Thomas Jefferson asked his that his tombstone list what he regarded as one of the three greatest achievements in life which included “Father of the University of Virginia.” However, the university represented merely the apex of a broader educational vision in which he wanted to create state primary schools for boys and girls in Virginia.
He never realized his larger objective but his intimate involvement in every aspect of creating the university amounts to a remarkable case study in good leadership. It revealed his talents as a lawyer who drafted the legislation for the assembly; as a surveyor who personally mapped the grounds; as a politician who masterminded the strategy to win approval in the assembly against intense opposition; as an architect who designed the layout, chose the building materials, and corresponded with the craftsman; and as an intellectual who developed an innovative curriculum, suggested the books for the library and the criteria for selecting the faculty.
Jefferson was concerned with what remains a perennial issue which is the importance of education in the success of the republican democratic experiment. Although dismissed in higher education histories as a “finishing school for southern aristocrats” which trained many of the future leaders of the Confederacy, the lecture will argue that his vision of public education was as revolutionary as the other achievements on his tombstone and that it still has the potential to stimulate discussion about the role of universities.