The term "Public Ivy" was first used to describe this university on a literary conference visit by Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner William Faulkner. ("Public Ivy" has since come to be used generically by any public university that is or wishes to be regarded as highly as the private Ivy League Conference universities in the northeastern United States.) Later, in 1957, Faulkner returned to become writer-in-residence, keeping open office hours at the University until his death in 1962.
Many of America's political leaders have gravitated to the University over the years. Former President James Madison became Rector of the University after Jefferson died, while former President James Monroe was a member of the Board of Visitors. Future President Woodrow Wilson and Robert Kennedy attended the University's highly regarded law school.
Jefferson's original architectural design is centered around "the Lawn," a grand, terraced green-space, surrounded by Jefferson era buildings. The principle building in Jefferson's design, the Rotunda, is at the north end of the Lawn, and stands as one of the founder's greatest architectural achievements. Its main inspiration was the Pantheon in Rome.
Flanking either side of the Rotunda and extending down the length of the lawn, are 10 "pavilions" interspersed with student rooms. Each pavilion has its own architectural style, as well as its own walled garden, separated by uniquely Jeffersonian "serpentine walls." Today the grounds of the University are a UNESCO World Heritage site, sharing the honor with the likes of Versailles and the Great Wall of China.
The University, unlike many other Southern schools, stayed open through the American Civil War. In March 1865, Union General George Armstrong Custer marched troops into Charlottesville. Faculty and community leaders convinced him to spare the University. Union troops camped on the Lawn and ravaged many of the Pavilions but, without any bloodshed, left four days later.
On October 27, 1895, the school's Rotunda Annex burned to the ground (Unfortunately with the help of a zealous faculty member who attempted to save the Rotunda by using dynamite to separate it from the main fire. The last-ditch idea unfortunately failed). University officials swiftly approached celebrity architect Stanford White to rebuild the Rotunda. White took the charge further, redesigning the Rotunda interior, adding three buildings to the foot of the Lawn, and designing a President's House.
For more than one hundred years, the University of Virginia had been all white and all male. The first women to enroll at the University were students in the nursing school, which opened in 1900. It was not until 1920 that the University agreed that women over twenty years of age could enroll in graduate programs outside of nursing. Not until 1970, though, under the pressure of a pending federal court suit filed by four female high school seniors, did the College of Arts & Sciences accept women freely into first-year classes, making the University of Virginia fully coeducational.
Supported by the NAACP, African American lawyer Gregory Swanson sought and won admission to the University's law program in 1950. In 1951 Walter N. Ridley left his position as a psychology professor at Virginia State University and soon became the first African-American graduate of the University, receiving a doctorate in education in 1953. (Current head of the NAACP, Julian Bond has taught at the University since 1990.)
In 1976, in concert with the bicentennial of the United States, the Rotunda was returned to Jefferson's original design. Renovated according to plans from the 1800s, a three-story Rotunda opened on Jefferson's birthday, April 13, 1976. To commemorate the anniversary of America's independence, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II strolled the University of Virginia Lawn and lunched in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, one of five American sites she visited publicly.
In 1993, U.S. News and World Report ranked the University as America's best public university. Earning the honor of best public university eight times since, it has remained near the top of that list.
In 2001, John Kluge donated 7,378 acres (30 km²) of additional lands to the University. Much of this gift was sold by the University with Kluge's permission to musician Dave Matthews. Proceeds from this and other sales will help pay for improvements on the core of the gift.
Student life at UVA is marked by a number of unique traditions that set the University apart from other American colleges. The campus of the University is referred to as "the Grounds," and seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen are instead called Fourth, Third, Second and First Years. A number of benevolent, secret societies, from the 7 Society to the Z Society, have operated at the University for decades, leaving painted marks on buildings which they help to fund.
The ideas of student governance, left from the school's Jeffersonian roots, still hold strong at UVA. The Honor System originated at UVA in the late 19th century, and is still run by student elected officials, with student juries. The traditional band at UVA, or more precisely, the Virginia Pep Band, operates under the same ideals of student governance, choosing a director from the student body to head the mischievous scramble band.
The University's sports teams are called the Cavaliers; this mascot is a mounted swordsman referring to a time when Virginia earned its name, the "Old Dominion." The Commonwealth was a hotbed for royalists to the crown, called cavaliers in the days of the English Civil War. An unofficial moniker, the Wahoos (or Hoos for short), is also commonly used. Though primarily used by only the student body, both terms (Wahoos and Hoos) have become fairly well-used in the media as well.
UVA's teams participate in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Its men's basketball team has twice been to the Final Four, and its football team has twice been honored as ACC Champions. In recent years, the University's strongest sports have been Soccer and Lacrosse, both winning numerous NCAA championships in the past ten years. UVA soccer won four consecutive national championships, and the lacrosse team was national champions in 1999 and 2003.
The University also offers numerous special scholars programs. Among these the most prestigious is the Echols Scholars Program, which offers students the "keys" to the university in the form of priority course registration, special advisors and special dorms. The Engineering School equivalent is the Rodman Scholars program.