As John T. Casteen III was inaugurated as the University of Virginia’s seventh president on Oct. 6, 1990, the 46-year-old Portsmouth native laid out a vision that would guide UVa for the following two decades.
“Let our goal be a logical extension of our origins and history: that the University of Virginia become in our time preeminent among public universities and second in teaching and research to no university, public or private,” Casteen told the crowd of 6,000 students, parents, alumni and dignitaries gathered on the Lawn. “This means nothing more than the university will be what it was established to be.”
Casteen, now 66, is stepping down from UVa’s presidency Aug. 1, when he will retire and University of Michigan Provost Teresa Sullivan will take the helm.
Reflecting upon his 20 years as UVa’s president, Casteen says the university has not quite achieved the heights he’d hoped, but it has maintained its rank among the nation’s top 25 public and private universities and grown into a far larger, much more diverse and internationally recognized institution of higher education.
“One of our goals was to make the University of Virginia the preeminent public university,” Casteen said in an interview. “I don’t think we’ve pulled it off com-pletely.”
One of the biggest challenges UVa had to cope with during Casteen’s tenure was dwindling state financial support.
At the beginning of Casteen’s tenure, state money made up 29.9 percent of UVa’s academic division budget and 22.9 percent of the university’s total budget.
During Casteen’s final year, state funds had plummeted to 10 percent of the academic budget and 6 percent overall.
Virginia’s support of higher education was very much on Casteen’s mind the day of his inauguration. At the time, Virginia was sinking into a recession and the state government had been caught flatfooted. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was advocating for deep cuts in the higher education system to help balance the budget.
“He told the faculty to stop doing research,” Casteen recalled. “He said the chief business of the university was to be teaching, advising students and public service. He took research out of the triad. My speech was a carefully crafted statement that we were not going that way. Nothing personal about the governor. He’s a good friend. We simply did not believe what he wanted was good for Virginia. Nor did we believe that in the end he quite understood what he was talking about.”
Richmond policymakers, such as Wilder, and numerous consultants were telling UVa to scale back its ambitions, shutter schools and eliminate departments.
Casteen, however, disagreed with that strategy. He opted to double down on a planned capital campaign, raising its goal from $250 million to $1 billion over the course of the 1990s. The campaign, at the time, was among the most sizable fundrais-ing efforts ever undertaken by a public university.
In short, Casteen and other UVa leaders were attempting to create an endowment that would be a more reliable funding source and ensure the university’s success even in times of budget challenges.
“We calculated that raising that sum in that period would let us maintain our en-tire range of programs and make some programmatic decisions,” Casteen said. “One very prominent consultant told us candidly that it could not be done, that there was no case of a public university that had managed to save itself by that strategy.”
In the years that followed, Casteen would be proven right.
“This was a period when the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA and the University of Michigan and so on all dropped out of the top 25,” he said. “We stayed there.”
Choosing to ramp up the university’s fundraising in the early ’90s was the single most critical decision of Casteen’s tenure as UVa’s president, he said.
“It was contrary to all expert advice,” Casteen said. “We were not going to let the university slip into the second tier.”
Leonard W. Sandridge, UVa’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said Casteen will be remembered as a president who had the foresight to see what was happening with public support of higher education and took the steps necessary to ensure the university’s financial security for the future.
“John would be described as a person with a vision and aspirations for this institu-tion that have caused us to reach for excellence in a number of ways,” Sandridge said. “Above all, he put the institution on a sound financial footing.”
Sandridge praised Casteen’s prodigious ability to raise private support for UVa. Casteen’s secret, Sandridge said, was that he always made it clear that a gift to UVa was an investment, not a run-of-the-mill contribution to a nonprofit organization. A contribution to UVa, he told donors, might result in expanded educational opportuni-ties for students of underrepresented groups, new cures for disease, scientific break-throughs, modern facilities for academics or athletics and more.
“He never asked for gifts. He asked for money to invest in the university,” San-dridge said. “He made it clear that someone giving to the university could expect something of quality in return.”
As one might expect, Casteen’s unusually long tenure as UVa’s president has had its share of highs and lows.
Among the bright spots was the success of UVa’s $1 billion capital campaign. By the time it wrapped up on Dec. 31, 2000, the university had blown past its goal and collected $1.43 billion, the second largest amount ever raised by a public university.
Another high point was in February 2004, when UVa initiated AccessUVa, a finan-cial aid program that provides loan-free packages to low-income students and caps loans for all other students. Amid the rising cost of college tuition, the program aims to ensure that low- and middle-income students can still attend UVa.
“AccessUVa is really a model for the nation,” said Thomas F. Farrell II, president and CEO of Dominion and a former UVa rector. “It opened UVa to low-income students. It shows people where UVa’s heart is.”
Yet another major victory was the enactment of the Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Options Act, which essentially gave Virginia’s public universities more financial and administrative autonomy, allowing them to make decisions for themselves with regards to tuition, building projects, contracts, human resources and much more. Casteen was an early champion of the Restructur-ing Act, which went into effect in the summer of 2006.
Casteen says he is proud of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, which opened in 2004 at the site of the university’s former admissions office. The library administers some 13 million manuscripts, 3.6 million items in the univer-sity archives, 325,000 rare books, 5,000 maps, 250,000 photographs and prints, and more than 8,000 reels of microfilm, as well as audio recordings, films and more.
He also cited the near-completion of the $105 million South Lawn project, a 115,000-square-foot complex that is the new home to the departments of politics, religious studies and history. The project, which is set to be finished Aug. 1, features a 100-foot-wide grassy terrace that spans Jefferson Park Avenue and is meant to extend Thomas Jefferson’s original concept of the Lawn.
When Casteen is asked what accomplishment makes him the most proud, he demurs.
“I don’t think that way,” he said. “Instead, I’ll answer the opposite of your question and tell you our greatest failure.”
The biggest failure, he said, was the Board of Visitors’ decision against opening a Middle Eastern branch campus in Doha, Qatar.
“Our decision not to do that was a disaster,” Casteen said. “It was contrary to the U.S. national interest. Qatar has turned out to be an enormously important ally to the U.S. And [UVa] had, and we have maintained, one of the best programs in Islamic studies in the country.”
Other schools — Texas A&M, Case Western Reserve and the University of Texas — used the plans written by UVa, he said, and went on to open branch campuses in Qatar to success that continues today.
Another low point was a string of racially fueled incidents in 2003 and 2005. Casteen responded by implementing reforms such as the creation of UVa’s Office of Diversity and Equity.
Yet another challenging moment was 1998’s “baby switching” case, in which it was discovered that the University of Virginia Medical Center had sent home the wrong girls with two sets of parents. The girls were 3 by the time the switch was discovered, and a national media storm ensued. The hospital undertook several steps to ensure such a mistake does not happen again.
The university was also rocked during the 2001 scandal in which 158 students were accused of cheating in an introductory physics course. The incident was the largest example of cheating in the university’s history and continues to be cited as one of the biggest cheating scandals in higher education history.
In addition, Casteen faced substantial criticism during a campaign to convince UVa to provide a “living wage” to the university’s lowest paid workers. The campaign, which began in 1999, culminated in the 2006 arrest of 17 students who had been holding a sit-in protest at Casteen’s office in Madison Hall. Over the years, Casteen repeatedly told the protesters they needed to bring their concerns up with the state legislature, not the university.
“We’ve always been disappointed that Casteen did not use his invaluable talents and skills to figure out a way for all the workers at UVa to be treated with dignity and not live in poverty,” said Joe Szakos, executive director of the Charlottesville-based Virginia Organizing Project, which was involved with the campaign. “We’re still disappointed.”
The university has consistently argued that UVa has continued to increase its pay and offers highly competitive wages and benefits.
There were tragedies during Casteen’s tenure as well.
On May 18, 1997, a balcony filled with people collapsed during UVa’s graduation ceremony, killing one and injuring 18.
Later that same year, fourth-year student Leslie Baltz died in an alcohol-related accident on the evening of the season’s final football game.
In the aftermath of Baltz’s death, Casteen greatly increased the university’s efforts to combat campus binge drinking. Education outreach efforts were increased, two task forces were formed and the university’s Center for Alcohol and Substance Educa-tion was moved from the psychiatric medicine department into the Dean of Students’ Office. A few years later, Casteen’s efforts were recognized when he was named the inaugural recipient of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Pre-vention’s Presidents Leadership Group Award.
And in May of this year, fourth-year student and lacrosse player Yeardley Love was killed in her apartment. Love’s ex-boyfriend, George Huguely, also a UVa la-crosse player, has been charged in her death.
Love’s death prompted Casteen to call for new legislation to require universities to be notified when students are arrested in other jurisdictions. Huguely had been arrested for being drunk in public in Lexington in a case in which he allegedly resisted arrest and threatened the life of a female police officer.
Casteen also urged students at a candlelight vigil to report any suspicions of do-mestic abuse to the proper authorities.
“We all enjoy the privilege of living here in what we call — and rightly — a community of trust,” he said. “I have believed you; you have believed one another; we have learned to trust one another here. Leave tonight with knowledge that the blows and abuse that somehow ended Yeardley’s life threaten all of us, threaten you, and threaten this community of trust — that violence and abuse left unconfronted can and will destroy this culture that we love.”
In his final public address, at UVa’s Final Exercises ceremony in late May, Casteen mentioned Love in a poetic description of the sounds that define the university.
“What goes away as you leave this place, but comes back in memory and comes back in reality when you come back to visit here: the murmur that you hear in libraries or in study groups as people work together in the evening,” he said. “The sounds of music. The sounds of people talking to their parents on cell phones as they walk through corridors or down the Lawn. The sound of ROTC units running past on their morning workouts. The sounds of the marching band practicing at Carr’s Hill Field. The sounds of student life — sorority rush, being together in the groups that define the community of student existence. The sounds of carols sung right at the end of the semester, as you would rather go home, but then you hear that music and you stay a bit longer. The sounds of children on the Lawn during Halloween. The Chapel’s bells. The cheers at games, no matter what the sport. And the name of Yeardley Love.”