The Compassionate University

How University of Virginia is Changing the Culture of Compassion at a Large, American Public University


  • Juliet Jennifer Trail University of Virginia
  • Tim Cunningham



Compassion, contemplative university, culture change, resilience


Over the past decade, the University of Virginia has been experiencing a culture change towards becoming a more contemplative and compassionate institution. The leaders of this change seek, ultimately, to enhance and influence every aspect of the mission and community of this large, prestigious public institution. Of course, multi-layered and pervasive culture change does not occur instantaneously. Rather, the establishment in 2009 of the UVA School of Nursing’s Compassionate Care Initiative, followed by the launch in 2012 of the pan-university UVA Contemplative Sciences Center have led to an array of targeted initiatives that incorporate both the health system – consisting of the School of Nursing, School of Medicine, and the UVA Medical Center – and the university’s academic division, consisting of nine additional schools as well as the ancillary units that support the wider university.

This article provides a set of detailed examples of efforts implemented by these two centers in support of a culture change towards more compassionate teaching, research, patient care, and service. Examples will include:

  • supporting compassion and self-care through retreats in the School of Nursing and research assessing the impact of this and additional co-curricular programming via cross-sectional survey of nurses
  • discussion of student, faculty and clinical Ambassadors who serve as compassion mentors across the UVA Health System
  • consideration of contemplative pedagogy within the UVA undergraduate course Mindfulness & Compassion: Towards Living Fully, Personally & Professionally
  • discussion of pan-university co-curricular programming serving the university community that seeks to create impact at an institution-wide level.

The impact and outcomes of each example will be considered, individually and as part of a larger shift towards creating a compassionate, contemplative university for the modern era.

Author Biographies

Juliet Jennifer Trail, University of Virginia

Juliet Trail, PhD, is Director of Education for the UVA Contemplative Sciences Center and Research Scientist, Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Curry School of Education. Her doctoral work established a grounded theory of Network Enablers, defined as highly-empowering higher education professionals (UVA, 2016).

Tim Cunningham

Tim Cunningham, DrPH, RN, is Director of the Compassionate Care Initiative at the UVA School of Nursing. His research focuses on resilience and compassion in healthcare.  He completed his Doctorate of Public Health at Columbia University and specialised in psychosocial support during humanitarian responses. Cunningham is an emergency nurse.


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