Boots Mead, Our Valentine

February 17th, 2014

Ernest Campbell Mead Jr., known to most of us as Boots Mead, passed away on the eve of Valentine’s Day. It was an unusually beautiful evening on the Lawn, with the snow – pristine, velvety and silent – falling seemingly forever down in its maternal and protective ways. The students, happy as pups, were sledding down from the Rotunda, throwing snow balls, and crafting, on a whim, snowmen of all proportions and types: some resembled TJ sitting on his chair on the west side of the Lawn, some resembled the evil Penguin in Batman, and others, simply two balls on top of each other, happy to be here today and gone tomorrow when the sun was out. Laughter, like the glow from the lamps along the colonnades, pierced and then smoothed the nightfall.

I felt I knew but a sliver of Boots, a complex man: he was a teacher by vocation. If only we could multiply him by the hundreds, was the thought that used to race through my head.

He arrived at his vocation, I suspect, late in life. He was a pianist when he first showed up on the Lawn as a sixteen year old, with a Steinway that his parents had bought him, and he remained so to the last day of his life. Then he was also, he said to me, “a member of the faculty, an administrator, and then a teacher,” who was “interested in how he felt something should be done.” Along the way, he changed, largely through the influence of his students. He discovered another, an altogether different gift – a gift of listening, to prod them gently and patiently, to be liberated in their thinking. “I was interested in the student primarily as in his person or his pursuit of truth, basically the truth of him – or herself, the only true path, I believe, to freedom and responsibility.”

Students weren’t the only ones he helped change. I also benefited from his gift of listening. I used to listen to the pregnant silence before he would ask me a question or two, with a gentle cadence that filled the room, as if in the wake of all that I might have forgotten, of what was truly important in life.

A southerner from Richmond, he was more keenly interested in change than anyone I met. C. Vann Woodward said in The Strange Career of Jim Crow that “The people of the South should be the last Americans to expect indefinite continuity of their institutions and social arrangements.” A traditionalist, he was always fascinated by changes, big and small. Every time I saw him he greeted me with the same question: “Dean Woo, what’s new in the College?”

One of his favorite passages was from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

I can’t think of three lines that summarize so well how he felt in his eight decades at the University. Boots had a heart so big, it contained those he loved and all those in the University and beyond:

Old and enormous are the stars,
Old and small is the heart, and it
Holds more than all the stars, being,

Without space, greater than the vast expanse.

(Fernando Pessoa, from Ruba’iyat)

Thank you, Boots, for all your Valentine’s Day gifts.


PS: The College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences recently published his autobiography, titled Boots Mead: Eight Decades at the University. The Office of the Dean has copies available for delivery upon request. Contributions to the Mead Endowment, which honors the example that Boots set by nurturing the interaction between faculty and students, are encouraged in exchange for Mead’s autobiography.

To request a copy of Boots Mead: Eight Decades at the University, please email your name and complete mailing address to Juliet Trail at .

A link to his obituary in The Daily Progress is available here. A 3 p.m. memorial service will be held on Saturday, March 29, at St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church, followed by a reception at the Colonnade Club. In lieu of flowers, Boots’ family suggests that memorial contributions be made to the Mead Endowment (P.O. Box 400314, Charlottesville VA, 22904), or to the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA (P.O. Box 7047, Charlottesville VA 22906). You may also post condolences to his daughters, Jenny Mead and Lindsay Lowdon, and to the rest of his family at Hill and Wood Funeral Service’s website.

Message to the A&S Community

October 6th, 2013

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

I write to let you know that I have decided to step down as dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Science in May 2014. It has been a distinct privilege, one of the greatest in my life, to lead the College—and above all, to work with you.

The changes in the College in recent years have been fundamental. The College is well positioned to work with a new dean, with much momentum going forward.

In 2008, we faced two great challenges. The first was to modernize the management structure in the College, especially for finance and administration. The other was to increase fundraising rapidly.  Success in these endeavors provides the critical foundation of teaching and research. Looking back over the last five years, by any measure we have succeeded.

From the start administrative and financial operations in our office were placed on an effective and robust basis, characterized by multi-year, integrated financial planning to support new strategic directions for the College.

We also created one of the finest fundraising operations on Grounds. Annual philanthropic commitments have grown from $24.5 million in 2009-2010 to $62 million in 2012-13.

With these challenges met, the College is now able to hire dozens of new faculty— over 50 new faculty in this academic year alone. At the same time we have directed significant new funding to improve faculty compensation.

We have also restructured the graduate programs, significantly improving fellowship offerings and guaranteeing five years of financial support for all doctoral students.

We have successfully retained our top faculty who received offers from peer institutions—UCLA, Texas, Michigan, Oxford, Cambridge, Duke, and others—with a stellar retention rate of approximately 75% since 2009-2010; last year it was over 80%.

The College established the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures, with support of the Mellon Foundation; the Asia Institute, which won a Title VI grant in 2010 to designate the Institute as a National Resource Center in East Asian Studies; and we launched the Quantitative Collaborative to encourage innovative methods to deal with complex social problems. Other initiatives, such as the World Language Institute are also underway.

In the sciences, we have made a focused investment in selected areas identified by the chairs of science departments and distinguished scientists in the College, investing approximately $4.5 million annually in research support. Notable accomplishments include the creation of the Center for Chemistry of the Universe; the Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization with support from the Department of Energy; and the continued success of the Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research.

We have also benefited from the addition of new facilities, including the New South Lawn and New Cabell Hall renovations, the Physical and Life Sciences Building, Ruffin Hall, Hunter Smith Band Building, as well as the Ruth Caplin Theatre.

In the sabbatical that follows my current term, I will look to completing a book titled ‘The Three Worlds of East Asian Capitalism,” before returning to teaching.

It has been an honor to serve as your dean.  I have a fund of wonderful memories, and I look forward to working with you in future endeavors for the College.


Leaving the Comfort Zone

July 5th, 2013

Three years ago, the College of Arts and Sciences, HKUST, and Peking University entered into a trilateral partnership. The idea was to create research and teaching collaboration among the three institutions that can be enduring. The Jefferson Global Seminars is part of that effort. I want to thank Philip Zelikow, Associate Dean of Graduate Academic Programs in Arts and Sciences, for creating this program with stellar curricular content; and James Lee, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at HKUST, who worked hand and glove with us to make it all possible—administratively, financially, and above all, intellectually. - MW
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Our Honor

March 6th, 2012

In the late fall of 2010 as the economy was beginning to recover from a crisis that destroyed so much of the wealth of the middle class, a number of documentaries and docudramas appeared that asked probing questions about the causes of this catastrophe. One such film was Inside Job, about the culpability of the nation’s elites—not just on Wall Street and Capitol Hill but at research universities, in faculty offices of “thought leaders” who influence policy. In this film professors appeared as technocrats, publishing papers whose economic analysis benefited the corporations where they served as consultants. Read the rest of this entry »

Money on the Liberal Arts

January 4th, 2012

At an academic panel in Atlanta on the morning of the Virginia-Auburn bowl game, an alumnus posed a question that has been posed many times, and with increasing frequency: Given all the national emphasis on the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), what did I think was the prospect for the liberal arts at the University of Virginia? Read the rest of this entry »

Back to the Shores of Tripoli: The Lessons of 9/11

September 15th, 2011

The magic of youth can transform a nightmare into a memory. Over the past weekend, the students and the University commemorated the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a dizzying array of events—speeches, conferences, exhibits, interfaith dialogues, flag runs, and candlelight vigils. Ubiquitous on the Grounds were students wearing yellow ribbons: we remember 9/11. Read the rest of this entry »

Common Sense Education—or, Rules of Thumb for Life

August 23rd, 2011

In remarks this week to the College’s Class of 2015 and their parents, I spoke about the complex and venerable concept of common sense and its vital place in higher education.

George Santayana, one of America’s greatest philosophers, was also one of its finest cultural observers. In an essay that discusses materialism and idealism in American life, he describes an encounter with the president of Harvard, where he had long been on the faculty. As they walked together, the president asked Santayana how his classes were going. Santayana said fine—the students are intelligent and keen. The president stopped, turned to Santayana, and said, “I meant, how many students are in your classes.” Read the rest of this entry »

Leadership at Midlife

August 16th, 2011

This week, I spoke to an orientation meeting of Arts & Sciences department chairs and program directors. Plucked from the faculty ranks, they are creatively taking on the immense and complex challenges of the College while helping to redefine what it means to be an academic leader in the twenty-first century.

The orientation for department chairs and program directors is the last event of the summer, and the first event of the academic year, the cockcrow heralding a new day, a new season, a new year. So at this time I always find myself excited, and full of hope. Read the rest of this entry »

Pitch Perfect

June 8th, 2011

On May 30, Jim Tressel, one of the most successful coaches in the history of Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State, resigned in the wake of an NCAA rules violations investigation. It was big news everywhere, but especially in Ohio, where college football couldn’t possibly be any bigger. The Tressel episode is only the most recent case study on the perils of big-time sports at American universities. Storied football programs and the immense funding they both generate and require have put universities like Ohio State on the national map. Yet Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, argued in a book titled “Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education” that college sports, long expected to boost alumni giving, are not in fact good money-makers, especially at universities not near the top of the national football rankings. Instead, Bok says, they exploit students who are often admitted with low grades and test scores and are then given too little time to study. Still, he adds, competition among universities and colleges has kept up the pressure for more aggressive athletic programs, often undermining their educational values. Read the rest of this entry »

Forever Young

May 18th, 2011

This week, the TJ Society, a gathering of U.Va. alumni who graduated 50 or more years ago, returned to the Grounds for their reunion. My remarks to them reflect on how the University and its people – much like Mick Jagger, Madonna and other modern “amortals” – evolve and change over time, yet remain ageless in their consciousness and aspirations. Read the rest of this entry »