At the Crossroads: A Big Gift Helps to Shape the Curriculum of the Future

The University of Virginia is on a roll.

Approximately one week after netting a $2 million donation from professor Larry Sabato for the school's $30 million expansion of the Center for Politics, the university received a whopping $40 million gift to support a series of curricular initiatives designed to dynamically "advance UVA as a national leader in liberal arts and sciences education."

The donor? Longtime benefactor and private equity investment firm leader Thompson Dean, an Echols Scholar and 1979 graduate of the university. The co-managing partner and co-CEO of Avista Capital Partners—which has approximately $6 billion under its management—Dean has served as a member of UVA’s College Foundation Board and has chaired Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital’s special projects committee.

Add it all up, and Dean has now committed more than $52 million in gifts and pledges to the university, ranking him among the University’s top 10 all-time donors. (Indeed, despite recent news to the contrary, the wealth-to-donation ratios work out pretty logically in this case. Sabato, the professor, gave $2 million. Dean, the private equity guy, gave $40 million.)

The gift is also meaningful because its purpose speaks to the kind of academic soul searching taking place on campuses nationwide. As you read this, the school's College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences is working to introduce comprehensive changes to its undergraduate curriculum. This work, which includes designing a series of new general education courses to be piloted next year, is being conducted against the backdrop of the unceasing STEM gold rush and the purported slow-motion demise of classic liberal arts education.

Like other schools, UVA has reached a fork in the road.

And while we can't definitively predict what the end result will be, comments from university reps suggest the school believes that arts and the sciences needn't be mutually incompatible. 

Ian Baucom, Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences, said the gift enables the College to immediately take advantage of strategic opportunities to build on its historic strengths in the liberal arts. "Thanks to Tom, we can invest more in areas that not only support academic excellence, but excellence with a deeper purpose," he said before channeling the ethos of his school's complicated founder.

"Through initiatives in technology, course development and the college’s new curriculum pilot, our students will be better equipped to flourish—both in their chosen careers and as active, reflective, articulate and contributing members of our democratic society."

In this sense, UVA's efforts remind us of recent news out Bronxville, New York, where Sarah Lawrence College announced a $2 million gift from alumna Suzanne Salter Arkin to create an endowment dedicated to attracting outstanding science students who want to pursue serious individual study of science while engaging with the arts, humanities, language, literature, and the social sciences in a liberal arts institution.  

See? You can walk and chew gum at the same time!