‘Wait, what?’ UVA names Harvard dean, UVA law grad new president

‘Wait, what?’ UVA names Harvard dean, UVA law grad new president

The University of Virginia has chosen James E. Ryan, a UVA law school graduate and faculty member for 15 years, and the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, as its ninth president, succeeding Teresa Sullivan in fall 2018.

Ryan addressed the Board of Visitors and the university community in front of the Rotunda this morning, asking, “What am I doing here? I’m here, first and foremost, because like all of you, I love UVA. But I’m also here because I was told that this is where they’re handing out free tickets to the upcoming concert at Scott Stadium. Is that not true?”

His remarks were in a style reminiscent of his viral Harvard graduation speech on the five essential questions: Wait, what?, I wonder why, couldn’t we at least…?, how can I help? and what truly matters?

Ryan, 50, was the first generation in his family to go to college, and he attended Yale “thanks to a generous financial aid package and the hard-earned savings of my parents,” and he received a full scholarship to attend UVA’s School of Law, where he graduated first in his class.

“These opportunities and experiences changed my life and opened doors for me that I never knew even existed,”  he said. “The basic truth is that the education system worked for me; it worked the way it is supposed to work.”

The president-elect said, “I do not lack for ideas or opinions, as you will come to know soon, for better or for worse.” But he also said it would be “foolish and disrespectful” to spell out priorities without seeking input from the entire university community.

He also acknowledged the hate that has embroiled UVA and Charlottesville, as well as UVA’s own “original sin of slavery” and “both the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson and the brutality.” Said Ryan, “To me, what this university looked like in 1850, or even 1950, is important to understand, but it is far more important to envision what this university will look like in 2050.”

Not surprisingly, Ryan promised to ask a lot of questions—and to make a lot of mistakes. Citing a lesson from his basketball coach in fifth grade Catholic youth league in his hometown of New Jersey’s Midland Park that involved two words he didn’t know: exuberance and lethargy, he said, “I will, undoubtedly, make mistakes, and some of those will be from exuberance. But I promise I will never make a mistake from lethargy.”

Ryan met his wife, Katie, while both were in law school in the 1990s, and his four children spent their early years here. He reportedly has chickens, but there was no word of whether they will make the move to Carr’s Hill when he starts his new job October 1, 2018.


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