By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 2009
John T. Casteen III, who has led the University of Virginia to a greatly enhanced reputation as one of the most academically elite colleges in the country, announced yesterday that he would step down next year after 20 years as president.
Colleagues said he will be remembered for increasing the public school's academic prestige, for making it more accessible to a wider array of people and for his success in fundraising, which dramatically increased the school's endowment and allowed it to launch ambitious new programs.
During his tenure, which was unusually long for a college president, he emphasized private fundraising to ease the school's reliance on erratic and dramatically shrinking state funding. Casteen told the Board of Visitors yesterday that he would likely remain as a consultant involved in the current $3 billion campaign until its completion. His title will be president emeritus after he steps down in August 2010.
Casteen said yesterday that he could remember the way his father would talk during family car trips about the University of Virginia "as a building block in the formation of the American republic . . . he saw the university as something to be attained or earned."
Casteen first came to the University of Virginia in the 1960s, a 17-year-old boy from the Tidewater region who was the first in his family to go to college. He received three degrees in English and returned to work in the admissions office. As dean of admission, he pushed to diversify the school's population racially, economically and culturally, visiting the homes of black families to recruit students and admitting more women.
He taught at U-Va. and the University of California at Berkeley, then served as secretary of education in Virginia and president of the University of Connecticut before returning to U-Va. as president in 1990. In 2003, he funded a generous financial aid program for low-income students, which guaranteed that students from poor families would not have to take out loans to attend the school and provided them with academic and other guidance.
The school has led national rankings among public schools in its graduation rate for black students for 15 years. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said he's even more impressed by the performance of those students who, based on their test scores and academic preparation when they arrive, would on average not be expected to do nearly as well as they do.
"The quality and excellence of the reputation of the University of Virginia is dramatically higher today than it was when John Casteen came in as president in 1990," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. "He is skilled as an academic and as an administrator. He has demonstrated extraordinary success in fundraising and development. And he is arguably one of the most politically adept human beings I have ever known or watched in action," able to juggle competing and often fractious constituencies.
Although often praised, Casteen also has been criticized by parents angry about racist incidents at the school, student protesters who wanted better wages for employees, legislators who felt he had lost sight of the public role of the institution in his push for an international reputation and families who thought admissions decisions were skewed against students in more affluent Northern Virginia.
"You just can't serve in that role as long as he has without having a lot of scar tissue," Broad said, but she added, "he is widely admired across American higher education. A lot of us tried to recruit him away, that's for sure."