Graduate Students

Long-Serving President of U. of Virginia Will Retire Next Year

June 12, 2009

John T. Casteen III, the longtime president of the University of Virginia, announced today that he would step down at the end of the 2009-10 academic year.

Mr. Casteen, who is 65 and has been president of the university since 1990, is known as a forceful advocate for increasing the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the university’s Charlottesville campus, which for much of its history has been mostly white, male, and privileged.

He announced his decision to retire in an e-mail message late this afternoon to the university community and in a statement on the university’s Web site. “These 19, soon to be 20, years feel today like a very short time,” Mr. Casteen wrote in the message to alumni. “These years have been magical times for me.”

Mr. Casteen was 17 when he arrived in Charlottesville, Va., as the first member of his family to go to college. He went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in English from the university, and became its dean of admissions in 1975.

In the years before he was named president, in 1990, Mr. Casteen taught English at the University of California at Berkeley, was the Commonwealth of Virginia’s secretary of education, and served a five-year term as president of the University of Connecticut.

When he returned to Charlottesville as Virginia’s seventh president, it was a welcome homecoming, he recalled today. “Despite adult occupations that showed me other places,” he wrote, “my thoughts and aspirations always returned to the Rotunda, the Lawn, the Library.”

But the university Mr. Casteen encountered decades ago was quite different from the one he will leave behind next year, after stepping down on August 1, 2010. The changes were hardly accidental.

For most of his tenure, Mr. Casteen was a vocal advocate for bringing more members of minority groups, women, and students from low-income families to the campus. In addition to using the bully pulpit of one of the nation’s oldest and most tradition-bound universities to advance that cause, Mr. Casteen employed his exceptional skills as a fund raiser to gather money for scholarships.

“He was one of those white males who was here with very few African-Americans at his time,” said Michael A. Mallory, who was director of minority recruitment in the university’s admissions office from 1989 to 1996. “So for him to bring alumni and others to his way of thinking — that was tremendous.”

Mr. Mallory, a UVa graduate who now directs the Ron Brown Scholar Program, also in Charlottesville, said Mr. Casteen’s commitment to changing the face of the university was more than lip service. “Whatever I wanted as director of minority recruitment in terms of fund raising or support, he was there,” he said.

In 2003 the university started AccessUVA, a full-need financial-aid program for low-income students. The program offers loan-free packages and is among the top priorities of the university’s $3-billion capital campaign. Mr. Casteen’s departure falls one year shy of the campaign’s scheduled end, in 2011, but he has said he will remain active in fund raising.

In the fall of 2008, the university’s student body was 63 percent white, 9 percent African-American, 11 percent Asian-American, and 4 percent Hispanic. Forty-seven percent of students received some type of aid. In 2006-7, about 8 percent of undergraduates received need-based Pell Grants, according to a Chronicle analysis.

In addition to being one of the longest-serving university presidents, Mr. Casteen is among the highest-paid presidents in the country. In a recent analysis by The Chronicle of the compensation of college presidents, Mr. Casteen ranked third over all among presidents of public universities in total compensation, taking home $797,048 in 2007-8. (Of that amount, $487,000 was a base salary.)

Like most public universities, Virginia has been hard-hit by the recession. Its endowment lost more than $1-billion, and Mr. Casteen took heat for decisions to put money into alternative investments some viewed as too risky.

But modern times come with modern problems, and Mr. Casteen — the “father of our modern university,” as W. Heywood Fralin, Virginia’s rector, put it — is credited with ushering Virginia into a global era.

“John Casteen will be remembered as the person who understood Jefferson’s vision of this place and catapulted it into the 21st century,” Mr. Fralin said in a written statement. “He will leave an indelible mark.” —Libby Sander