In his pursuit of academic distinction for the University, President Edgar Shannon Jr. sought eminent scholars and high-achieving students. With the establishment of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Sciences along with the state legislation, Mr. Shannon was able to attract well-known and respected faculty to the University. The idea of establishing a Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia was developed in 1964 by a committee appointed by President Shannon. The committee's charge was to develop a plan for including the University in a science development grant program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The committee's chair, later to become Mr. Shannon’s successor as President of the University, was Frank Hereford, then dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences. As Mr. Herford later recalled, "we fairly quickly came to the conclusion that the real key to excellence was the faculty, and that we should build the proposal around the concept of bringing to the University and retaining the very best people who could possibly be brought here."
From its inception in 1965 until 1989, W. Dexter Whitehead directed the program. Mr. Whitehead helped bring distinguished faculty to the University across all major disciplines including English professor and poet Rita Dove, Kenneth Thompson of the politics department, Michael Fowler in physics and chemist Robert Ireland. Mr. Whitehead was succeeded by Paul Gross, professor of Biology and Physiology, who had also served as a Provost of the University. Following Mr. Gross's retirement in 1995, the Center was brought more directly into the Provost's office.
Currently, the Shannon Center continues to focus on its original primary mission: recruiting and retaining faculty of the highest quality in order to further strengthen University programs.