Yoga U: Is the Contemplative Sciences Center the answer to UVA’s ‘reputation gap,’ or an expensive New Age sideshow?

John Campbell, director of the UVA Center for Contemplative Sciences, says the idea for the program emerged when he and Sonia Jones were having a conversation about her daughter's Ashtanga yoga class at Stanford University. Photo: Dan Addison/UVA  Public Affairs John Campbell, director of the UVA Center for Contemplative Sciences, says the idea for the program emerged when he and Sonia Jones were having a conversation about her daughter’s Ashtanga yoga class at Stanford University. Photo: Dan Addison/UVA Public Affairs

On April 10, the University of Virginia announced that billionaire alum Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia had donated $12 million for the creation of the Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC). Set to begin this fall, the center will be dedicated to the study of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness training and how these practices can be extended not only through the University’s core schools—medicine, nursing, education, and arts and sciences—where they already flourish to varying degrees, but eventually across all 11 of UVA’s schools.

The idea is to interweave the practices of yoga and other body/mind disciplines into the basic fabric of a UVA education.

“UVA has had, for a number of years, remarkable expertise in different sectors,” Jones said in the press release introducing the school. “What we need now are threads to tie them together and weave them into a greater whole.”

Before her controversial ouster in June, which Jones outspokenly supported, UVA President Teresa Sullivan hailed the new center as the first step in her often articulated intention to foster interdisciplinary learning models.

“This was an area in which we had great individual excellence, but now are able to realize a footprint that is larger than any one of the contributing colleges/schools,” she wrote in a memo to the Board of Visitors in May. “Without diminishing any existing program, this new center allows us to combine faculty strengths in new ways.”

The language seemed carefully chosen to introduce the center as a type of academic organization, rather than to emphasize the original impetus for the initiative, namely Sonia Jones’ devotion to the study of yoga. The same month the center was announced, a Vanity Fair feature detailed her obsession with a splinter discipline called Ashtanga and the great lengths Sonia has taken to expand its reach worldwide.

The idea for the CSC aimed at a related goal: to establish a University-based research center to both study and promulgate the ages old practice. Sonia’s husband naturally thought of his alma mater as an ideal site and contacted Sullivan a year and a half ago.

Since then, much of the work of organizing the new institute has fallen to David Germano, a religious studies professor who specializes in the study of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism. To hear him tell it, the new institute has the chance to revolutionize the Western academic paradigm.

“Hopefully, like drops in the ocean, this training can lead people to greater reflexivity, greater understanding, greater caring, greater efficiency and greater insight,” he said.

Now, six months after its creation was first announced, the nascent center is moving forward with program offerings in Ashtanga yoga in the fall and meditation in the spring, in coordination with academic courses offered by religious studies faculty. It’s a cautious beginning aimed at sussing out the direction for the center. “It is challenging as we try to articulate a singular vision or purpose that we are all about,” its new director John Campbell said.

Whether or not the CSC can become the academic brain trust for the body-mind continuum and a shining example of Sullivan’s new methodology for closing the school’s “reputation gap” depends on a wide range of factors. Certainly one to watch will be the relationship between its most powerful players, who were engaged in the struggle that rocked UVA this past summer.

Paul, Sonia, and Terry
Mystery still shrouds the part Paul Tudor Jones played in the hectic few weeks (and the months leading up to it) when UVA Rector Helen Dragas and crew failed to dethrone President Sullivan—a June article in The Hook placed him in the middle of it all, but a more recent Washington Post piece rebutted that notion. But there is no question about the fact that unlike most powerful alums, he entered the fray in a very public way, expressing his support for Sullivan’s ouster in a June 17 op-ed in The Daily Progress.

“Change is never easy and often quite messy,” he wrote. Although Jones described Sullivan as “a good woman who was a good steward during her tenure,” he called her departure “a clarion call from the Board of Visitors that business as usual is not acceptable anymore. Why be good when there is outstanding to be had?”

His main gist was that UVA had slipped and was continuing to fall from its place as one of the elite universities. “The world is changing rapidly, and UVA needs proactive leadership to match the pace of change.” Apparently Sullivan lacked that quality. “The Board of Visitors has just told each and every one of us that it is aspiring to greatness. It is about time, and we should all be elated.”

Whether he was an integral member of the failed coup, or merely a passionate observer is unknown. What is undisputed is Jones’ commitment to his alma mater. Although he only earned an undergraduate degree in economics in 1976, Jones is renowned for his overwhelming financial generosity to UVA. According to the Post, he is one of the schools top five donors ever—having given more than $100 million—and is most notably responsible for the $35 million to build the arena named after his father John Paul Jones. A legendary Wall Street trader and hedge fund billionaire (through his Tudor Investment Corporation), Jones was most recently valued by Forbes with a net worth of $3.4 billion. He is still being targeted by UVA for future donations, even though he just splurged on the CSC.

The new center is apparently a pet project of his wife’s. Sonia Jones is a devotee of a rigorous form of yoga known as Ashtanga. Literally meaning eight limbs, the practice was first laid out some 2500 years ago, but was popularized much more recently by an India-born man named Pattabhi Jois. As described in his 2009 New York Times obituary, the practice is “[c]haracterized by fast-paced exercises that involve pronounced, but controlled, breathing while holding varying postures.” Like many of the Indian contemplative practices, this system of yoga caught on in the western world in the late ’60s, but by the end of Jois’ life Ashtanga had gained traction with celebrities like Sting, Madonna, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and, also with “financial types,” like the Joneses.

Sonia reportedly discovered the practice in 1999 when it was recommended for help with the pain of a blown disk in her back. She began to seriously study and it turned her life around, transforming her from “thin and frail” to—at the current age of 44—slim, toned, blonde and tan, “a walking advertisement for the physical benefits of Ashtanga.” A true believer in the yoga practice, she’s supposedly so committed to it that “if you’re in her life, you have to do it, too.” That includes her four children as well as her husband Paul.

As Vanity Fair tells it, Sonia’s single-minded devotion to the practice—along with her husband’s money—has also led to ambitious plans to spread the gospel of Ashtanga throughout the country and even internationally. In partnership with Pattabhi Jois’ daughter and his grandson Sharat (who has taken over his grandfather’s practice), she’s started three Ashtanga shalas—in Encinitas, California; Sydney, Australia; and most recently in Greenwich, Connecticut —and has also set up charities to bring yoga worldwide, from charter schools in Florida to villages in Africa, earning her the tag of the “Mother Teresa of yoga.”

The aggressive promotion of her preferred brand of yoga has also ruffled a lot of feathers within the insular Ashtanga community. Sonia came to the practice late in Jois’ life and laid claim to the legacy of a man that was a guru to many for decades. For instance, the headquarters of her Jois Yoga and attendant shala (where Ashtanga is taught) are in Encinitas which is also the longtime site of another Ashtanga shala run by one of Pattahbi’s oldest students and one of its premier teachers, Tim Miller.

For many in the Ashtanga world, this was seen as curious if not offensive. Sonia was definitely stepping on some toes, but perhaps her activities could be simply viewed more sympathetically as the bold moves of someone with passion and money—perhaps not unlike the recent actions of her husband.

When Sullivan was first approached by the Joneses and the kernel of the idea that would lead to the Contemplative Sciences Center, she jumped all over it by connecting various members of her faculty. As the organizing progressed, the UVA president held the project up as a hallmark of her work at the University, both in a memo to the Board of Visitors in May of this year and the statement she released after they forced her out.

One has to wonder how the center and her excitement played with the Board—Dragas et al—who were more concerned with the bottom line than a project that has a New Age whiff. In a June 21 statement, Dragas mentioned the CSC as an important donor project but grouped it with a donation that established international squash courts at UVA. When he drafted his op-ed, did Paul Jones himself recognize her ecstatic support and promotion of the center as misplaced compared to the overwhelming challenges facing his alma mater?

The Washington Post certainly did. “Like other institutions of higher education, UVA is confronted by issues such as shrinking public support, outmoded faculty workloads and technology’s role in learning,” its editorial board stated on June 26. “Ms. Sullivan understands and appreciates these challenges, but she has yet to unveil a strategy to deal with them. It’s clear that more than a center devoted to contemplative sciences, a major initiative touted in Ms. Sullivan’s first two years, will be needed.”

Even so, had Jones delved deeper, he might have seen that they shared similar concerns, and that the CSC might offer some solutions. In his June 17 Daily Progress op-ed, the Wall Street trader lamented his alma mater’s inability to financially compete with other public institutions for esteemed faculty. Yet, in her May strategic memo to the Board of Visitors, Sullivan made a similar point. Bluntly terming the inequity a “reputation gap,” she wrote that “in a number of critical areas we are reputed to be better than we actually are.”

One of these areas was in faculty hiring. As she candidly admitted, some of the fields that brought UVA the greatest distinction (like Spanish, English, and religious studies) were stocked with a small faculty ripe for cherry picking by other universities. This was largely due to the low pay Jones identified and to small department sizes compared to other public universities. According to Sullivan, the gap could be countered by “keeping UVA intellectually challenging” and by pooling faculty around areas of study that crossed departmental lines.

“We need to think differently about how we hire faculty. Simply finding replacements for those who retire does not position us well for the new fields and the new technologies that will emerge in the coming years,” Sullivan said last week after her first meeting with the Faculty Senate this semester. “We need to shape those fields rather than merely react to them. Given our enrollment, which is quite small for a public flagship, our individual departments will continue to be small relative to our peers, so every position is precious.”

The CSC is a clear example. David Germano turned down an offer from another university to help get the center off the ground.

“That did play an important role in making me think UVA was going to be an exciting home for my interests over the coming years,” Germano said.

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