Jim Ryan, the University of Virginia’s ninth president, took office August 1 and immediately began to re-introduce himself to the university where he was both a graduate of the School of Law and served on the law school’s faculty.
Ryan, 51, became a YouTube sensation when a commencement speech he gave at Harvard School of Education in 2016 went viral. The book he wrote based on that, Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, became as a bestseller, and the asking of questions seems inherent to Ryan’s style. He’s already launched a website called Ours to Shape that solicits ideas and comments from the UVA community.
At a press conference in the Rotunda, Ryan stressed that listening was at the top of his agenda before he attempted to craft the university’s vision for the next 10 years. “Some encouraged me to come in and announce a grand scheme,” he says, but it’s “much better” to listen to people about what matters to them first.
However, with Ours to Shape, Ryan already has laid out areas upon which he wants to focus: How to strengthen the community, support the discoveries going on at the university and better serve the commonwealth and beyond.
“How can we maximize our ability to do good in the world?” asks Ryan, which he says will be a university goal under his presidency.
The first-generation college grad took the job as dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2013 and he acknowledged the difficulty higher education faces, particularly with “the loss of faith among some” of its value.
“I also know first-hand the transformative power of higher education,” he says.
Ryan says he was not here, but watched online live the events of August 11 on Grounds. “I was horrified by scenes of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching with torches. It was as alarming as it was appalling.”
He adds, “I do think events like that often open conversations that weren’t happening.”
The Miller Center’s hiring of former Trump legislative affairs director Marc Short prompted more than 3,400 faculty and students to sign a petition against hiring him and two prominent faculty members to quit. “I have friends on both sides of this issue,” says Ryan, and his support of the appointment has already sparked controversy.
Short’s hiring is “consistent” with the Miller Center’s mission to study the presidency, Ryan says. “We should be willing to engage with those with whom we disagree.”
Ryan notes his admiration of his predecessor Teresa Sullivan: “She stays focused on what matters to the university.” That included attracting faculty and having a top-notch hospital. “These were turbulent times and I think she demonstrated remarkable courage,” he says.
The new president will live in Pavilion VIII while Carr’s Hill undergoes a long-planned renovation. His youngest son is a high school senior in Boston and his wife will remain there while he finishes his final year. “I’ll have an awful lot of time” to meet students, says Ryan, through living on the Lawn and at sports events.
As a former law school student and faculty, Ryan recognizes how vast that two-mile distance from Grounds can be. “You can feel like you’re not connected to the university,” he says, and he’s spent the past eight months becoming more closely acquainted with parts of his alma mater he didn’t know before.
One thing Ryan had well in hand before taking the UVA presidency: Ties in the school’s colors, of which he’s had to purchase “not a single one, but I’ve been given many. I never knew you could arrange orange and blue in so many different ways, even in just stripes alone.”