For the first time since 1976, the University of Virginia today has given two people the highest honor it confers upon members of the University community. Thomas Jefferson Awards were conferred at Fall Convocation upon retiring Dean of Admission John A. “Jack” Blackburn and Dr. Sharon L. Hostler, a pioneering physician and School of Medicine administrator now serving as interim vice provost for faculty advancement. Blackburn and Hostler are the 55th and 56th recipients of the Thomas Jefferson Award, given since 1955 to members of the University of Virginia community who exemplify in character, work and influence the principles and ideals of Jefferson and advance the objectives for which he founded the University.
This is only the second time that two people received the awards. In 1976, Charles K. Woltz and William S. Weedon were honored.
Both honorees have worked tirelessly to make the University a more welcoming and diverse institution. Blackburn has been a longtime champion for the admission of greater numbers of minority and low-income students, while Hostler’s efforts have boosted the ranks of women faculty in the School of Medicine and throughout the University.
The award presentations were part of the Convocation ceremony in the John Paul Jones Arena, which included recognition of third-year U.Va. students who have earned intermediate honors and a keynote address by University Librarian Karin Wittenborg.
Jack Blackburn: Advocate of Access for All
Dean of admission since 1985, Blackburn has been a passionate, forceful and effective defender of access to higher education, not only opening wider the doors of the University to all qualified students – regardless of race, gender or family income – but also seeking them out and inviting them to apply.
As Parke Muth, associate dean of admission, wrote in support of Blackburn’s nomination, “Jack is as committed to this form of social justice as anyone I have ever met.”
There have been struggles along the way. In the late 1990s, affirmative action in college admissions was facing vocal and persistent challenges. Opponents alleged that efforts to build a diverse student body did not justify turning away qualified white applicants, and they threatened lawsuits against both U.Va. and Blackburn personally. Other schools and lawmakers bowed to their demands. Some at U.Va. wondered about the wisdom of bucking the pressure.
“Through depositions and articles and suits, I have never seen Jack ever hesitate one iota in his commitment to making the University a place that not only welcomes African-American students, but prepares them for future success,” Muth wrote. “… He would talk in reasoned terms to anyone, but he would never back away from what he believed was right.”
While fighting to maintain race-conscious admissions policies – a position upheld in 2003 by the U.S. Supreme Court – Blackburn also initiated or expanded several programs, including an outreach office within Admissions to encourage qualified African-American students to apply and accept admission offers. One result: U.Va.’s African-American students annually graduate at the highest rates of any public university in America.
“These statistics tell us that under Jack’s leadership, the Admission Office is doing what is best, fair and honorable,” wrote four faculty leaders in joint support of Blackburn’s nomination: James F. Childress, John Allen Hollingsworth Professor of Ethics; Jon D. Mikalson, W.R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Classics; David T. Gies, Commonwealth Professor of Spanish, and R. Jahan Ramazani, Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English.
Citing the University’s 87 percent African-American graduation rate, the professors wrote that Admissions “is recruiting and selecting African-American applicants who can succeed academically at the University, not just enrolling minority students, to their detriment, to make our numbers look good.”
Out of the affirmative action battle rose another concern: a growing lack of economic diversity at the University. In the early part of this decade, entering classes were becoming increasingly populated by the children of the wealthy, who had many advantages in their preparation for college. Blackburn was concerned that the University was perceived as unwelcoming to students from low-income backgrounds.
Blackburn worked behind the scenes, calling on the University to bolster its financial aid efforts and to abolish its early-decision admission process, which he felt provided undue advantage to students who could afford to commit to the University without first seeing a financial aid offer. Both reforms were eventually implemented.
“Both were announced from the President’s Office, as is right, but these are not simply top-level initiatives that Jack was instructed to implement,” the four professors wrote. “Jack had worked within the administration for years for both initiatives because he wanted to give an equal chance to all students from all socio-economic levels to benefit from and contribute to the University.”
Again, Blackburn was not content merely to change policy. He has traveled far and wide to promote the AccessUVA financial aid program, and toured with the admissions deans from Harvard and Princeton – two other national universities that abolished early-action programs – to deliver a message of accessibility.
“While some on Grounds were skeptical or cynical, Jack set about finding and admitting students that came from poor or lower-middle-class backgrounds,” admissions counselor Ben Cullop wrote. “It is Jack who spent the night in cheap hotels after a night of recruiting. It is Jack who took guidance counselors out to dinner to prove to them we were serious, and it is Jack who believed in these students and offered them admission.
“When the story of AccessUVA is written, it is Jack who will bear the responsibility for its success.”
More than a dozen people wrote letters supporting Blackburn’s nomination for the award, and writer after writer lauded his warmth and kindness, his concern for his colleagues and for students, his unassuming nature, his courtesy, optimism and compassion. A few retold personal stories of his friendship.
Greg Roberts, senior associate dean of admission, recalled that when he first arrived in Charlottesville, his wife was six months pregnant. On the couple’s first night in their new home, Blackburn showed up unannounced with an antique cradle that he and his wife had used for their own children.
“My wife and I were moved beyond words,” Roberts wrote. “Jack is quite simply one of the very best human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. There is no better representative of this University and this community, and, frankly, this world, than Jack Blackburn.”
Blackburn, 66, announced earlier this year that he will retire in June, ending a three-decade career at U.Va. He was hired as an associate dean of admission in 1979 by future U.Va. President John T. Casteen III, then the dean of admission. Following the death of Casteen’s successor, Jean Rayburn, Blackburn was appointed dean in 1985.
He and his wife Betty have a daughter and a son.
Dr. Sharon Hostler: Pioneer and Champion for Patients and Faculty
The first in her family to attend college, Hostler received a full merit- and need-based scholarship to Middlebury College in Vermont. From those origins, and overcoming tremendous obstacles, she built a pioneering career in academic medicine at the University of Virginia – transforming not only patient care, but also the way academic physicians are educated, trained, hired, paid and promoted at U.Va. and around the nation.
More than three dozen letters written in support of her nomination for the Thomas Jefferson Award attest to her impact.
Hostler’s primary nominator, Marcia Day Childress, director of Programs in Humanities at the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities, wrote:
Their letters speak to the particulars of Sharon’s luminous presence at the U.Va. faculty: her excellence as a pediatrician and teacher; her longtime, varied and always outstanding service to and leadership in the School of Medicine; her nationally pace-setting work in faculty advancement and development that began in the Medical School but is now extending across the University and the United States; and her advocacy on behalf of women, gender equity, and a more humane culture in academic medicine and in academe generally, both here in Charlottesville and nationwide
After graduating from Middlebury in 1961, Hostler opted to attend medical school at the University of Vermont, though the scholarship that paid her way at Middlebury would have carried over to graduate study in any other field but medicine. She was the only woman in her class.
She was assigned to complete her internship and residency at U.Va., arriving in 1965. She never left, save for a year as a visiting professor in Israel.
Hostler completed her training despite tragedy in her personal life. Her first husband died in a plane crash, leaving her with his four children from an earlier marriage and two of their own.
In 1969, she joined the Medical School faculty, which Childress described as “a boys club,” as an instructor in pediatrics. She was one of only a handful of women at the time.
Dr. R.J. Canterbury, Wilford W. Spradlin Professor and senior associate dean in the School of Medicine, recalled that “women in medicine were unusual and often suffered discrimination, harassment and frank psychological abuse from male superiors and counterparts.”
Nonetheless, she was made an assistant professor a year later and earned tenure in 1976. Eleven years later, she was promoted to full professor, and a year after that became the first woman to hold an endowed chair in the School of Medicine – the McLemore Birdsong Professor of Pediatrics.
She found a clinical home at what is now the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center, where in 1974 she was appointed co-medical director. She shared that title until 1988, then served as medical director until 2003.
“She has single-handedly brought this facility from a ‘caretaker’ institution to a shining state-of-the-art academic center, where hope for children with special health care needs has replaced despair,” wrote Dr. Robert L. Chevalier, Benjamin Armistead Shepherd Professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics.
Dr. Susan M. Pollart, associate dean for faculty development and associate professor of family medicine, explained that Hostler’s approach to patient care was radically different.
“Patient autonomy is expected today, but three decades ago medical care was paternalistic and performed with little patient input,” she wrote. “Dr. Hostler, recognizing the importance of shared decision-making in assuring desirable outcomes, created a culture where patients and their families joined the health care team in developing and executing a plan of care.”
Her own career firmly established, Hostler began to find ways to help those behind her. In 1988, she was appointed to U.Va. President Robert M. O’Neill’s Commission on the Status of Women, helping to produce a landmark report. She subsequently served on the President’s Advisory Commission on Women’s Concerns.
Perhaps more significantly, she was appointed chairwoman of the School of Medicine Committee on Women in 1990. “This, I believe, was her first opportunity to right some historic wrongs of both subtle and overt discrimination against women in medicine,” Canterbury wrote.
The following year, she joined a task force that reviewed the Medical School’s promotion and tenure policies. She successfully advocated for new parents’ ability to stop the tenure clock and for consideration in the tenure process of qualifications beyond research, including excellence in teaching and clinical care. Once the reforms were adopted, she chaired the school’s promotion and tenure committee to see the them through.
“There was resistance to structuring the tenure process so that women had an equal – not better, but equal – chance to receive tenure,” recalled Sharon Davie, director of the U.Va. Women’s Center.
Hostler overcame the opposition with patience and determination. “She knew … that more knowledge about the power of having an inclusive and nondiscriminatory climate for learning would sway ‘nay-sayers,’ would help those who resisted positive changes to see the benefits for all,” Davie wrote. “And, quite simply, that is what has happened.”
The benefits, she noted, have accrued to male and female faculty members. The School of Medicine’s policies have been held up as a model for the rest of the University, and for schools nationwide.
Her efforts at advancing junior faculty – male and female – go well beyond policy-writing. She has mentored scores of young doctors, and even aspiring doctors.
Dr. Farnaz M. Gazoni was an undergraduate pre-med student 10 years ago when she “shadowed” Hostler for a week.
“Although I have been through four years of medical school and four years of residency since that week of shadowing Dr. Hostler, I still remember many of the lessons she taught me; it was one of the defining experiences of my education,” wrote Gazoni, now an assistant professor of anesthesiology at U.Va. “I was awed by her.”
One memory in particular stands out. During radiology rounds, a resident reviewing the scan of a child’s large brain tumor described it as “beautiful.”
“Dr. Hostler quickly stopped him, looked him directly in the eyes, and gently explained to him that the tumor was not ‘beautiful’ and that such language was unacceptable,” Gazoni wrote. “She told the resident about the young child with the large mass invading his brain and asked the young physician to be more humane and professional in his future readings. … That moment forever made me forever a bit more sensitive, thoughtful and professional.”
Hostler also shared with Gazoni her personal life. “She convinced me that there was a potential for a balanced and fulfilled life in medicine,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘She is everything I aspire to be.’ Now, 10 years later, I feel the same way.”
Hostler nominally retired from the Kluge Center in 2003, but has remained active in the leadership of the School of Medicine. As senior associate dean for faculty development, she led the creation of programs to enable faculty growth and career development, and founded the Academy of Distinguished Educators to recognize and promote teaching in the Medical School – programs that earned the school an award from the Association of American Medical Colleges in November 2007.
In May 2007, when Vice President and Dean Arthur Garson Jr. was named executive vice president and provost of the University, he and University President John T. Casteen III asked Hostler to serve as interim dean of the Medical School.
Interim deanships can be difficult, and Hostler had a reason to turn it down: Her second husband, Joseph Boardman, was dying of cancer. She accepted, however, and launched herself into the position.
It proved to be a difficult and demanding year, personally and professionally. Her husband died in January. The deanship proved to require much more than a caretaker. But at her last faculty meeting before turning the office over to Dr. Steven T. DeKosky on Aug. 1, the faculty gave her a heartfelt standing ovation.
Now she has a new role: Garson appointed her the University’s interim vice provost for faculty advancement, tasking her with bringing her Medical School reforms to the University at large.
Davie thinks she knows Hostler’s secret to success.
“Much of Sharon’s characteristic force springs from her identity and experiences as a woman,” she wrote. “Perhaps because she is a mother and a teacher, and because her professional life is grounded in the care of children, Sharon has a peculiarly maternal way of envisioning and tending to the future. Her care is for the world that her children – all her ‘children’ – will inherit.”
PAST WINNERS OF THE THOMAS JEFFERSON AWARD 2008: Jack Blackburn & Dr. Sharon L. Hostler 2007: Richard J. Bonnie 2006: Edward L. Ayers 2005: Annette Gibbs 2004: Robert E. Scott 2003: Robert M. Carey 2002: James F. Childress 2001: Larry J. Sabato 2000: David T. Gies 1999: Raymond J. Nelson 1998: Kendon L. Stubbs 1997: B. Lewis Barnett Jr. 1996: Edward W. Hook Jr. 1995: Linda K. Bunker 1994: R. K. Ramazani 1993: Leonard W. Sandridge Jr. 1992: Kenneth G. Elzinga 1991: Hugh P. Kelly 1990: Richard F. Edlich 1989: Ernest C. Mead Jr. 1988: Ray C. Hunt Jr. 1987: E. Mavis Hetherington 1986: Daniel J. Meador 1985: Norman A. Graebner 1984: Emerson G. Spies 1983: Henry J. Abraham 1982: William H. Muller Jr. 1981: Edwin E. Floyd 1980: Frank W. Finger 1979: Frederick D. Nichols 1978: Raymond C. Bice Jr. 1977: Irby B. Cauthen Jr. 1976: Charles K. Woltz 1976: William S. Weedon 1975: W. Dexter Whitehead 1974: Vincent Shea 1973: B. F. D. Runk 1972: Lawrence R. Quarles 1971: Fredson T. Bowers 1970: Thomas H. Hunter 1969: Oron J. Hale 1968: Gordon T. Whyburn 1967: Hardy C. Dillard 1966: Frank L. Hereford Jr. 1965: Edgar F. Shannon Jr. 1964: Dumas Malone 1963: Allan T. Gwathmey 1962: Henry B. Mulholland 1961: Frederick D. G. Ribble 1960: Robert Kent Gooch 1959: Ivey F. Lewis 1958: Colgate W. Darden Jr. 1957: T. Munford Boyd 1956: Harry Clemons 1955: Jesse W. Beams