HOTSEAT- Admit it: UVA dean Blackburn prepares his exit

John Blackburn

When John Blackburn retires as the University of Virginia's dean of admissions after 23 years, he'll be leaving the one and only career he's ever known. But the man friends call "Jack" didn't set out to make college admissions his life's work.

"For most people who do this, it's like a starter house," he says. "You do it for a few years to figure things out, and then you move on to another profession." 

But after 30 years in the business, Blackburn says what's kept him from making another career move is that the career itself is constantly moving.

"It's so different from 1968, and the job has required so much adjustment," he says. "Technology has changed the way we communicate with people on a personal level. It's also allowed us to not only compete for the best students in Virginia, but the best students in the country, and the world. The technology has allowed us to be more than a nameless, faceless university to those students."

 What hasn't changed for Blackburn is his pitch to high school seniors. It has essentially stayed the same since 1979, when then-dean of admissions John Casteen hired him away from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton to be associate dean. 

"Even as it has gotten more competitive, and as we compete more with other schools," Blackburn says, "what's stayed the same is that if we present the university as it truly is, those students who come here end up loving it."

Not that Mr. Jefferson's university doesn't look different these days. One of Blackburn's proudest accomplishments is how the student body has grown more diverse.

"When I came, the university had a reputation as a party school for Southern white men," he says. "We still love Southern white men. I'm one of them. But now that we have students from many more backgrounds, it's a much more vibrant place." 

Specifically, Blackburn is proud of how he's helped the university to overcome it's troubled racial past.

"The last 14 years in a row, we've had the highest graduation rate of African Americans of any public university in the nation," he says. "The next closest school is about 20 points behind us."

While helping to make UVA a more culturally diverse place has not been an easy job, Blackburn says that any difficulty in the admissions world seems small compared to what he did immediately after college.

"When I was in college, with the Vietnam War going on, you either enrolled in ROTC, or you moved to Canada," he says. "I didn't end up getting deployed, but they kept me at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Every morning, I'd have to knock on someone's door and tell someone that their son or their husband had died. When they'd come to the door, they would always know. I would watch people go through this horrible thing every day."

Blackburn says that despite now undergoing cancer treatment, he calls upon that experience for strength in the face of an obstacle.

"From then on, no matter what situation I was in," he says. "I could always tell myself, 'I've been through tougher things than this.'"

Now as Blackburn prepares to retire in June 2009, he says that while his successor may never have had such an experience in people skills, the next dean would do well to get out from behind the desk.

"What's really important is to understand the University of Virginia," he says. "There's a sense of being here, a certain civility with one another, that comes with the culture and how we do things. The more you can understand the lay of the land, the better the admissions decisions will be."

Age: 66

Why here? UVA and Charlottesville are among the best places in the world to live.

Favorite hangout? Duner's

Most overrated virtue? Patience

People would be surprised to know: That I can be very upset over what happens

What would you change about yourself? I'd only sweat the small stuff.

Proudest accomplishment? The student body at UVA

People find most annoying about you: My tendency to seek agreement rather than forcing a decision

Favorite book? People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Subject that causes you to rant? Driving while talking on a cell phone

Biggest 21st-century thrill? A trip to Petra in Jordan

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The war

What do you drive? 2005 Volkswagen Bug convertible

In your car CD player right now: A medley of bluegrass tunes

Next journey? Maine

Favorite comfort food: Meatloaf

Always in your refrigerator: Meatloaf

Must-see TV: Orioles baseball

Describe a perfect day. One when I can sit outside and eat breakfast

Most embarrassing moment? When I introduced my wife by the wrong name

Best advice you ever got? Keep focused



Dean Blackburn is one of the classiest gentlemen to have graced Mr. Jefferson's grounds. He will be missed by many when he retires next year.

I enjoyed workingw with you for 5 years. Thanks for the memories.

Carolyn Livingston

i like this guy. i never met him but i think he may have had a lot to do with why i went to UVA and loved it.