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University to aid weaker areas with new initiative

The University hopes to enter the 21st century with a bang.

Virginia 2020: The Agenda for the Third Century at the University of Virginia, the brainchild of University President John T. Casteen III, is a multi-faceted initiative to bring the University to new heights in the fields of the fine and performing arts, international activities, public service and outreach, and science and technology.

The timeline: now until the year 2020.

Casteen announced the concept during his State of the University Address in March 1998. Since then, committees composed of administrators, faculty members and students devoted to the four areas have been commissioned to examine areas in which the University needs improvement.

For Engineering Prof. Anita Jones, one area in which the University can unleash its potential is technology and the sciences.

"We have some select, good research and education programs but there are very few areas in which we are the top in the country. Our intent is to pick some areas where we think the University is poised and prepared to make a major step forward in excellence in the science and engineering field," Jones said. "What we're focused on is how the University could advance in science and engineering so that both in our education and in our research we have some leading programs in the nation and in the world."

Jones, who became chairwoman of Virginia 2020's science and technology planning commission last January, said the commission has not yet chosen the specific areas but that her committee would emphasize making science and technology a priority in University students' education.

"Virginia students need to be technologically literate," she said. "It's important for the University of Virginia, which has been noted for its strong humanities departments to be recognized in technology -- because technology is the largest single cause of change in today's society."

On the other end of the academic spectrum, members of the Fine and Performing Arts Planning Commission, led by Drama Prof. Bob Chapel said they hope to place the University in the national spotlight by making the arts a high profile component of University life.

Chapel said many prestigious universities across the nation have excellent reputations for the fine and performing arts. The University, he said, could benefit from joining their ranks.

"We'll be looking at some programs that are ranked very highly and at elements of certain programs that we really like," he said.

He added that his committee now is looking at peer institutions like Duke and the University of California-Berkeley for ideas.

For drama, Chapel's commission is looking at the University of California-Irvine and the University of Illinois-Champagne Urbana. For art, the commission is examining Harvard University. And for music, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the University of Washington, the University of Minnesota and Cornell University are all being taken into consideration.

Chapel's committee plans to make trips to other universities, not only for planning ideas but also to visit physical arts centers across the nation.

Part of the Fine and Performing Arts Commission's vision includes an "arts village" with up-to-date technology and equipment for the fine and performing arts at the University. The arts village most likely would be built on Carr's Hill.

Chapel said there is no price tag on the project, but considering that plans for a whole new building are underway, it will cost "a lot of money."

There is no definite timeline either, although the commission's work, which includes a report to Casteen, will be finished by no later than the end of this year.

"The sooner the better is the timeline," Chapel said.

An area in which much progress has already been made is public service and outreach, a commission headed by Rebecca Kneedler, associate dean for academic affairs in the Education School.

By March of this year, the commission should unveil the first searchable database of University public service projects -- of which, Kneedler said, there are many.

"The biggest surprise is the volume of public service work being done at the University," she said.

In fact, she said the commission has discovered that the University does as much public service and outreach projects as any institution in the state.

The commission is mostly looking at scholarly public service.

The University's telemedicine program, for example, enables health practitioners in remote areas of the state to do a joint diagnosis with University health professionals via satellite TV.

Over 30,000 teachers in the Commonwealth have upgraded their training skills through the University's continuing education program. And the history department's "Valley of the Shadows" project, started by History Profs. Will Thomas and Edward Ayers, enables high schools across the state and the nation access to Web-based documentation on the Civil War.

"What we're looking at primarily is public service that uses academic expertise. But there's also a great amount of volunteer service going on as well," Kneedler said.

The commission is looking internally to see what the University is doing in terms of public service and outreach and is also looking at a peer group of similar universities like Duke.

"We're not looking at the issue of doing more, as much as we are looking at having it better organized and better available to the public," Kneedler said.

The International Activities Planning Commission is trying to make the public more accessible to the University, namely by bringing the international community and world events to a prominent position in University life.

"We have quite a few international activities but they are not central to the way the University is administered," said Brantly Womack, government and foreign affairs professor and chairman of the commission.

Womack said the commission has been looking at many different areas -- from "internationalizing" the University's curriculum to creating a new residential college in which international students and University students would live side by side and partake in special programming events.

An important part of this initiative includes a senior leader in the University's central administration "whose business is to encourage and coordinate international activities."

Another aspect of the commission is to make international study a more integral part of University life, both for students and faculty.

"You want the world to be part of what this University is all about," said Gordon Burris, special assistant to the president and commission member.

Burris said he is optimistic about the outcome of the commission's plans and for Virginia 2020 in general.

"Darn right I'm excited," he said.

Fourth-year College student Melissa Bowles, also a member of the international commission, said she too is excited about the initiatives.

"We're really trying to do something that's never been done before. It's a big responsibility but it's very exciting," Bowles said.


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