Message from the Director

The Tree in the Room

The first thing you might notice upon visiting my office in Monroe Hall is a tree, a ficus to be specific. By indoor tree standards, this office sentinel is quite large – standing 8-feet tall with a width that easily dwarfs my desk. This tree was handed down to me by the previous occupant of Monroe 201B, Frank Papovich, a beloved association dean who had just retired. Frank clearly had an affection for his leafy officemate and was sad to leave it behind, but transporting this giant elsewhere did not seem feasible. And thus I became the caretaker for a grand and venerable ficus.

As it happens, I grew up in a flower shop, literally. In my early childhood, my mother was a school bus driver; she also used the front section of our small house as a flower “shop” in an attempt to make ends meet as a single parent. I was watering, cleaning, pruning, and potting plants before I learned to read. Later, she was able to move the flower shop into a nearby strip mall, where I continued my education in the perilous business of perishable product retail.

The entrance to the flower shop always had a ficus on display, meant to catch people’s attention and draw them in, although I don’t recall any of these trees being taller than I was. One of my jobs was to care for the plants in the flower shop, and I learned early on that ficus trees do not like change. Even moving a ficus from one side of the entrance to the other would result in a carpet of leaves on the floor over the following week, leaving me worried that I might have killed one of the most expensive plants we had. Occasionally we would sell one. Given their relatively high price (at least compared to a run-of-the-mill pothos or ivy), such a sale would make our day. But, then we would have to brace for trouble. No matter how much we tried to warn buyers about the temperament of these trees, cautioning them to expect a period of adjustment before a ficus would appear happy and healthy again, customers rarely believed us. Within a week, disbelieving customers would typically call and complain that the plant appeared to be dying.

A profound sense of nostalgia for ficuses contributed to my delight in adopting the tree in Frank’s office, and I relished the opportunity to be its new caretaker. But I also lived in apprehension that after 20-plus years, this magnificent tree would kick the bucket on my watch.  Our first few months together were rocky. While I recognize the danger of anthropomorphizing a plant, Frank’s ficus seemed to either really miss him or really not like me (or both). The surrounding carpet was soon covered by a mournful blanket of dead leaves.

There were also two major problems with the ficus that I knew I would have to contend with sooner or later, but I decided to wait until I got to know the plant a little better (or maybe it got to know me).  First, it had been sitting in the same place with the same orientation to the window for perhaps most of its life.  As a result, the tree was extremely lopsided, to the point of being in danger of falling over if not propped up. Second, I think it was still in the same (now severely undersized) pot it originally came in, at least two decades ago, and to say that it was extremely root-bound would be an understatement.

If I wanted this tree to thrive, I knew I had to move it, turn it, prune it, and repot it. All of which was likely to be traumatic to the tree. Sometimes change has to happen all at once and there is no choice, but often there is less damage if changes can be made gradually. I began by pruning a few smaller branches on its overgrown side to see how the tree would respond. When the tree survived that, I changed its orientation to encourage branches to grow on the long-dormant side.  The tree was still hanging on, but that was the easy stuff. I’d like to think the tree was starting to trust me, but then again, it is a tree. Next came a much deeper pruning to enable the tree to stand up straight, which was followed by another anemic carpet of leaves. To me, this felt like the tree was grumbling about the indignity and grudgingly accepting my help.

Getting this far with the ficus had taken the better part of a year. Now it was all or nothing.  It had to be repotted. I ordered an enormous new pot and corresponding amount of soil (which is perhaps the only time in the history of Monroe Hall that dirt has been delivered to the main office). At this point, many of my colleagues in Monroe were also vested in the fate of the ficus, which was good – because it took four of us to extract it from its old digs and move it into its new home. Recollecting my time in my mom’s flower shop, I was confident that this last dramatic move would really make the ficus mad, and all of the hard-won goodwill I had acquired would be severely strained. I dearly hoped that the tree would trust me and know that I was trying to help it, but I feared that I would find a sad defoliated skeleton of branches standing in my office within the week, and would henceforth be known as a ficus-killer.

I monitored the tree carefully for signs that I had pushed it too far over the coming days, but nothing happened that week, or the next, and I could feel the tension lifting. If I hadn’t killed it yet, I was confident that the tree had no intention of succumbing, and we could establish a routine of normal interactions, with me watering and cleaning it, giving it nutrients as needed, and perhaps an occasional small pruning. Over the following weeks, fresh new tiny leaves started to emerge. I was thrilled. Then, entirely new branches started to sprout where before the tree had been barren. Just this morning I noticed that the tree has started to produce marble-sized fruit that resemble small figs, and I can’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude and joy that this treasured officemate is now creating new life of its own.

As I sit at my desk now writing this piece, with the ficus towering overhead, the analogies between my adoption of this tree and my taking the directorship of the Echols Scholars Program are not lost on me. I know how dear the Echols program is to its alumni, and I could feel your anxiety over the last year with a new director at the helm, whom you neither knew nor necessarily had reason yet to trust. I have been entrusted with the care of this extraordinary program, which has a long and venerable history, and I don’t take this lightly.

Yet our devotion to the Echols Scholars Program requires that we be willing to routinely assess whether it is reaching its full potential. And if not, perhaps a small tweak, like changing the side of the ficus that faces the window, is sufficient to enable new growth. But sometimes we need a bigger pot with room for our roots to grow and tap into new, nutrient rich soil. For example, there is now a total of approximately 1,000 Scholars at UVA, which is far more than the program had in its inception. Evaluating the needs of the Echols Program as we approach the year 2020, and determining the path forward, has been the challenge posed to the Echols Advisory Committee over the last year. I wish that all of you could have been witness to the committee meetings, in which you would have observed the dedication and care of the committee members as they navigated the balance between foundations, traditions, and renovations that will help the Echols Scholars Program thrive. 

The 80-page report from the Advisory Committee reflects a deep and comprehensive study of the program and highlighted the program’s numerous strengths. The report also articulates a range of challenges and ways in which the program can be strengthened, while highlighting the number of programmatic elements that are fundamentally intertwined in complex ways and in tension with each other. I encourage you to read the synopsis of the committee’s recommendations included in this newsletter, while keeping my office ficus in mind; sometimes a tree needs to be pruned, turned, given new soil, or moved to a bigger pot.

Over the coming year we will be talking with the larger Echols student body about proposed changes and if/when/how to best implement such changes. Just as with the ficus, we don’t plan to implement everything all at once, but rather make a series of tweaks while keeping a close eye on how the program is responding. I would be shocked if I don’t find a few leaves on the floor of my office from time to time, but I am equally sure that the process we are undertaking will bear fruit, and the Echols Scholars Program will be healthier and stronger than ever. I look forward to hearing your feedback and comments.


-Kelsey Johnson

Professor of Astronomy & Director of the Echols Scholars Program