U.Va.’s next president says he plans to spend time listening to community before his term starts

Ryan was unanimously elected by the Board of Visitors on Friday

ns-PresidentRyan-JoshuaZabin

James Edward Ryan was unanimously elected as the ninth president of the University by the Board of Visitors Friday.

Joshua Zabin | Cavalier Daily

James Edward Ryan was unanimously elected as the ninth president of the University by the Board of Visitors Friday. The dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has been hired in the culmination of a special committee’s eight-month search by for University President Teresa Sullivan’s successor. Ryan’s term will begin in October 2018.

Ryan will be taking over the position in a tumultuous time for the University community as it responds to the white nationalist events and violence of Aug. 11 and 12. While Sullivan has issued statements addressing recent events and student activism, she has received some criticism from student groups.

However, Ryan said he plans to not interfere during the transition period.

“I don’t think U.Va. should have two presidents,” Ryan said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “I view my time in this interim period as learning as much as I can about the place, while also continuing to do the job I’m paid for right now, which is dean of the Harvard Ed school and being available if and whenever needed by President Sullivan or others for advice or consult.”

As for the Black Student Alliance demands presented in a letter at an Aug. 22 march, Ryan said he considers the push for greater student and faculty diversity by activists to be a goal the University is already working towards.

“My sense is that the University has made strides recently and is committed to making more, and I think that’s exactly right,” Ryan said. “I’m glad to see the progress that has been made and glad to see that there’s a commitment to continuing to make progress because the issue of faculty and student diversity is one that I care about deeply and have cared about for a very long time.”

Ryan went on to acknowledge the passionate rise in student activism across Grounds since the events of Aug. 11 and 12, and additionally stressed the importance of the University Working Group chaired by Law School Dean Risa Goluboff.

“I appreciate the passion that fuels activism and I think that activism can have its place, but I also think that it’s important, whether you’re a student or faculty member or administrator … to think strategically about how you advance a cause,” Ryan said. “I would love to see the committee that Risa Goluboff is heading have time to do their work, and I think from a strategic perspective, it would be really wise to let that committee make some proposals and take it from there.” 

In his introductory speech to the University community, Ryan said it was important for the University to serve as an inspiration and model to the community. He encouraged members of the University community to be valuable stewards of hope and progress during this time of change. 

“In an era where there is deep distrust of established institutions, including higher education, it matters that you show what a well-functioning and equitable university looks like, and that you demonstrate your value, not just to this community but to the wider world,” Ryan said. “In an era with too much suffering and stagnation, it matters that you remain a place of hope and an engine for mobility and progress. Finally, in an era where some would choose the darkness of prejudice, bigotry and racial violence, it matters that you are a place of light, indeed a place of thousands of candlelights, that help illuminate the good that resides in every one of us.”

As for plans, Ryan declined to talk about any specific policies or initiatives he is considering out of respect for Sullivan’s position and lack of familiarity with the University’s day-to-day situations. He said he wants to spend more time with deans, the Board and student and faculty leaders to align his mindset on changing the University with theirs.

“Like I said this morning, I really do feel like my first task is to spend time talking with people around the University,” Ryan said in an interview. “I do have some ideas, but I think it’s only appropriate to test out those ideas before you know, announcing them as ‘I’m the new person in town — here are my directives.’”

Matthew Miller — a lecturer, associate dean and colleague of Ryan’s at Harvard — spoke highly of Ryan’s character and his widespread influence as a leader in an interview with The Cavalier Daily.

He described Ryan as “down to earth, caring, trustworthy ... [a] great boss, committed to equity, not afraid to talk about race or to step into the challenges that the country and the profession of education are facing.”

“He’s really able to bring a community together, I think in part because he asks great questions and does a lot of listening,” Miller added.

Student Council also issued a statement Friday welcoming Ryan back to Grounds and saying his background will prove to benefit the University.

“We believe wholeheartedly that Dean Ryan will serve our University and the student body well as we begin to celebrate our Bicentennial and look to the years ahead,” the statement read.

The Cavalier Daily received a letter addressed to Ryan from the Society of the Purple Shadows, which called for him to collaborate with student leaders and listen to student opinions.

“You assume the helm of our community at a unique and important time in the University’s history — a history characterized by slavery and injustice,” the letter read. “Acknowledge the inequality and oppression that are baked into every brick of the Academical Village with an eye towards empowerment and excellence.”

Ryan said he ultimately chose to accept the position out of both a respect for the University and his prior experiences here as both a Law student and faculty member.

“I was interested and am interested in being the president of U.Va. because of my experience here, both as a student and as a faculty member,” Ryan said. “This is an institution I not only love, but deeply admire … My experience as a student and as a faculty member have had everything to do with my interest.”

Current undergraduate students at the University have not experienced a change in University president, and the process surrounding the event is unfamiliar. During the transition between Sullivan and himself, Ryan wants to include the student community. 

“I expect to hear … into next summer,” Ryan said. “I’ll be talking to other people around campus to get their ideas, their aspirations, their sense of the challenges.”

related stories