Jan. 23, 2018

Spring 2018 State of the School Address by Batten School Dean Allan C. Stam, January 22, 2018

Today’s talk is, I believe, the fourth time I’ve addressed this school at the beginning of the spring semester.

Thank you all for coming.

This talk today marks the beginning of a new semester, hard on the heels of our celebration of a new year, a new season. It is a great time for renewal, and a great time to think about what type of institution, community and team we want to be.

I want to take this opportunity to speak frankly about not just the state of our school—which is strong and growing, and I’ll provide some detail later in my remarks about that—but more importantly about the Batten community vision: the role we play in fulfilling the purpose of The University of Virginia.

When I entered Garrett Hall this morning—as on most mornings working at this very cool and historic building—I was reminded of our mission.

It is to educate the next generation of civic leaders, many of whom are sitting in the room right here. You are our most important product. Your advancement is, along with the creation of new knowledge, our core mission.

I encourage each of you, my fellow community members, to think of this mission and ask yourselves these questions:

1.What do I believe to be true?

2.What do I believe to be right?

3.What do I believe to be worth fighting for?

In short, why am I—why are we—here?

This school, this university, flow out of the legacy of the Western Enlightenment.

I’m going to go a little “theory” on you for just a few moments.

This School was founded just ten years ago, early in the new Millennium, late in the university’s 200-year history. Yet our founding premise is based on the central canon of western liberal thought: the proposition that progress for all people is possible.

It is a central premise our forbearers passed down to us from the Renaissance and then the insights of the Enlightenment.

The foundational proposition of Western Liberalism is that true Progress is possible. The feature that distinguishes Western Liberalism from other great civilizations’ value systems is the belief that if we open our minds and work together, if we unleash the power of human creativity and attendant curiosity, progress will occur and should be available to all.

Progress is not, however, inevitable, but occurs only under certain conditions. I personally do not believe that progress is the general equilibrium of the human condition.            

At Liberalism’s core is simply this: the faith and confidence that progress is possible. The knowledge that working together as a team, women and men of good will can make our (a) small piece of the world a better place.

We reject the notion that change should be avoided; instead we embrace it. We accept the risk that comes with competition because it is the innovation competition fosters that serves as the great engine of progress.

We live in a society whose rules, regulations—its policies—both foster and constrain the competition that is necessary to sustain progress.

In a society that values progress and constant change, tolerance of differences among us, not necessarily respect, is our greatest, necessary strength.

An inability to tolerate opposing views, opinions, beliefs, practices—endangers liberalism and ultimately hinders progress. To aid progress, ideological and other kinds of diversity require tolerance of differences of all kinds: Left/Right, Black/White, Qualitative vs. Quantitative.

I once got into a very intense argument with Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University. He was making the rounds of universities giving a talk whose theme was about the central role that respect, not tolerance, must play at universities.

I argued, with what I felt was all due respect, that it was civil tolerance, and NOT respect that was at the core of liberalism, and, in turn, modern universities.

My point was that excessive respect—and, particularly, excessive respect for the past—often congeals into deference that characterizes conservative institutions that resist change, that stifle innovation, and impede progress.

Civility and tolerance for new, often threatening, ideas, for difference, for diversity of thought—those are the hallmarks of liberalism and progress.

Discoverers and Innovators are often driven by the notion that their ideas are better than the ones they seek to replace. Progress requires an underlying disrespect and skepticism for old ways, old ideals, but a tolerance of competing and different ideas, new ways of thought, until the competition of markets and democracy weed out the wheat from the chaff.

This is the greatest hope of liberal thought, and the greatest commitment we make as citizens in a democracy. We will not fear progress, we will not obstruct change, and, working together with shared values, we will shape and take responsibility for our common future.

Now, in the search for Human Progress, what is The Role of a Public University?

The role of the public university in meeting these challenges is clear.

Great universities serve progress in three ways: through promoting Discovery, Service, and Community.

a. Discovery—it is What we do
b. Service—is Why we do it
c. Community– teams—is How we work

The greatest public universities embrace the expectation of progress. They celebrate the fact that progress is possible, that we can better the human condition and avoid the folly of stasis, resignation, or defeatism. They study history to guide the future, not to either wistfully long for it, or to condemn the past. The past is what it is. Learn from it, don’t waste your time trying to change it.

They accept the sometimes-cocky notion that, as politicians put it sometimes, “We are the ones you have been waiting for.” Or, from another perspective, that together we can realize the potential to “make America great again.”

Scholars and students at great universities follow the evidence: the hard, rigorously generated data to prescribe forward-leaning achievable leadership and policy solutions. Great Universities and schools are based upon hope and expectations, not upon fear and risk-aversion.

Let’s be honest: these are very difficult times for the American university. Its role and mission have been challenged as never before. State financial support is plummeting.

A solid majority of one of our main political parties believes that elite universities are, in fact, part of our national problem and not part of the solution. There is a fair bit of evidence to bear out that belief.

 Many politicians on the right take cheap shots at ‘overeducated elites’ wasting taxpayer dollars on obscure studies and esoteric topics. Many of their opponents on the left have reveled in coming up with innovative, stifling compliance directives—ignoring outcomes with a myopic focus on process.

Many in the Academy have been too quick to dismiss the hopes and fears of average voters, of working-class people, seeing only the caricature of supposedly ill-informed populists and ‘deplorables.’

Now, Jefferson was an institutionalist; he refused to pin his hopes on the occasional success of honest and ambitious men. On the contrary, he believed that the great danger was that philosophers would be lulled into complacence by the occasional or accidental rise of a Franklin or a Washington. Jefferson maintained that any government which made the welfare of its citizens dependent on the character of their governors was an illusion.

Too many universities today have responded to the trials of competition and the stresses of the public arena by retreating further into their siloed Ivory Towers.

Universities have resisted long-overdue changes to budgeting practices, to dated teaching methods, to irrelevant subject matter. Many universities in our country focus myopically on increasing revenue, all too often through ever-increasing tuition while paying scant attention to controlling spiraling administrative costs.

They resist the evolving demands of changing job markets. They have been tone deaf to legitimate criticism from taxpayers. They have over-promised ‘safe spaces’ when, in fact, the real world has no safe spaces: The Real World is tough and difficult; in the real world bad things happen to very good people.

Drilling down from system, to university, to school: What are the challenges before the Batten School?

Everyone in this room volunteered for this post, in most cases following an active recruitment on the school’s part. Students: you sought us out, competed and won admission to this community. Our faculty and staff have been recruited from among scores of applicants. We have selected those genuinely committed to interdisciplinary work, to excellence in research and excellence in teaching.

Many of us uprooted our families and moved here from other to be part of this new and progress driving school and community. We all drank the Kool Aid. We share a common vision and are united in our work.

Here at UVA we have endured nearly a decade of turmoil—some of which has been driven by outside forces, some by internal choices. We have been targeted by torch-bearing white supremacists and neo-Nazis, by mace-wielding anti-fascists. These two groups of extremists decided to use our Grounds as a platform to peddle their violent extremism, unlike the scores of peaceful protesters who surrounded them.

As Daniel Boorstin, great historian of science and human progress, notes, “I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, a heretic, or an unbeliever.”

The fact that our town and university were targeted for protest and violence is something we all lament. But it is not really a surprise that when provoked extremists picked our Grounds as a chosen field for a contest of ideas and ideals they are doomed to lose.

From Jefferson’s founding, the University of Virginia is a place where ideas matter. Where character based in honesty and honor still counts. Where a shared history both reminds us of the compelling need for progress and inspires us to work towards a brighter future. This is a place the nation watches, eager to see how one of its greatest public colleges will respond.

When we complain about these outside forces, we must take care. We would do well to heed the warning of historian Niall Ferguson, who rues the fact that “we take freedom for granted far too often…and because of this, we do not appreciate how very vulnerable it can be.” To paraphrase Nietzsche, the steps we take to address the challenges before us make us stronger in the long run. If we decide to address our challenges by insulating ourselves from them rather than taking them on headfirst, we only weaken rather than strengthen ourselves.

Some of our wounds, we must acknowledge, have been self-inflicted. We have been too slow to change. We have tried too hard to cocoon our students, to shield ourselves from the very real and difficult choices confronting a society undergoing rapid change.

From the attacks on 9/11 to the Great Recession to the political turmoil of recent months, your generation has had its share of challenges just as each generation before you have.

Think of the material privations of Mr. Jefferson’s day, think of the risks brave abolitionists in Mr. Lincoln’s times, or of your grandparents’ Generation who survived the Great Depression and then fought and conquered Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo.

We must focus on the future and work on the task of advancing common goals, and celebrate life in the process. I urge each and every one of you to work hard and play hard.

So how do we make progress?

How does a great public university advance our goals? How can we in the Batten School work to advance this mission?

We support and honor discoverers. We serve thorough our work of discovery. We work as a community, as a team.

From da Vinci to Columbus, from Franklin to Curie, from Ostrom to Arrow, we learn from those who have uncovered new worlds and challenged us with new ideas.

This is altogether fitting in a community that honors, and helped launch, not just Thomas Jefferson, but Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, three men whose curiosity and courage changed the face of this nation.

They had burning questions. They risked their lives to gain new knowledge about our continent, its inhabitants, and how the general welfare might be promoted through improved governance.

Daniel Boorstin writes that, “My hero is Man the Discoverer. The world we now view from the literate West—the vistas of time, the edges of land and sea, the heavenly bodies and our own bodies, the plants and animals, the history and human societies past and present—had to have been opened for us by countless Columbuses.      

If our fundamental mission is to lead the way in discovery, then our basic service—those of us that work in and administer the Batten School—is to train discoverers. This an ongoing and endless mission. “The history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the greatest menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of the surety of knowledge at any time in both the empirical as well as normative worlds.”

Our greatest service to society is through discovery and the training of discoverers. We discover by creating new knowledge.

How do we do this? We do this through research and hard study, by asking questions—by posing the questions:  “How do you know that? What is the basis for your answer?” We maintain in our thoughts, words, and deeds a community in our school and outside the university that is tough and resilient, both gritty and curious.

History’s great discoverers all took on great risk. At times, when sailing through uncharted waters, the risk was to life and limb. At other times, as when pointing out the cruelties and injustice of forced racial segregation, the risk was social ridicule.

For discoverers there are no safe spaces. We must be more resilient than the mere consumers of new knowledge as we face the great and fascinating challenges of our times.

We must learn to recognize, manage, and channel our fears, both physical as well as emotional and intellectual. The reward for resilience, grit, and persistence combined with curiosity and innovation is progress.

The faculty’s mission is to equip students with the tools, the skills to navigate their lives and the world through all types of experiences and people, both good and bad.

Victimhood does not work for leaders. Our job is to help our students develop intuition and awareness of what surrounds them as well as inward to develop a true sense of what we are each capable of, as individuals and collectively. We must raise the bar, not as high as we think it should go, but as high as it will go.

Often, leading, being out front, taking the necessary risks to produce meaningful change can be terrifying, can be lonely. Fear is a natural part of our emotional and physiological heritage. Today, we are often taught to stop whatever we are doing when fear raises its ugly head, when we are uncomfortable, when we are anxious.

If, however, you can learn to confront and channel your fears you will have learned that fear can be harnessed as a leader’s most personal and powerful tool. Fear is not your body saying stop. It is your subconscious intruding into your conscious to say loudly, “Hey, Pay Attention, be careful, think, be aware of all of your faculties.”

Safe spaces—the attendant mentality that accompanies the idea—not only threaten the basic premise of liberalism, including free speech, but the idea of being a responsible contributing teammate.

Sheltering students from aggressive or seemingly threatening speech, ideas, provides a respite incompatible with well-informed decision-making and responsible civic engagement.

Now, the desire to shelter ourselves from conflicting and hostile points of view correlates directly with an acknowledged ugliness and hostility in our broader cultural and political life.

This is no accident. But if we respond to the challenges and opportunities that lay before us by filtering out conflicting viewpoints and surrounding ourselves with like-minded sympathies, we contribute inevitably to the demise of progress, liberalism, and civilization’s advance.

The Batten School aspires to be a community of strivers where intolerance is not tolerated, where prejudice is rejected, where public service is an expectation, where opportunity, not result, is the only given.

Not everybody here will get a trophy. And, in my opinion, nor should they—for the challenge to our values is persistent and the issues are real and occasionally painful. We will not shield you from difficult work and the risk of failure. In my opinion, we must not even try to do so. Not all questions are good ones, not all ideas pan out.

The Nazi theorist Carl Schmidt maintained that the tolerance at the core of Western liberalism will be its downfall. I reject this view. I do not respect that view. I agree with Mr. Jefferson: tolerance is actually our greatest strength. For it is in the ability to listen—really listen—to those whom we disagree with, that we can learn which ideas to respect, which ideas to reject, which to empathize with, and to be able to identify common ground from which to make forward progress for society.

The best schools, like the Batten School, promote Discovery—it is WHAT we do. They engage in Service—it is WHY we do it. They build Communities, which is to say we create a community, a team, where the creation of new knowledge is seen as a community service.

We are building a community that is tolerant and compassionate, that celebrates diversity of background and thought, that is gritty, curious and resilient.  This is one reason so much of our work at Batten, from Orientation through the APP, is done in Teams.

As that famous philosopher Bo Schembechler—who moonlighted as the University of Michigan football coach—once said: “We work for the Team. It is all about the team. What we accomplish, we accomplish as a team. When we win, we win as a Team. The Team. The Team, it is about The Team.”  

At Batten, we know that teamwork is critical when working towards effective solutions. The teams you become part of here within the walls of Garrett Hall will continue to grow stronger after graduation—as you graduate from being a product to being a consumer, a lifetime member of the Batten Network.

It is The Team, our professional network we in the Batten administration endeavor to prepare you for. At Batten, we know teamwork is critical when working towards effective solutions.

Society, University, our School—all are comprised of individuals. What is your role as an individual in fitting in here? The beauty of Western liberalism: You are free to choose. No one will make you do anything. Your future is yours to decide.

As a school of Leadership in, for, and Public Policy—unique in this country of ours—we are committed to preparing you for both leadership service and policy analysis.

We have brought you here to become a Discoverer, to join a network of leaders. We aspire to build your capacity to be an effective leader. We seek to advance women and men of high character.

Indeed, in Admissions, when recruiting faculty, we look far beyond things like grades, test scores, citation counts. We seek out diversity—of viewpoint, of background, of experience—as well as character and leadership traits. This, of course, is altogether consistent with Mr. Jefferson’s original vision for this university.

There are basic principles we share in this community, truths that we hold to be self-evident, yet reside at the core of our common beliefs and common values.

 We reject the conservative critics’ fear that the tolerance of liberalism will be our downfall. At the same time, we reject belief systems predicated on stasis and insulation from competition with evidence-based outcomes.

The reward for being knowledgeable and tough and resilient and compassionate is simply this: Progress. Progress for our community, progress for our society, progress for our divided nation.

For it is through the generation of new insights and the application of the leadership skills of women and men of good character that public policy challenges will be addressed, that society will make progress, that together, we shall overcome our grand challenges.

So, how are we doing in this process? Looking back at the last year and looking forward to the coming graduation of 2018 classes.

The Batten School is now a thriving network of more than 430 scholars, students and staff members, with a growing alumni base.

Always visionaries, we see greatness in our future. We are dedicated to creating the necessary classroom, conference room and lab spaces to accommodate growth and a robust public events calendar and speaker series. We will continue to invest in our infrastructure here at Garrett Hall and systems necessary for faculty to fund, conduct and apply catalyzing collaborative research at our centers.

On the Student front, we have very active Batten Councils—we just came off our Leadership Retreat at Gettysburg for our MPP students—double the number of students ever participating

The Batten Undergraduate Council successfully launched a lunch series with local civic leaders.

They’ll host the former DNC head Howard Dean in February for their Rotunda Dinner.

Thanks to the Undergraduate Council for hosting a successful holiday event for local Boys and Girls Clubs.

On the sporting front, congratulations to Veronica Latsko. She was just drafted 28th in the National Women’s Soccer League by the Houston Dash on last Thursday.

On the Faculty scholarship front, Professor Chris Ruhm continues to lead the national conversation on the U.S. opioid epidemic.

Professor Jen Doleac testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about prisoner reentry. 

Professors Ray Scheppach and Andy Pennock played central roles in organizing the final Virginia gubernatorial debate and led a team of ten students in assisting with the transition of the new governor.

Professors Christine Mahoney and Bevin Etienne, along with the School of Architecture’s Elgin Cleckley and City Councilors Wes Bellamy and Kathy Galvin were awarded funding through the Provost’s Flash Funding program for a project to create a “New Vinegar Hill” in Charlottesville.

Professor Eileen Chou was recognized at the University of Virginia’s annual Fall Convocation as one of the five winners of the 2017 All-University Teaching Awards

Professor Sebastian Tello-Trillo was selected to receive the prestigious National Academy of Social Insurance John Heinz Dissertation Award.

Our Centers are making great strides.

The Center for Effective Lawmaking held a launch breakfast on Capitol Hill just this past September, focused on how effective lawmakers can break through congressional gridlock. 

The Center for Health Policy in just the past year has added some 30 new Affiliated Faculty across five Schools at the University. This expansion comes in part as the result of a half million-dollar grant from the InnovAge Foundation.

The Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming launched an analytical simulation called the “Global Food Security Simulation” that debuted in the Batten-NASPAA student simulation competition. The Center also created a mobile app version of a role-playing crisis management simulation called the “Situation Room Experience” in partnership with the Ronald Reagan Library in California.

EdPolicyWorks Professor Daphna Bassok was named a winner of the 2017 Presidential Early Career Awards for Science and Engineers. This is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. It is an extraordinary accomplishment.


Faculty with our Global Policy Center served in advisory capacities to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), to the Platform for Disaster Displacement (an NGO focused on humanitarian relief after natural disasters), to the Director General of European Union (European Civilian Protection and Humanitarian Operations), (and) to the Center for Humanitarian Data in the United Nations.

The National Security Policy Center got off to a fast start in its inaugural year, welcoming its first National Security Cohort, then began training analysts from the National Ground Intelligence Center here in Charlottesville, (and)  hosting events on transatlantic cooperation, counter-terrorism, (and) national security strategy.

Social entrepreneurship at UVA continues to grow. The Center now has 238 Minors in Social Entrepreneurship, over 550 students enrolled annually in classes, (and) this year raised over $175,000 to support 46 Fellows in social enterprise.

Regarding fundraising: My first year at the School, fiscal year 2014, the School’s fundraising total was $293,000.

Fiscal year ’18, to date, we’ve raised $6,400,000. We are making great strides.

On the budget side, for the 10th consecutive year, the school’s budget is balanced, finishing each of the past four years with a modest surplus. No other unit at the University of Virginia can make this claim. At the same time, our school has grown extraordinarily, so our fiscal prudence has not constrained our ability to accomplish great things.

As you can see, we are doing great things; our future is bright.

Thank you for your commitment to the cause. I wish you a productive and fulfilling semester. Thank you.

In This Article

Dean, Professor of Public Policy and Politics
Email Address
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Garrett 107