Sowing the Seeds of a Research University
By Charles O. Burgess

When I came to the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary in 1955, I was interviewed by Lewis Webb, the provost and chief administrative officer of the Division. As he warmly welcomed me to the institution, he emphasized that this was a teaching institution and that my main assignment would be to provide the highest quality of classroom instruction. If I wanted to do research, that was fine, but it wasn’t part of the job. At the end of my first academic year, I participated in the awarding of the first baccalaureate degrees given in Norfolk. We had a long way to go.

Fifty years later (and 75 years after its founding), Old Dominion University, which grew out of the Norfolk Division, is approaching $40 million in external funding for research and sponsored programs and can boast some of the nation’s finest scholars and scientists. President Roseann Runte has set the goal of making it one of the 100 top research institutions in the country.

How did we get from there to here? There were ups and downs, of course, but essentially two factors brought about the transformation. First and most important were the efforts of the faculty members who joined the institution early on. They saw themselves as part of a national community of scholars in their disciplines and built their own research programs, sometimes under difficult conditions. Second was the establishment of policies and structures that could encourage and nourish research activities, sometimes with gentle persuasion, sometimes with less gentle coercion. Both factors were needed, though of course nothing could have happened without the faculty.

What follows is my review tracing the development of the research climate at ODU from 1955 through the early 1970s, by which time the structures were mostly in place and the research climate established, and identifies a few (though far from all) of the key figures who built the research culture. Since 1970, we have witnessed enormous increases in funding, publication and artistic productivity, and the development of some fields that were underrepresented in the early years, but it was 1955-75 that saw the transition from a little regional teaching college to a university that aspired to a national research mission.

My credentials? I can’t claim to have been a significant producer of research, but I was present and active as one of the first small corps of Ph.D.s in the English department, as director of one of the university’s first graduate programs (the M.A. in English), and in the ’70s as graduate dean and provost. My fallible memory has also been aided by conversation with others who were there at the time – and more active as researchers than I was.

In the late 1950s, the Norfolk Division was far too busy establishing undergraduate education to even think about research. But even then there were a few individuals who, despite the very heavy teaching load, managed to produce. Charles Sibley arrived in 1955 to reestablish an art department that had been disbanded a few years earlier and never saw himself as just a teacher. His career as one of the most respected (and purchased) painters in Eastern Virginia was beginning, and he built a department that included such highly productive and nationally recognized faculty members as sculptor Vic Pickett, painter A.B. Jackson (incidentally, ODU’s first African American faculty member) and the historian Parker Leslie.

In the sciences, the most influential figure in the early years was Jacques Zaneveld, a crusty Dutchman who somehow ended up at the Division in 1959 determined to build a program in oceanography. He appears to be the first to get research funding from major federal sources, and in 1964-65 generated some great publicity for the institution by taking students on a research trip to Antarctica. There seems to be general agreement that the oceanography program, now one of the premier ones in the country, would never have existed without him, since the state expected oceanography research and graduate education to be conducted at VIMS (Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences), which became part of the College of William and Mary.

But Zaneveld’s stubbornness and refusal to submit to limitations led him to develop courses and attract funding and students until he became director of a new Institute of Oceanography in 1966. By then, the state, on the recommendation of a special task force of national scientists, had agreed to give Old Dominion a mission in oceanography and the right to propose graduate programs up to the doctoral level. In my years as graduate dean in the early ’70s, after Zaneveld was succeeded by Jack Ludwick, a nationally ranked scientist who attracted other top people to the faculty, oceanography became the first graduate program here to attract a genuinely national cadre of highly qualified applicants.

Although we were still basically a teaching institution, the separation from William and Mary that created Old Dominion College in 1962 spurred recruitment of faculty members with other interests. Two strikingly different stars arrived in the early ’60s – and remarkably both, though technically retired, are still very active in research today.

Most notable in establishing a standard for the sciences is Daniel Sonenshine, who brought with him to the biology department a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The Norfolk Division was so unsophisticated in the ways of research that the chief business officer at the time, Ray Quirk, refused to sign off on the grant, saying that Sonenshine was hired as a teacher and shouldn’t be released from his teaching schedule (though of course NIH was paying the university for his time). Sonenshine had to go to Lewis Webb to get the grant signed. Since then, there has only been one year in which he wasn’t funded, and he is now working on three grants. His work on ticks and the diseases they carry is internationally known.

A contrast in every way but his continuing productivity is Alf Mapp Jr. He had published The Virginia Experiment, a widely used history of the commonwealth, in 1957, before he came to the Division as a faculty member. But when the history department wanted him to teach the course in Virginia history, it was discovered that he had no academic coursework in the field. He therefore signed up for the Virginia history course taught by G. William Whitehurst (later dean of students and member of the U.S. House of Representatives). It turned out that The Virginia Experiment was the textbook for the course, and with the approval of President Webb, Mapp was excused from attending the lectures in the class, though he did have to take the tests and write a term paper. He got an A. Since then he has published 11 more books of biography and history, especially but not exclusively American history, including a critically acclaimed study of Thomas Jefferson. His latest book, The Faiths of Our Fathers, on the religious beliefs of the founding fathers, was published in 2003, and he currently has three book contracts, one for a revision of The Virginia Experiment, which has been in print continuously since it was first published nearly 50 years ago.

The 1960s was a time of recruitment of many other talented faculty members. In the humanities, English and history, scholarly chairs Edward Stephenson and Warren Matthews assembled doctoral faculty with the credentials to justify them as among the first master’s programs approved for Old Dominion College in 1964. In the sciences, though biology and oceanography had a head start, recruitment in chemistry and other fields encouraged the formation of a chapter of Sigma Xi, the national organization of researchers in sciences, and grant funding, though still modest, grew annually, as did the publication of the results of scientific research.

Another key development was the division of the School of Arts and Sciences into the School of Arts and Letters and the School of Sciences, and the appointment of Melvin Pittman as dean of the sciences school. Pittman was a recognized and well-funded physicist who brought with him from William and Mary three other physics faculty members who helped to jump-start that department (not without some noise from those who were already here) and set national standards for the School of Sciences as a whole. He may well have been the first active researcher to join the administration.

When engineering programs were established (over the objections of Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia), a more research-oriented faculty was recruited, in preparation for graduate work, which began in 1966. The most important event for the growth of engineering was the development of a relationship with NASA Langley, a major research institution with many highly qualified engineers. The key figure in this development was an entrepreneurial faculty member named Gene Goglia, who early on developed a NASA-funded summer research institute that brought national scholars to NASA Langley. Although the participants were drawn from all over the country, it was Goglia who administrated the summer program, and of course he made sure that his school was well represented. These summer institutes are still offered, under the direction of Surendra Tiwari, eminent scholar of mechanical engineering. They have given many engineering faculty members (and some in sciences) an opportunity to get to know the NASA Langley research staff and their interests, and resulted in increased funding for research projects. The college also took over the engineering programs at the Virginia Associated Research Campus (VARC), a teaching facility adjacent to NASA Langley originally set up by Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia to provide graduate engineering education for NASA staff members. There was some contention among the universities about the programs there, and Gordon Davies, the legendary head of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, once said to me that the two most obscene four-letter words in Virginia higher education were VIMS and VARC. By the mid-’70s, ODU was one of the few top institutions nationally in NASA funding. Bob Ash, professor of aerospace engineering, who acted as the university’s chief research officer for a few years, credits Goglia for his indefatigable promotion of the relationship with NASA and says that it helped raise the standards and expectations of the ODU faculty to be associated with the highly trained engineers there.

A key administrative change in the 1960s was the establishment of the Old Dominion College (later University) Research Foundation (ODURF) in 1965. This is a separately incorporated entity that receives outside funding, manages grants and disburses funds without having it go through the state. The advantages are enormous: in Virginia, especially then, there was tight control by Richmond over even small expenditures and contracts, often resulting in considerable delay, misunderstanding and confusion. With the foundation, it became possible for a principal investigator to administer procurement, salaries of graduate students, purchase of faculty release time and the like without becoming entangled in the state process, and for the research overhead not to disappear totally into state coffers but be used for the encouragement of further research (for example, in seed grants to faculty). Though Richmond has objected from time to time and forced some changes, ODURF remains one of the principal engines for the development of funded research at the university.

After a year of inactivity, the foundation was taken over in 1966 by Clifford Adams, who had been chair of the physics department. He became the tireless promoter of research within the institution. He introduced national standards for the preparation and maintenance of grant proposals, sought out grant opportunities, made regular trips to Washington, D.C., to become familiar with personnel at granting agencies, ensured fiscal discipline in the handling of research funds, and in general assisted faculty members in learning the ropes of academic research. Adams continued as director of ODURF until 1977, when the state required that the director not be affiliated with the university and that all positions at the Research Foundation be funded externally.

When Lewis Webb, who had been the president that led Old Dominion through all these and many other developments, stepped down in 1969, new president James L. Bugg Jr. was given the principal charge by the Board of Visitors, especially rector Frank Batten, of guiding the transition from college to university. Bugg saw some promising beginnings but realized that the culture of the institution didn’t in many ways recognize that research, as well as teaching, was a necessary function of a university. In order to facilitate research activity, he reduced the teaching load, made summer and academic-year grants available to faculty members in all fields who needed time to work on projects, and encouraged deans and department chairs to identify their best researchers (and best teachers) and make sure they were rewarded in salary and promotion decisions.

The most dramatic event was his opening speech to the faculty in September 1969, in which he outlined his mission of guiding Old Dominion to national university status. He pointed out that that meant an emphasis on research equal to that on teaching, and an expectation that faculty members receiving special reward and recognition be productive researchers. For some, this was a welcome encouragement of what they had wanted to see (Allen Clark, a chemist and associate provost, described it as a call for marching on higher ground), but for many of the faculty, who had been hired with the assurance that this was essentially a teaching institution, it was a bitter blow, and Bugg now says that he wishes he had not been so blunt and precipitous so early in his career.

In any case, the principles he enunciated then were gradually inculcated into the culture of the institution, especially as new faculty were hired with terminal degrees and the research skills needed to participate in graduate programs, notably the new doctoral programs in oceanography, engineering, urban services and various areas of science. A dramatic sign of the new ambitions of Old Dominion was the approval in 1975 of an academic plan that envisioned the university achieving national excellence in six defined but broad fields. Though some of these developed more than others and some new areas have come to prominence, this plan first proclaimed that ODU had national ambitions and was important in raising the bar for our research faculty and graduate programs.

All in all, I have always thought that Jim Bugg was our least appreciated president – and I’ve known them all. He turned this place around. The outstanding research faculty who were hired (many but not by any means all of whom are featured in the sidebars) and are of course the real generators of research success, the new doctoral programs explicitly aspiring to national excellence, the culture that places research with teaching as an essential function of a university – these all happened during his tenure. We have continued to expand and grow in quality in the years since, but the important thing, as Dan Sonenshine emphasizes, is vision – the setting of a goal that is seemingly impossible but keeps us striving. In different ways, both Lewis Webb and Jim Bugg had that vision.

This account could not have been written without the assistance of the Special Collections area of Perry Library, especially Susan Catlett; and the Old Dominion University Research Foundation, especially Sandra D. Laws. I am also very grateful to Bob Ash, Jim Bugg, Allen Clark and Dan Sonenshine for taking the time to talk with me about these early years. Of course any errors or omissions (and I’m sure there are many) are totally my responsibility.

—Charles O. Burgess


Quest Fall 2005 • Volume 8 Issue 2