Will U.Va. students' first impressions hold true?

Cavalier Daily poll asks students to describe president-elect Ryan in one word


In a recent poll conducted by The Cavalier Daily, students were asked to describe president-elect Ryan using one word. These are the most common responses.

Lucas Halse and Amber Liu | Cavalier Daily

A few weeks after James Ryan’s election as the next president of the University, The Cavalier Daily conducted a poll that asked a randomized group of students their opinions on a number of issues at both the state and local levels and within the University community. 

The Cavalier Daily poll was sent to a random sample of 5,000 students via email and was available for four days beginning Oct. 23. The last question of the poll asked the students to describe president-elect Ryan in a single word, which led to a myriad of responses ranging in sentiment from the 737 people who answered this question. 

The top five words used to describe Ryan were “qualified” (104 responses), “intelligent” (39), “smart” (30), “white” (23) and “experienced” (19). 

These words — in addition to the hundreds of other responses — offer some insight into the student body’s first impressions of Ryan before he enters the position next year after University President Teresa Sullivan steps down at the end of her contract in the summer of 2018. 

First impressions 

The Board of Visitors elected Ryan to be the University’s next president on Sept. 15. Immediately after the announcement of his presidency, Ryan addressed the University community through a speech on the steps of the Rotunda. Ryan spoke of his experiences as a law student and professor at the University and his time as the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and emphasized the importance of striving for progress as the University moves into its third century. 

With this speech being the only context by which many had to judge Ryan, some students said that the first word that came to mind when they thought of the future president was “poised.” 

Fourth-year College student Jean Wang said she chose this word because she was impressed by Ryan’s eloquence and overall demeanor in his first appearance as president-elect.

“I chose ‘poised’ because I saw him at the Rotunda when they first announced him, and the way he just delivered his message was very straightforward and was very precise, like he knew what he was saying.” Wang said.

Other students were initially impressed by Ryan’s list of professional credentials. First-year College student Tim Marsh chose the word “intelligent” to describe the choice of Ryan for this position, noting that his background in education in particular would be a positive change for the University.

“I think that because he’s currently the dean of the Harvard [Graduate] School of Education, he’s definitely on the cutting edge of some of the innovative educational practices in our time,” Marsh said. “So I think that he’ll be able to harness that here, and having that background of knowledge is really going to benefit our community. So that’s why I think he would be an intelligent fit for us.”

While many students expressed enthusiasm for the presidential pick, others said that the announcement was far from extraordinary.

First-year College student Chris Hopkins said the word “vanilla” came to mind when he thought of Ryan because he seems like a fairly standard choice for the University. 

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just seems like, you know, a U.Va. grad, kind of a regular, run of the mill white guy. It just seemed like a generic, vanilla pick to me,” Hopkins said. “I know Teresa Sullivan has had some rough months, has had to deal with a lot. I feel like this guy — the kind of vanilla normalcy that I see in him — may be something that we need, just because being able to have some sense of normalcy would be good.”

However, some students were critical of Ryan’s initial announcement. Third-year College student Attiya Zafar used the phrase “white male” to describe Ryan, and explained that she would have wanted the Board of Visitors to have chosen a more diverse candidate.

“So when I first saw the announcement I was so excited,” Zafar said. “But then I thought about it and I was like we just had the first female president, so the next step to a more progressive U.Va. is like having a minority president or another female, you know what I mean? Someone of color, someone not like all the other presidents that we’ve had that are all white males. So I was just like, you know what, he’s just another one of the same.”

Other top words included in the students’ responses were “educated,” “impressive” and “accomplished.” “Typical,” “male,” “Harvard” and “unoriginal” were also among the submitted words. Another respondent ignored the request for one word responses and wrote, “another highly educated middle-aged white guy.” These comments showed the mixed reactions toward the next president. 

Another question on the poll asked students whether they agree or disagree that Ryan is a good choice to be the University’s next president. 

Of the 988 people who responded to the question, about 59 percent agreed he was a good choice. About 17 percent answered that they were neutral to the question and about 21 percent said they had no opinion. Just under 3 percent disagreed with Ryan being a good choice. 

The margin of error for this question was ± 3.03 percent. 

Students look forward

Several students not only shared their thought processes behind their word choices but expanded upon their hopes for Ryan’s presidency, and many of their comments alluded to the issues facing the University in the wake of the events of Aug. 11 and 12. In late August, the Black Student Alliance composed a list of 10 demands that was endorsed by Student Council and numerous other organizations on Grounds.

“I know that a lot of groups on Grounds have made some demands and had some requests of admin and faculty in general since the events in August went down,” Hopkins said. “So just being sensitive to and listening to those groups, trying to understand where they’re coming from, then hopefully making some kind of positive change from that, that would be my one kind of demand, I guess, from the new administration.”

Zafar expressed her desire for Ryan to listen to minority students at the University during his term, especially as the student body becomes more diverse and in light of the BSA demands. 

“I hope this new president is going to take a stand on the issues that matter to the students, because once again, U.Va. is more diverse than it was many, many years ago,” Zafar said. “To cater to the minority population, you’ve got to be able to take a stand on these tough issues.”

Marsh said that he wanted this change in leadership to renew the University’s commitment as a place of education, first and foremost.

“I hope there will be a focus on academics again, because I think we’ve been seeing a bit of a stray under President Sullivan, getting distracted by other issues,” Marsh said. “I think that hopefully he’ll be able to bring it back and focus on what the University is meant to be, which is an educational institution.”

These students also voiced specific requests of the new president, ranging in scale. Wang suggested a more meaningful attempt to enhance the relationships between transfer students, who sometimes have a difficult time during their transition to the University, and the administration.

“I think maybe he could help the transfer student population assimilate better. Not assimilate but accomodate, get them more accommodated to the University’s culture and their resources,” Wang said.

Hopkins said that fostering a more direct channel of communication between the student body and the administration would be a feasible change that could make a difference during Ryan’s term.

“I think that something that would be really good for him to kind of improve upon from the last administration would be his messaging to the student body versus his messaging to alumni and donors and such,” Hopkins said. “Just because … when there was that incident when they put the tarp over the Jefferson statue, the email that the student body got was very different from the email that alumni and donors got. So just not having those blatant, very easily detectable differences in treatment I think would be a place to improve upon for him.”

Ryan reflects on student opinions, shares his hopes

Out of the 737 that responded to this survey question, 104 students described Ryan as “qualified.” Even those who did not choose this word in particular mentioned his prior experience when discussing the presidential pick.

“I think he’s definitely capable. He seems to be very experienced, having dealt with a lot of issues, both on the collegiate level and then on the national level with his past as a lawyer,” Hopkins said.

In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Ryan said that even though he could not feel fully qualified until he actually assumed his future position, his background has given him some skills that have helped him prepare for his role as president.

“Going from a single school to a large university will still require learning a lot that I do not already know — the education school, for example, had neither a medical school or a Division I athletics program!” Ryan said. “But I do think a fair bit of what I learned as a UVA student and professor and then as a dean will be useful in helping to lead UVA”

Many students who completed the poll chose variations of the words “white” and “male” to describe Ryan, and voiced their concerns about Ryan’s ability to combat the issues that minority students face and listen to their demands. In response, Ryan affirmed his dedication to create a more diverse University and said he would promote an inclusive environment during his term. 

“I can’t change fundamental aspects of my identity, but I am not kidding — nor giving lip-service to the idea — when I say that these are issues I care deeply about and have tried to do something about over the last 20-plus years,” Ryan said. “I think, in particular, my colleagues at HGSE would very much confirm that point and that commitment. My commitment to these issues and to continuing forward progress on them will not change when I become president of UVA.”

As members of the student body continue to muse on their hopes for Ryan’s presidency, Ryan said that he is optimistic that the University will strive for improvement to truly serve as an exemplary model of higher education.

“The improvement will come, in my view, not by changing the core values of UVA but by ensuring that we are living those values,” Ryan said. “What gives me hope is that those values and commitments are strong — a commitment to diversity and inclusion; to an outstanding and diverse faculty; to a strong and vibrant community; to the discovery of knowledge; to student self-governance; to public service. The challenge and opportunity is to assess, honestly, where we have gaps between our values and our actions and to figure out how best to close those gaps.”

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