To the Parents of Incoming Students

Last weekend I greeted many of you who were fortunate enough to accompany your children to Charlottesville and help them move in as they start a new and important phase of their life. For those parents I was not able to meet, let me offer my greetings in print, as Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, but also as another parent. The older of my two children is starting his third year in a university in Chicago; so two years ago, I was in the same situation you are in, sending off a child to be on his own.

During the convocation at his university, I sat—like so many of you did last Friday—and listened to no less than four different administrators speak about the “life of the mind,” and about the fabled discussions in the student dormitories that stretch into the wee hours of the night at that university—as students debate about Adorno and Horkheimer, about Foucault and Poulantzas.  That is certainly admirable—far better that they should contemplate the horrors of the historical predicaments that Adorno and Horkheimer faced, than to spend hours on Facebook with ear phones jammed into their heads, rap music pulsating in their brains. They will do enough of that, as all parents know.

Today, however, I want to talk to you about something other than the “life of the mind,” another kind of life. Exactly one hundred years ago, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who was then President of Harvard, said: “The object of the undergraduate education is not to produce hermits, each imprisoned in the cell of his own intellectual pursuits, but men fitted to take their places in the community and live in contact with their fellowman.” What he said was true then, and it is true today, and it includes both men and women.

I am mindful that you have entrusted us with an exquisite responsibility—to educate, nurture, and help find larger purposes in life for your children, who are dearer to you than life itself. In the four years that your children will be with us, they will transition from being male-children to men, and female-children to women.  Those will be truly complicated years—exhilarating, challenging, confusing, frightening, and fraught with massive opportunities and dangers. The College will provide your children with safe boundaries in which they can grow, learn, experiment, and find out who they are as human beings. And at the end of the four years, your child will leave Charlottesville better educated and more mature—and above all, a better human being.

In Aristotle’s Politics, he pondered the purpose of education. Do we as educators impart to our students truth through knowledge, or do we impart useful skills? Or—and here is a tough one—do we impart virtue?  There are many professors who believe that truth, being relative, cannot be taught, let alone virtue.  Yet the point of our education really ought to be all three: knowledge, skills, and virtue, each informing the other.

But how do you teach virtue?

Harry Lewis, a former dean at Harvard, reminds us in his recent and excellent book Excellence without a Soul, what John Dewey said about learning: “the only way to develop curiosity, sympathy, principle, and independence of mind is to practice being curious, sympathetic, principled, and independent. For those of us who are teachers, it isn’t what we teach that instills virtue; it is how we teach. We are the books our students read most closely.”

At the College of Arts and Sciences, we still practice something that has gone out the window at most research universities: faculty advising.  We are one of the last public universities where world famous scholars—Guggenheim award winners, members of national academies—are still assigned undergraduate advisees; and where mentoring takes places at every level—in residence halls, classrooms small and large, tutorials, undergraduate research opportunities, and in the pavilions on the lawn where the deans live, just as Mr. Jefferson intended.

Our system of mentoring and advising is not perfect, and it is stretched to the limit. It is hard to ask excellent scholars to dedicate themselves to advising when few other research institutions would insist that they do so.  And it is not necessarily the case that world-class researchers make the best advisors and mentors. But we do what we can, with an imperfect system—and always trying to make it better. We have no choice: as the teachers of your children, we are the books your children read most closely, and we will endeavor to be better role models.

For your part, I would ask that you stay in touch with your children. I don’t mean that you should hover over them as “helicopter parents,” but please stay in touch, which is so easy to do these days with cell phones, text messages, email, and even Facebook pages that many of you keep. No matter how safe we try to keep the confines of your children’s universe for the next four years, there are always dangers—like drugs and excessive alcohol, the scourges that afflict every university.

I would also ask you to be engaged with the College.  You have every right to scrutinize our work, and we are the better for it. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to email me at . I don’t have all the answers, but I know the deans and faculty members and administrators who do, and we will answer your queries as efficiently as we can, and do our best to help you and your children.

Welcome. I cannot tell you how delighted I am that you are now part of the College community.

4 Responses to “To the Parents of Incoming Students”

  1. Taeho Kim, MD says:

    Dear Dean Woo:

    Thank you for those inspiring words. My wife and I dropped off our son, Michael, at Lile, with the typical bittersweet emotion that all parents must feel as they part with their child for the first time. We were unable to stay to meet you or other members of the faculty that day but look forward to meeting you one day. I grew up in Charlottesville, and am a 1982 UVa Med graduate. I have 5 other members of my extended family who have attended UVa over last 25 years. I hope to add 2 more over next few years as I have 2 teenage daughters who wish to go to UVa. My wife and I will be praying for Michael as he begins his journey toward becoming not just an educated man but an honorable man with those virtues that you mentioned. I also would like to congratulate you for becoming the first Korean-American dean of the College. My father who lived in Charlottesville and was a part of the clinical faculty at the medical school, was so proud when he read about your selection. UVa has certainly changed, for the better, since I was there as a student. I wish you great success at the College and look forward to frequent trips to Charlottesville next several years. Taeho Kim, MD

  2. Walsh Richards, CLAS '62 says:

    This is so on the point in this electronic age. The importance to be able to sell themselves with out their electronic devices.

  3. george snyder says:

    Dear Dean Woo,

    To your point that faculty may not want to advise students, I can see their point, since most are not trained for such a task. In fact, I think the statement that “we do what we can, with an imperfect system” is a bit of as copout. Students deserve better, since this is such a crucial time in their lives.

    I would suggest that the college have a required first semester course in time management and career/education goals. An additional one in the second year would be good also. These would be taught by professional counselors, not liberal arts professors who know about their subject, but probably not how to motivate students to use their time in college wisely. Once you graduate, you do not get a second chance.

  4. Meredith Woo says:

    Dear Mr. Snyder

    Thank you for your insightful response. With regard to your second point, we in fact do have a suite of study-skills and time-management courses taught not by liberal arts faculty but by education specialists. Here is the link to this program:

    The association deans in Garrett Hall (to whom you were introduced after my talk) pay close attention to their students, and recommend these courses to those who, they feel, will benefit from them. We do not seem to have a supply/demand problem with these courses; that is, we can find space in them for all students who want or need them. Keep in mind that the association deans themselves serve as top-flight advisors to all students, and they are available five days per week. We’ve had wonderful success with this system, in general (as measured in terms of our graduation rates), but it remains the case that students who do not come to the attention of the deans (as do, automatically, those who find themselves in academic difficulty) have to take the initiative to visit their dean.

    As to faculty advisors, one of the surprising and unique things about the College is that the faculty as a body has always reaffirmed its commitment to faculty advising. It’s true, as I said, that some faculty are not good at it or don’t like to do it, but you’d be heartened to meet some of the many first-rate scholars who are also committed to advising and do it very well. Again, the association deans monitor the performance of faculty advisors, and over the years we work to retain the successful advisors (in their capacity as advisors) and assign less successful advisors to other tasks. And, again, the students have to take some initiative here. We invite them to pick their own advisor, once they connect with a professor they’ve “clicked” with: (see the paragraph on “how to change your faculty advisor”).

    I’d be happy to continue this discussion with you. My sense is that it’s difficult to make perfect matches with all students and all faculty advisors, but we have lots of ways for students to make the system work for them, and we try to help them do that.