Jim Ryan is good at questions.
His book “Wait, What?,” a New York Times self-help best-seller, takes its title from what Ryan considers to be one of life’s most important questions and the ability to slow down and listen to others.
In a wide-ranging and fast-paced discussion with his old running coach, Mark Lorenzoni, at the Virginia Festival of the Book on Saturday, Ryan aced a pop quiz on Atlantic Coast Conference trivia and offered insight into his background, family and hopes for his tenure as the next president of the University of Virginia.
In the book, Ryan, currently dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tells stories about meeting his wife, Katie, growing up in blue-collar New Jersey, losing his adoptive parents, meeting his birth mother and going on runs. He offers advice for tackling life through five questions, which he first posed during a 2016 speech at Harvard:
» Wait, what?
» I wonder ... couldn’t we at least try this?
» How can I help?
» What truly matters? and
» Did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
“When Harper-Collins called and said they wanted to turn your [viral speech] into a book, what did you say?” asked Lorenzoni, the co-founder of Charlottesville’s Ragged Mountain Running Shop.
“My first reaction after hearing they wanted to turn this into a book was, ‘no way,’” Ryan said, laughing. “But it’s made me realize more than I’d imagined before how unpredictable life is. I didn’t go to law school expecting to write this book, nor did I expect to be the next president of UVa.”
Ryan is no stranger to the university or Charlottesville. After graduating summa cum laude from Yale in 1988, Ryan was first in his class at UVa’s School of Law, where he met his wife. He clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and then worked in Newark, New Jersey, before joining the UVa faculty in 1998. He was the law school’s academic associate dean from 2005 to 2009 and founded and directed the school’s Program in Law and Public Service.
He knew in high school that he wanted to be a lawyer, he said, and was interested in civil rights law. But after encouragement from his law professors, he decided to pursue education policy and a professorship, “because of the powerful effect education has had on my own life.”
“The opportunity to be dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education came out of the blue,” Ryan said. “It seemed like a good opportunity to have a bigger impact and returning to UVa is in the same vein. it seems like an opportunity to serve an institution that has had a big impact on me and my family and to give back to the community.”
In an interview before the event, Ryan said he has been visiting each of the university’s schools throughout the spring. On Friday, he went to UVa’s Medical Center, School of Nursing, School of Medicine and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He was blown away by discussions of physician-scientist research, he said.
He’s also been thinking a lot about the changing role of a university and education in today’s society. Children should start school earlier, get more literacy support and receive a more personalized and engaging education, he said, and university presidents should be involved in discussions for changing models of education.
“We have this factory model still,” he said. “And I think we also need to create more pathways post-secondary. There are an awful lot of jobs that need more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree, and we’re not doing enough to create pathways for kids to get the kind of preparation to get into those jobs.”
Ryan also has gotten involved in university plans and policy, though his term doesn’t officially start until Aug. 1. At a March meeting of the Board of Visitors, Risa Goluboff, dean of the School of Law and chairwoman of the Dean’s Working Group, which is recommending safety and policy changes in the wake of the Aug. 11 and 12 white supremacist rallies, proposed a Bridges Project.
The working group requested $5 million from the board to support diversity programming that would involve both university and community members. It builds from a September flash funding project that gave $100,000 to eight projects that addressed unconscious bias at UVa and in Charlottesville.
The proposal, suggested by Ryan, is inspired by a Harvard project that is now in its fourth year. It would encourage more conversations about inclusion and equality between the university and Charlottesville.
“A lot of academic institutions are increasingly diverse, but to take the full advantage of that diversity you have to be intentional and encourage faculty to reach across lines,” Ryan said. “It’s not enough to rely on that diversity; you have to move to the inclusion and equity piece.”
After asking Ryan to don his lime-green track shoes and running him through 33 questions in five minutes, Lorenzoni got serious: “What did your parents leave inside you, and what do you hope to leave for your kids?”
“You never know what you’ll get from your kids, and even more so when your kids are adopted,” Ryan said. “So my dad always said, no matter what else, always try your best.”
Ryan’s parents also instilled in him a firm belief in public service, hospitality and openness, he said, and he hopes to pass those qualities on to his own four children.
He also hopes to bring those qualities to life in Pavilion VIII on the Lawn, he said, as the university continues to change and face its own history.
“Sometimes tragic events, like those in August, open up space for conversations that might not otherwise have happened and change that might otherwise have taken longer,” Ryan said. “I’m thinking about how UVa can make Charlottesville a better place and how Charlottesville can make UVa a better place if there are some honest conversations about what needs to happen.”
His predecessor, Teresa A. Sullivan, took office in 2010 as the first woman to serve as the school’s president and has dealt with numerous highly publicized crises. She also started a critical look at the university’s involvement with slavery and recently announced a commission that will extend that look to the period of Reconstruction and segregation after the Civil War.
In January 2017, Sullivan announced her plans to step down and will spend her accrued sabbatical time at the University of Texas. She will retain a professorial appointment at UVa.
Ryan moved up his start date, originally set for Oct. 1, so he can be present when UVa’s academic year begins. Until then, he’ll continue to visit UVa and learn all he can, he said, mentioning reading material from each of the schools.
“What question would you like answered by the end of your presidency?” an audience member asked Ryan in the Q&A portion of Saturday’s event.
“I think the most important question is, what will UVa look like in the next 50 years?” Ryan responded. “I’ll be working on that, and if you have some thoughts about it, I’d love to hear them.”