For its first century, the University of Virginia didn’t have a president. The school was led by the Rector and Board of Visitors, a setup that university founder Thomas Jefferson viewed as more democratic.
But by the twentieth century, it was clear that a growing university in a changing country would need a day-to-day leader. Edwin A. Alderman, the university’s first president, served from 1905 to 1931 and his successor, John Lloyd Newcomb, served until 1947. Together, they shaped the school’s academic traditions, Grounds and student body. Their successors, up through incoming President Jim Ryan, have continued those traditions—while also battling long-held views on segregation, coeducation and funding sources.
UVa’s first president from a non-academic background was Colgate W. Darden Jr, who had served in the Virginia House of Delegates, the United States House of Representatives and as Virginia Governor.
During his term as governor and time at UVa, Darden tried to make a unified, coherent system of education available to more Virginians. He tried to bring men—state-supported schools did not have to be coeducational until a U.S. Supreme Court decision against the Virginia Military Institute in 1997—from a broader array of backgrounds and from across the state and cracked down on fraternities, which he viewed as exclusionary of poor students.
During his term, Gregory Swanson, an African-American lawyer from Danville, entered the School of Law after a court order. Darden privately encouraged Swanson’s suit; according to The Daily Progress archives, after testifying in court on UVa’s behalf, he told a group of people, “We put up a purely nominal defense and I’m glad Mr. Swanson won as I anticipated, so we’re over that bridge.”
In 1953, Walter Ridley became UVa’s first black graduate and himself went on to become the president of a historically black college in North Carolina.
Darden’s successor, Edgar F. Shannon Jr, served from 1959 to 1974 and sought to increase the profile of the university by attracting high-performing students and professors. He created the role of dean of admissions to try to get more Virginians on Grounds and the number of enrolled students increased from 5,000 to 15,000.
As the number of students and professors increased, Shannon also built up an administrative bureaucracy that could handle them efficiently, and went on a building spree. In 1966, the Rotunda was designated a National Historic Landmark and discussions about a restoration project began.
Charlottesville wasn’t isolated from the rest of the world as the ’60s rolled on. When four students were killed by police in 1970 at Kent State University, UVa students joined in a nationwide protest. In 1969, a lawsuit filed by alumnus John Lowe on behalf of Virginia Scott and three other women won full coeducation for female students. In 1970, 450 enrolled.
Frank L. Hereford Jr became president in 1974 and inherited the Rotunda restoration project. UVa’s central building had been gutted and was to be rebuilt as an administrative building. After discussions with students and staff, Hereford decided the building, “Belongs to no specific person, group, or institution, but rather is a national landmark entrusted to the stewardship of the University,” and the finished Rotunda was rededicated as a meeting place in 1976.
Hereford also began the growth of the university’s endowment, raising it to $140 million. The money allowed the university to build University Hall and Clemons Library.
During a brief tenure from 1985 to 1990, Robert M. O’Neil began concerted efforts to recruit African-American and female students. He established the Holland Scholarships and the University Women’s Center, as well as Tibetan studies and women’s studies programs.
John T. Casteen III took UVa into the new millennium and shaped the current university’s building, planning, lobbying and fundraising. He envisioned growing a public university that was less dependent on public funding and swelled the endowment to $5 billion. He also created AccessUVa in 2003 to ensure loan-free aid for low-income students.
When Casteen stepped down in 2010, Teresa A. Sullivan became UVa’s first female president. She too had a history in university administration and grew the school’s endowment, strengthened its finances and pushed the school to reexamine its racial history.
Most of UVa’s presidents have been academics, but Sullivan said the steps to becoming a university president are less codified and less restricted than they were when she was a university professor.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a formula anymore to be university president,” Sullivan told The Daily Progress in her exit interview in July. “There might have been when I was a young faculty member — it was pretty much provosts became presidents — but that’s not true anymore.”