money to UVa. If they want to help make UVa a world-class institution and put their own money behind it, then I’m all in favor of it.

      My concern is that the university’s aspiration to become a world-class institution in the way described by Baucom is compatible with its mission of maintaining access and affordability for Virginia students.

  4. I think LocalGovGuy has asked a very relevant question.

    Some folks don’t think UVA should change from the mission it’s had for decades and that because tax dollars are received that the State and taxpayers have the right to demand that it not change.

    Others, like Alumni see UVA stunted it it does not grow and expand to become a world class institution rather than stay as an “affordable” State Ivy.

    DonB has pointed out that as long as Va does not have world class Universities that it’s economic growth will be stunted.

    so where should UVA be headed?

    • Exactly. This entire debate is such a farce. The state actually has a potential engine of economic growth that wants to accelerate, and the “Partners for Affordable Excellence” will stop at nothing to retard any efforts to improve U.Va.’s national and global brand.

    • Virginia does have several flagship universities. The problem is that they are located in Charlottesville and Blacksburg respectively. If they were in Fairfax County, Richmond or Hampton Roads, they would produce much more for the state’s economy.

      • I just don’t agree. I think you want to encourage and incentivize other areas of the state to grow economically so that we are not so reliant on NoVA’s economy.

        you have these great Universities that offer great promise as core economic engines for parts of the State that could actually benefit their economy, their employment – and, in turn the rest of the State as a whole.

        We have a problem with provincial thinking here – two ways. First – people who want “their” area to suck up resources regardless whether it makes sense for the state as a whole or not.

        Then the second way is that others want Universities to stay the way they were for reasons other than economic growth and opportunity that would benefit all Virginians not just the ones who want their kids to have an “affordable” Ivy “experience”. We have a lot of Virginians and their kids that will need and get a 21st century education in other paths than the public-ivy path – and that’s just the reality of the current world we live in – insisting that we focus resources towards what is essentially an obsolete higher ed model that really only benefits a select few AND is also stone deaf to the economic potential and mission – is provincialism at it’s worst.

        we just insist on shooting ourselves in our proverbial feet on this.

  5. This sounds ambitious, which is fine, but it also pays to be realistic and strategic. I remember when UVA was announcing its first major campaign in the 1980s one of the board members said he thought the school could rival and surpass Harvard. Really? Harvard’s endowment payout alone would operate UVA’s academic division two times over.

    I’m not trying to denigrate UVA in any way. Again, I just think plans should be realistic. UVA has many good traits. Its law and business schools are top notch (though below Harvard, and that isn’t going to change). For a state school, it has had a comparatively very strong focus on undergraduate education. (Many state schools, unfortunately, just hand wave at undergraduates outside of honors and favored programs.) This focus, and the history and traditions have been UVA’s key differentiators. Four year graduation rates and alumni giving are two metrics that reflect on commitment to undergraduate education. When you combine these two, UVA is at the top (along with W&M).

    What UVA has not been strong at is research. It typically ranks in the 60-70 range and it only has 38% of the R&D expenditure of UNC. If you compare to Michigan, UVA is only 27% of their total. When I read the “actor on a world stage,” “bend the arc of history,” “seemingly insolvable global challenges,” I hear the cha-ching of research dollar signs. The way research in the U.S. is currently structured, every $100 of external research secured costs the institution about $30 in uncovered funds (startup, shared costs, etc.) . This is an expensive proposition. As I have written elsewhere, this has to be covered by institutional funds that could be spent on other things or used to lower tuition.

    While the $4B target over 10 years sounds like a lot, you have to keep in in context — everyone is moving fast. Harvard and Stanford raise over $1B per year. UC San Francisco, which is only a medical campus raises over $600M per year. Even little W&M with no medical school and about 1/3rd the number of students as UVA has a $1B campaign going.

    My view is UVA should very selectively target areas (like they did with biomedical engineering), but not try to compete broadly against the research giants. Its priority should be making sure that it maintains and builds on what differentiates it. This is not as expensive and it builds from a position of strength.

    • Excellent comment. In research Uva is a small bit player, To call UVA anything else is laughably.

      It is also laughable to call UVA a global player.

      In addition, and for numerous reasons, UVA has been and is most likely to remain thatthird tier research institution, and nowhere near a global institution, despite the money they are throwing at the problem like mud at a wall. This is fantasy.

      I would add that today and for some time now, UVa has been eviscerating its traditional strengths, most particularly its Liberal arts and sciences programs, to fund and reconstitute itself for the fool’s errand UVA has now launched itself on. A tragedy of waste, destruction, confusion and miss-allocation is unfolding at UVa. The institution is being ruined.

    • yes.. there is puffery in the narrative! But UVA does have the core components to move forward on this.

      The issue of how is up for debate but probably the province of the administrators more than those in the cheap seats!

      And I’d further reiterate – viewing UVA and VCU and VaTech as engines of economic growth – is not folly. It’s folly to dismiss their potential to be significant future incubators – geographic incubators of growth – sorely needed by RoVa – both in those localities but also to diversify the economic diversity of the state to be less reliant on NoVa AND less reliant and vulnerable to Federal deficit Defense spending…

      We spend all this time, energy and money on non-University economic development on piddling things… like giving bribes to companies to locate here.

      Why not create places in Va where companies WANT to locate WITHOUT taxpayer incentives?

  6. Here’s a good example of cost transparency for colleges.. done by the govt:

    “Affordable Four-Year Schools with Good Outcomes”

    ‘These four-year public colleges offer their students an affordable higher education, with relatively high salaries. As students weigh the costs and benefits of higher education, it’s especially important to find schools that can offer them the best possible outcomes. For students looking for a high return on investment, these institutions may offer good opportunities.”


    so here, you do not have to really worry about the underlying cost issues or get into a conundrum of trying to force the institutions to reveal more of their internal costs and decisions of which WILL lead to efforts to get the state involved.

    Instead – what the govt has done is focus on the bottom line – of low cost versus good outcomes… salary…

    so people DO have CHOICE here.. it’s not like they have no choice but to go to an expensive school and go into a lot more debt than they really have to.

    That’s an approach I favor – over lay people looking into the internals of select colleges that they want to focus us and play “gotcha” games on how the Institution operates instead of comparing across the board for a lot of institutions and looking at bottom line costs and post-grad salaries.

    I just don’t think too much focus on the internals leads to anything good anyhow because that info then fosters people going to the General Assembly and asking for legislation to dictate top-down do’s and don’ts for how institutions configure their strategic planning.

    Schools get revenues from a wide variety of sources from Alumni, Govt, Patents, commercial , etc.. and the only legislation that would make sense would be to not let tuition be used for anything other than the academics to serve the student enrollment – and that’s it.

    And looking at these institutions across the board – including UVA – I just don’t see huge disparities.. UVA is not out of line with a LOT of other institutions.

    So why do we continue to have this focus – mostly on UVA – on tuition costs when they don’t really look that different from other similar size Universities?

  7. Larry,

    In 1995 the U.S. topped OECD countries in college graduation rate. Now, despite spending more of our GDP on higher education than any other country, we’ve dropped to 19th out of 28. Do you really think there is no cost issue here?

  8. Izzo – our graduation rate dropped because of costs?

    how would lower costs increase the graduation rate?

    the reason we’ve dropped, I suspect is because our High School
    math, language and science scores have dropped to 20 and lower compared
    to all those other countries…


    Our kids are growing up to take service jobs and higher ed grads from overseas are taking the Medical, Technology, and related jobs.

    The problem is us… we’ve become lard-butts who think we’re entitled.

    • Larry, the metric simply speaks to cost inefficiency. It takes the U.S. a lot more money to educate a college graduate. We now spend a lot more, but graduate a much lower percentage. Our graduation rate hasn’t dropped (yet), but costs have gone up and we have not kept pace with other countries.

      K-12 is a different topic.

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