History of the University

History of the University

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819. He planned the curriculum, recruited the first faculty, and designed the Academical Village. Comprised of a central lawn and surrounded by faculty residences called pavilions, with student rooms between and working service yards behind, the “village” symbolizes Jefferson’s intent to create an institution that supports the free and open exchange of ideas, close interaction among students and faculty, and collegial collaboration across disciplines. Together with Monticello, Jefferson’s mountaintop house, the Academical Village is an architectural design of global significance; UNESCO declared the pair a World Heritage site in 1987 in recognition of their universal cultural value.

Jefferson intended to establish an institution that would be, in his words, “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.” Yet, the construction of the Academical Village relied in large part on enslaved black laborers, and the University relied on the enslavement of its domestic laborers providing food, laundry and other services for almost fifty years. Like other U.S. colleges and universities, the University has recently focused much-needed attention on the role of slavery in its early history. In 2015, the Board of Visitors named a newly constructed residence hall, Gibbons House, for William and Isabella Gibbons, husband and wife, who were enslaved by different professors and lived in different pavilions at the University in the mid-19th century. In 2017, the Board of Visitors named another building for former enslaved laborer and stonemason Peyton Skipwith, and in 2020 renamed a building to honor Walter Ridley, the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from UVA. The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers was dedicated in 2021 to honor the lives, labor, and resistance of the 4-5,000 enslaved people who lived and worked at UVA at some point between 1817 and 1865. For more information on slavery at the University, see the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University and Jefferson’s University: The Early Life. In 2018, the Board of Visitors established the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, to continue research on race and inequity for the century following Emancipation.

With regard to its mission, the University was innovative for its day because it was dedicated to educating leaders in practical affairs and public service rather than for professions in the classroom and the pulpit exclusively. It was the first nonsectarian university in the United States and the first to use the elective course system. Where it excelled in regard to curricular innovation, however, it was representative of its time in the make-up of its student body and faculty. When the University opened for classes in 1825, its faculty of eight and student body of sixty-eight were all white and all male. Not until the 20th century would the University admit women and men of color or white women, and it would be one of the last public institutions of higher education in the U.S. to do so.

At the time of the University’s opening in the 19th century, instruction included ancient languages, modern languages, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, chemistry, law, and medicine. Jefferson opposed the granting of degrees on the grounds that they were “artificial embellishments.” In 1831, however, the Board of Visitors authorized granting the Master of Arts degree, which throughout most of the nineteenth century remained the University’s most prestigious academic award. The M.D. degree was awarded to the first graduates of the School of Medicine in 1828, and the LL.B. was first awarded for law school graduates in 1842. The bachelor’s degree was awarded beginning in 1849, but did not become the standard undergraduate degree and a prerequisite for the master’s degree until 1899, bringing the University into conformity with other institutions of higher learning. The Ph.D. has been awarded since 1883. 

History of the Faculty

Thomas Jefferson conceived of the faculty as a peer group responsible both for instruction and administration of the University. Administrative functions have diversified during subsequent growth of the University, but the tradition of faculty participation in governance continues. 

The original faculty met for the first time on April 12, 1825, elected a chair, and organized the instructional program. From its founding until 1856 the University changed little. Then, as now, student enrollment determined the number of faculty; during the first twenty years the average attendance was only 190. By 1860 there were thirteen faculty and three major divisions: the literary and scientific schools, the School of Law, and the School of Medicine. 

When student enrollment recovered from the Civil War and began to grow, major changes started to occur. New fields of study focused on the applied aspects of mathematics, biology, agriculture, engineering, and chemistry. The humanities established a separate professorship of English language and literature, as well as professorships of modern languages, history, and economics. By 1901 the medical school had expanded by offering a four-year course of study and a training school for nurses; faculty in business administration and law had increased as well.

The system of faculty ranks in use at the University today began in 1899 when an associate professor was appointed to help with instruction in romance languages. When the number of students grew too large for the professor of romance languages to instruct both undergraduate and graduate students, the work was divided and a junior professor was appointed to assist. With experience, these junior professors (also referred to as adjuncts) could become associate professors and, finally, a professor. In this way, the faculty ranks diversified as the number of students increased. The undergraduate program became known as the College, and the graduate program was identified as the University.

The term “General Faculty” came into use around the turn of the 20th century. The faculty as a whole still governed the University, but committees of professors had assumed independent oversight of students and curricula in the various specialized areas of study, especially in the professional schools. Soon the General Faculty formally recognized and delegated its powers over students and curricula to these school faculties. After 1903 the faculty as a whole was known formally, as it is today, as the General Faculty of the University. The General Faculty of the University still convenes once each year to approve the conferral of degrees. 

As the number of administrative and supporting staff with faculty status grew after 1970, the term “general faculty” was used to identify those who were elected to the General Faculty of the University but not to the tenured ranks of faculty of the schools. Today, “general faculty members” are those who hold salaried faculty appointments but are not eligible for tenure.

Historical and Current University Data

The Office of Institutional Research and Analytics maintains and reports historical and current information on the student body, faculty, and a variety of other University data. Additional data on diversity may be found on the UVA Diversity Dashboard. The Office of the Board of Visitors publishes a Board Basics report annually, which also displays faculty and student data, including breakdowns by school.

The University of Virginia today enrolls more than 25,000 students, of which about 70 percent are undergraduates. The University employs over 3,000 full-time faculty members, of which 41 percent are women and 26 percent identify with a racial background other than white or are non-U.S. residents.