After a year in office, Jim Ryan has momentum at the University of Virginia.
“It feels like we’re at the end of the beginning; it’s a relief in some respects to have an agreed-upon roadmap, but there’s a tremendous amount of work to do,” he said in his office at the beginning of August.
The Class of 2023 moved into residence halls on Friday. The last days of summer passed peacefully, compared to the whirlwind year prior.
“I think his first year has been, not to be too starry-eyed about it, but truly, pretty courageous,” said Peter Lake, a professor of law and higher education policy at Stetson University in Florida. “A lot of elite schools are pretty nervous about sticking their heads above the trench, given the tenor in Washington, but I think staking a position based on strong ethics really reverberates.”
Many of UVa’s headline-garnering moves in the past year have come from Ryan’s own desk. Days after his term began in 2018, he offered an apology for white supremacist violence that occurred on Grounds in 2017. At his official inauguration, he promised to continue supporting student financial aid. After years of pressure from students, UVa also announced an expansion of the minimum wage and an expansion of financial aid to include students benefiting from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Rusty Conner, a member of the Board of Visitors and former rector of the university, said Ryan was selected based on the board’s belief that he had a vision, could create a strong team, could engage with constituents and could raise money.
“And look at the progress he’s made on all four areas,” Conner said.
Conner praised Ryan’s work with students and alumni, the creation of a 10-year strategic plan and a record-setting year of fundraising. The university has raised about half of its $5 billion capital campaign, according to Conner. (Several large projects, like the creation of a $120 million School of Data Science, were started by former President Teresa A. Sullivan, who is on sabbatical in Texas. When asked about Ryan’s year in office, Sullivan demurred, saying former presidents should step out of the way and not critique their successors.)
Ryan said he’s proud of the strategic plan, which the Board of Visitors approved on Aug. 2. And with a nearly full cabinet around him — Liz Magill, the provost, and Kevin McDonald, chief of diversity and equity, took office recently, and the search continues for an executive vice president of the health system — Ryan said he’s ready to nail down the plan’s funding and discuss how to put goals of accessibility, equity and respect into practice.
“The real important work right now is figuring out where we’re going to start and thinking about what it’s going to cost and where the resources are coming from,” he said. “And some of it is aspirational and depends on whether we get funding for it. The plan is not a blank check to spend university resources on things that are identified.”
At boardroom tables, from lecterns and in donor meetings, Ryan has consistently stated an overarching goal: to make UVa the best public university in the United States.
One year is too early to see if an executive has made a demonstrable difference in a university’s usual metrics of success: research funding, graduation rates and job placement. The university is already ranked among the top public and private schools in the country by industry metrics for affordability, innovation and several degree programs.
One focus of the strategic plan is to recruit and retain faculty and staff; another is to encourage research on areas of democracy, the environment, technology, neuroscience and precision medicine.
In fiscal year 2020, the university plans to increase research and public service expenditures by about 11%, from about $441 million to $496 million, according to board documents. The university’s standing in research funding and expenditures has lagged among other top schools, and institutional increases in funding have been offset by retiring faculty who no longer bring in grants. According to the most recent numbers available from the National Science Foundation, UVa ranked 51st among research universities in research and development funding, with $469 million in 2017 (Johns Hopkins leads all universities with a whopping $2.5 billion).
Ryan’s other slogan is that he wants the university to be “both great and good,” a mantra that alumni, donors and students frequently cite when discussing Ryan.
“‘We can’t just be great, we also have to be good,’” said Alex Cintron, who graduated in May and ended his term as Student Council president. “I think that’s really informed a lot of the decisions he’s made.”
Cintron praised the expansion of minimum wage and of financial aid for in-state students with DACA status who were brought into the country illegally. Both items are among platforms Cintron advocated for during his term.
“When he took office, there were a whole swath of students who were excited to see what he could do but didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “And then there were also a group of people that were very skeptical. But I think students have been pretty pleased and heartened that he puts issues of equity forward and uses language that a lot of students understand.”
Universities in 20 years may be judged by very different metrics than today, Conner said, and in that vein, Ryan has tried to work with not just students, faculty and alumni, but also residents of the surrounding city and counties.
Ryan said he counted forming a Community Working Group as one of his favorite parts of the year. The group, comprised of local officials and nonprofit leaders, released a report in March that asked the university to do more to address area and its own wages, affordable housing, health care and equitable education. The group and Ryan met again Aug. 22 and plan to keep meeting, according to member Erika Viccellio.
Such a message might have appeal in a world where universities are also judged on whom they accept money from and where they place that money, but evaluation on that metric may have to wait several years.
“UVa will always have strong yields and outcomes, but he’s appealing to a side of corporate America that wants to see a social conscience,” Lake said. “This might lead to some really significant investments from progressive companies.”
Information about UVa's current research expenditures has been corrected.