In his first two months as president of the University of Virginia, Jim Ryan has frequently popped up at student events, attended faculty dinners and practiced selfies with first-years in Newcomb Dining Hall.
He’s also working on his inaugural address for Friday and will run in the Community Bridges 5k on Saturday, put together by friend and mentor Mark Lorenzoni, though he declined to say if he’ll be running for fun or for time. He’s also been pitching 10 areas of focus for his first year in office to different groups around Grounds, and said he’s ready to hear input from as many people as possible about how UVa can improve in the next decade and in its third century.
“Universities, like any large organization, aren’t always excited about change,” Ryan said. “Even the proposal of change leads to cries about doom and gloom. But that’s part of the process as well.”
Ryan said he’s been thinking about the tenure of Edgar F. Shannon Jr, UVa’s fourth president, who handled a Rotunda restoration project, student protests after the Kent State massacre and the transition to coeducation for female students.
“I think we’re in a similar period of change and of student activism,” Ryan said. “Not quite at the scale and not as focused on the particular issue of the Vietnam War, but, having been in university settings for 20 years, students are more active and politically engaged than I’ve seen them at any other period.”
The role of the president, he said, is to listen to those students and other constituents and make sure they feel involved in shaping the future of the university. That’s why, he said, as the university works on its strategic plan for the next decades—not historically a flashy topic—it is soliciting advice from students, staff, alumni and community members.
Ryan said that, in the first two months of the #OursToShape project, he’s received more than 400 suggestions of projects and improvements. Some areas of focus from the submissions, he said, are improving UVa’s communications with the Charlottesville and Albemarle County community, adding more study abroad programs for students and the “bread and butter” issue of faculty quality.
“The value of it is already obvious to me,” Ryan said of the project.
Much of his day is focused on bettering the experience of UVa employees and students. But he wants to work on community engagement, he said—looking at how UVa affects local housing, wages and relationships with local schools. He’d also like to tackle “low-hanging fruit,” like making sure UVa events can be made more accessible to the general public.
“I would like to build a relationship built on trust and the sense that we will both be better if we work together,” Ryan said. “Which I know sounds kind of cliché, but I really believe that. I think we can get there.”
In conversations in the year before he assumed the office on Aug. 1, Ryan often returned to the question of, “Couldn’t we at least agree?” The question is central to his viral commencement speech and subsequent book, titled “Wait, What?”
It’s perhaps a more fraught question now than before the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, but it’s one that Ryan has asked—can’t residents and students agree that everyone should be able to be on Grounds and in Charlottesville? How can UVa ease that process and encourage people to ask questions and help their neighbors?
He’s also been kicking around some of his own long-term ideas for raising capital, shaping the physical growth of Grounds and potentially increasing recruitment and retention of first-generation students.
Ryan himself was a first-generation student at Yale University.
“Most students who come to college, they’re not that familiar with a university, but if their parents went to college or a university, they have an easy avenue of advice of how to navigate,” he said. “For first generation students … your parents don’t know that universe and don’t know how to help you navigate it.”
At Yale, Ryan said, he benefited from the first-year counselor program, where he was grouped with 10 other students under a “spectacular” senior advisor. The program helped him and other students figure out class schedules, tuition and groups to join, he said.
“For first-generation students, building that web of support is absolutely critical,” he said.
Ryan graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1988. He attended UVa’s School of Law. After graduating, he clerked for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and then worked in Newark, New Jersey, as a public-interest lawyer before entering teaching.
Ryan joined the UVa faculty in 1998, became the Matheson and Morgenthau Distinguished Professor and won several awards for teaching. He was the law school’s academic associate dean from 2005-2009 and founded and directed the school’s Program in Law and Public Service.
Ryan was selected as UVa’s ninth president a year ago and promised to lead the school “with the power of reason” and focus on educational opportunity for all Virginians.
His predecessor, Teresa A. Sullivan, is taking a sabbatical and then will take a sociology professorship at UVa.
What’s your favorite spot on campus?
Old Cabell Hall
What’s your all-time favorite movie?
Chariots of Fire
Are you preparing for any running events at the
I’m planning to
run the Richmond
What’s your favorite Bodo’s bagel?
Chicken salad on an everything bagel with horseradish. You have to try it.
What’s the last book you read?
platforms do you
use to stay informed?
I’m not sure what a media platform is. I read newspapers, but I’m not sure if they count as a media platform?
What’s your favorite family pastime?
Any kind of sport or outdoor adventure. Sports have always been a big part of my life, and my wife Katie and I have tried our best to get our kids hooked as well.