COLUMN: Part 5: Colgate Darden – President of UVA

Published 9:16 pm Thursday, February 15, 2024

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Editor’s note: This is the final part of a five-part series that has appeared in The Tidewater News over the past few months.

By Bob Holt
Your Turn

As if Colgate Darden’s accomplishments were not enough (WWI pilot, member of Virginia General Assembly and U.S. Congress, graduate of the University of Virginia, Columbia University, and Oxford University in England, and Governor of Virginia), he closed his long career of public service as President of the University of Virginia from 1947 — 1959.

At the end of his service as governor in 1946, he was pressured to run for one of the two seats Virginia had in the U.S. Senate. Virginia has a long history of former governors becoming U.S. Senators, including our current Senators, Kaine and Warner. After numerous attempts to pressure him, Darden rejected the opportunity. He felt it would be too much time away from the family, and he did not want to raise his children in Washington, D.C. Family relationships were Paramount to him.

As university president, he could have his family together in pleasant surroundings. Darden also felt he would have more opportunities to make a difference than in the bureautic nature of Washington. He observed how students grew and developed during their time on college campuses and felt he could make an impact on that maturity.

Darden followed University President John Lloyd Newcomb, who, like founder Thomas Jefferson, strongly advocated for public education. Initially, some faculty resented even having the position of president and thought that faculty as a group were capable of administering the University of Virginia (UVA) as a committee. Eventually, Darden won the support of the faculty, but it took “time, patience, and unremitting effort,” he would say to his staff. Like Jefferson, Darden knew that universities could only be successful if Virginia had a strong system of elementary and secondary education.

Increases in UVA’s academic standing marked Darden’s twelve-year administration, more high quality professorships, and capital projects much needed on campus (the Grounds as they are called there).

Darden also gave students more authority to deal with discipline issues. The student council was given the authority to make decisions on a course of action, but subject to his review. Many students would stop by his office just to chat, so he felt he had his finger on the pulse of student thoughts. 

President Darden was constantly pressured to admit more students from private schools, many of whom were out-of-state. He was always an advocate for public school students saying, “time has demonstrated that there was a never-ending supply of good students from the public schools.”

Little is mentioned about his establishment in 1954 of Clinch Valley College in the far Western part of southwest Virginia. West of Virginia Tech (VPI then) in Blacksburg, the population in Virginia was far less dense than in the central and eastern parts of Virginia. Leaders of Wise County approached Darden about establishing a college for that area, and he was interested in the project. Working closely with VPI President Walter Newman, it was decided to establish Clinch Valley College as a branch campus of UVA. Now referred to as UVA Wise, the four-year liberal arts college enrolls over 2000 students, 80% of whom have some form of financial aid. Darden was so intrigued with the project that he and his family personally bought 100 acres of farmland adjacent to the original plot so that the campus would have plenty of room to expand.

In 1948, Darden felt the strong need for a top-notch school of business. He hired Harvard Dean Charles Abbott to lead that formation. A $1,000,000 donation had been received as seed money for the proposed school, but the Virginia General Assembly was not convinced of the need. Finally, after much give and take, the school opened officially in 1955. Darden insisted that landscaping surrounding the new building needed to have lots of trees and shrubs as an appropriate setting. That school today is known as the Darden School of Business, a graduate school that has developed a worldwide reputation for its high quality academic programs.

While president of UVA, Darden was asked in 1955 to work with U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on a commission to strengthen the United Nations. Darden received permission from the UVA Board to spend three months in New York. He was anxious to help because of the failure of the League of Nations and wanted the U.N. to succeed. He submitted a final report to President Eisenhower.

Finally, in 1959, he felt it was time to retire. He told the UVA Board that there was “always work to be done, but I simply want to go home.” He died at home in Norfolk in 1981.

Author’s note: The life of Colgate Darden is an amazing story filled with major accomplishments by the Franklin-Southampton County native. WWI pilot when airplanes were in their infancy, multiple university degrees including Oxford in England, member of the Virginia Legislature and U.S. Congress, Governor of Virginia, and President of the University of Virginia, just to name a few. Many thanks to his daughter, Irene Field, and Friddell’s book “Colgate Darden: Conversations with Guy Friddell,” the main sources of most of the research for these five series of articles.

Robert N. “Bob” Holt, a Franklin native, is a retired professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies degrees from Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets. His email address is