UVa Public Day puts students' brilliance on display
    by Archie Holmes and William Sherman

On April 11, the University of Virginia begins its celebration of Public Days. Reviving a tradition that dates to the origins of the university, Public Days provides an opportunity for the people of Virginia and beyond to see and hear about groundbreaking student research.
For a public university founded on “the illimitable freedom of the human mind,” Public Days represents the fulfillment of its core mission, showing the ways in which a new generation is learning the tools of inquiry and sharing the fruits of the public investment in the future. 

As President Teresa Sullivan stated in her remarks at the opening of the first modern revival of Public Days in 2014, “Our faculty and students work at the frontiers of discovery in every field.  When you push the boundaries of a frontier, there is always risk involved. The student work you will hear about today is there as a result of courageous exploration and imagination.” 

From the nation’s earliest days, its greatest leaders —Thomas Jefferson in founding the University of Virginia, Abraham Lincoln in founding the land-grant universities — have recognized the value of public investment in educational institutions that create a space for unfettered exploration, where risk-taking is encouraged and students learn the habit of critical inquiry that is the foundation of both democracy and a vital economy.

Public Day originated in 1829, as the Board of Visitors declared, "to render the public examinations at the end of the session more interesting; … to invite the delivery of Orations and other written compositions, on fit subjects, and to make the ceremony of conferring degrees & other honorary distinctions, public & solemn.” 

As Millicent Usoro, a UVa alumna and research scholar on the “Jefferson’s University Early Life Project” at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, has uncovered, Public Day soon became embroiled in disputes between faculty and students about the selection of the speakers: "The supervision of public orations increasingly became a source of strife between the students and the University administration, beginning in 1832 when the Jefferson Society asked the Faculty permission for one of its members to give an oration on April 13th, the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Merritt Robinson delivered the oration in the Rotunda and gave an impassioned argument for the emancipation of slaves. His address greatly upset the Faculty, although Chairman Robert Patterson read the manuscript and approved of its delivery, because it ‘produced much excitement in the state.’”

As disputes over the process for selecting the student speakers grew, the student addresses of Public Day gave way in 1848 to a ceremony similar to contemporary Final Exercises, with an address by a prominent person. The modern form of Public Days renews the original commitment to share students’ insights and discoveries, challenge common assumptions through critical inquiry and engage with citizens beyond the grounds of the university.

The value of a great research university to the Commonwealth of Virginia may be measured in many ways, but it begins with an awareness of the questions that students are asking, the challenges they are confronting and the fearlessness of their passion. Universities are curators of intellectual traditions, creators of new knowledge and sites for the development of new approaches to both local and global challenges. 

This year, the work includes topics ranging from "Improving the Efficiency of Solar Cells with Environmentally Friendly and Abundant Materials" to "The Role of Iron in Progressive Kidney Disease and Fibrosis." While an interdisciplinary team of students from Music and Electrical and Computer Engineering present their “Data Driven Design of Movement and Sound,” a group of scientists will share their "Multi-Agent Modeling and Analysis of Large Scale Brain Networks with a Big fMRI Data Set.”

Poets and historians, future architects, business leaders, nurses, lawyers, teachers, and doctors will demonstrate the type of learning that takes place beyond the classroom in laboratories, studios, clinics and libraries. These projects of discovery go beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge to the higher goal of expanding the human mind.

The mind stretches its limits when the boundaries of understanding are tested, when common sense and traditional practices are questioned with rigor, when alternative interpretations are pursued to their logical conclusion, when experimentation yields unimagined outcomes. Public Days celebrate this work, with a showcase on the lawn, exhibits in public places and in galleries on the web.

The experiences represented in these forums capture the formative essence of education, when the students have sufficiently digested the insights of their peers and predecessors to ask “Why?,” “What’s next?" or "How can we do this better?”

These are the questions that drive human progress and build the foundation for a shared culture. Universities embody the shared commitment to their pursuit; through Public Days, all can share in a new generation’s passionate embrace of that opportunity.
Archie Holmes is Vice Provost for educational innovation and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Virginia. William Sherman is Associate Vice President for research and founding director of OpenGrounds.
See alsoViolent Resistance and Student Self-Governance: A History of Public Day 
Holmes, Archie and William Sherman. "UVa Public Day puts students' brilliance on display." The Daily Progress. 8 Apr 2016. Accessed 22 Apr 2016. http://www.dailyprogress.com/opinion/opinion-commentary-uva-public-day-puts-students-brilliance-on-display/article_15a503f4-fdcc-11e5-8bf9-3b87b99dedb9.html