Excitement about Jim Ryan’s inauguration as the ninth president of the University of Virginia is high everywhere on Grounds. It is particularly high at the Law School, for Jim is a homegrown leader—an alumnus and former faculty member—we are delighted to welcome back after his sojourn as dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. We know firsthand how perfectly Jim exemplifies the values long at the core of the University. His commitment to public service, academic excellence, and community make him an ideal leader as the University heads into its third century.
Even before law school at UVa, Jim knew he wanted to devote his career to serving the greater good. After graduation, he worked as a public interest lawyer in New Jersey, where he tackled constitutional rights violations, like insufficient access to medical treatment for prisoners. He also clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, where he honed his ability to engage with those with whom he might disagree. Asking questions and understanding all sides of an issue—important qualities for a lawyer and a leader—became his modus operandi.
Jim’s most famous questions led to his most famous book, “Wait, What?” But his most important publication is his first book: “Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America.”
Growing out of Jim’s scholarly interests in education and constitutional law, the book underscored the difficulties we still face as a nation to provide equal opportunity for all. What better focus for the leader of one of the nation’s top public universities?
Jim balances his intelligence, experience, and accomplishments with an irrepressible sense of humor and inclination toward practical jokes. We’ve already seen that special sparkle in his eyes when he lets us in on the joke. And we’ve seen him address some of the most serious of issues the University has confronted with humanity and action. Listen to one of the his many viral-video speeches, and you will likely conclude that Jim’s ability to be funny, honest, and wise all at the same time makes him seem a cross between a stand-up comedian and a preacher.
The University will face new challenges and triumphs in the coming years. I have no doubt that Jim will take them in stride and inspire us to do the same. He makes us want to be thoughtful, open-hearted, and ambitious. He makes us our best selves and will make this our best—the best—University.