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 slaves were a significant part of the University’s operation 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 slave and stonemason Peyton Skipwith. For more information on slavery at the University, see the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University and Jefferson’s University: 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.
Still small for a state institution, the University of Virginia today enrolls almost 22,805 on-Grounds students, about 70 percent of whom are undergraduates (70 percent Virginians), 30 percent of whom are graduate-level, and 53 percent are women. Among first-year students enrolling at the University in fall 2017, slightly more than 31 percent identify with a racial background other than white.