University President Jim Ryan sat down for a 40-minute interview with The Cavalier Daily to discuss the five-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally and the events of Aug. 11 and 12 in Charlottesville. This interview was conducted on July 28, 2022.
University Spokesperson Brian Coy was also present at the interview. Staff members from The Cavalier Daily who were present at the interview included Editor-In-Chief Eva Surovell and Managing Editor Ava MacBlane.
Eva Surovell: We both know that you weren't president when “Unite the Right” happened, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you were serving as dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education at the time.
President Ryan: Right.
Eva Surovell: Over a year later, you'd be inaugurated as U.Va’s ninth president, but I have to imagine that as an alumnus, the events of Aug. 11 and 12 affected you at the time. So I was just wondering, do you mind walking me through what you were doing both of those days and maybe what your reactions were?
President Ryan: Sure. So I was actually on vacation at the Jersey Shore and I heard from a friend Bill Antholis, who is head of the Miller Center, about what was going to happen that weekend and so I was paying attention. And I had also been offered the job of the presidency by that point and was deciding what to do, so I had a lot of reasons to pay attention. I actually learned about the march on the Lawn after the fact and saw pictures, and couldn't believe my eyes. I was horrified and saw pictures. But then I was actually watching [the events the next day] on — I think it was Facebook Live, I don't know how I ended up on Facebook Live — but I watched the rally in Charlottesville unfold in real time and honestly, I couldn't believe my eyes. I mean, horrifying is the only word that comes to mind honestly. I couldn't quite imagine what it was like to be there and I just felt incredible sorrow that this was happening first at the University and then in the city of Charlottesville, and then you know when and it was heartbreaking to learn about the injuries to our students, faculty and staff and Charlottesville community residents and then the car crashing into the crowd and killing Heather Heyer and then to Virginia State Police troopers, I think Jay Cullen and Berke Bates. It was just an incredibly tragic day.
Eva Surovell: Did you find that it ended up affecting your decision whether or not to take the presidency?
President Ryan: I think that's a really good question and the short answer is it did. So a few friends who knew that I was thinking about this sent me emails to the effect of ‘I expect you're not going to take the job at this point on,’ and I had the opposite reaction. You know, I've been connected to U.Va. since 1989. I came here first as a Law student on a full scholarship. It's where I met my wife Katie — we were first-year Law students together. I made lifelong friends among students and faculty. And then I came back in 1998 and was on the Law faculty for 15 years. And so in many ways, I felt like I owed an awful lot to U.Va. and it was home for us at U.Va. and in Charlottesville for 15 years. And not that I had any clear idea of what I could do, but I felt an obligation to return. I felt like to turn down the offer at that point would have been to walk away from an institution that was beloved.
And I also kept thinking about a speech that Drew Faust gave when she was president of Harvard when I was a dean at Ed School, and it was about the Boston Marathon bombing. And the title of the speech was “Running Toward” and she talked about the fact that when the bombs went off and people were injured, not only did first responders run to the aid of the victims, but there were a lot of other spectators who instead of running away ran towards those who were in need of help. And that whole speech and that concept of running toward kept running through my mind.
The final piece was, you know, a day or two after it happened, Katie and I woke up early in the morning, and she just looked at me and she said, you know you have to go now. And I said I think that's exactly right. So it ended up having a pretty major role.
Eva Surovell: That's really interesting. Thank you. So I want to turn to the aftermath a little bit. So following the University’s unpreparedness for the torchlit march, on the 11th specifically, there was a lot of student and community protest and the University implemented a number of changes including removing Confederate plaques from the Rotunda, formally classifying the Academical Village as a facility to regulate the presence of firearms and also paying $12,500 — that was once pledged from the University to the KKK — to patient relief efforts. One year later after “Unite the Right,” you offered a public apology to the counter protesters who were attacked at the Thomas Jefferson statue on the North side of the Rotunda. So I'm just curious in the time since that apology, what has been done to continue making steps to atone for the University’s unpreparedness and do you find that you think there's still progress to be made today?
President Ryan: So there's a lot of different pieces to that question. So let me start with a response. You know, I think what the University did in the aftermath to enhance security made a lot of sense, and I think a lot of improvement has been made. So you mentioned a number of the steps that were taken. In addition to those steps, there's a new position created for the associate vice president for safety and security. The ambassador presence on the Lawn was increased as well. And I think all those changes have made us a safer and more secure community. The University also helped the victims in a couple of ways. There was a concert, as you may know, a free concert after the rally that the University paid the costs of and people donated money. I think it was close to $1.5 million, and that was used to help defray or cover the medical expenses of those who were injured. And I forgot, tell me the next part of your question?
Eva Surovell: Oh, yes, I'll repeat it. I guess the final part of the question was — in the time since that apology, what has been done to continue making steps to atone for the University’s unpreparedness and do you find that you still think there's progress to be made today?
President Ryan: Okay. Well, there's some of the steps that we've taken, I just mentioned. Progress today with respect to safety and security?
Eva Surovell: Well we’re going to talk about the relationship between U.Va. and Charlottesville later, but do you find that the events of “Unite the Right” affect either your day-to-day decision making as University President? What impact do you find that those events have had on decisions you've had to make?
President Ryan: Yeah, so I would, I would say in two different ways. You know, the most immediate is a topic that we're just talking about safety and security. I mean, that was obviously brought to the forefront and thinking about the questions of making sure that our community is safe is something that we continue to focus on, and frankly, the events of August 11 and 12th are just a part of that.
But any university president would focus on the health and safety of the community — that's just a part of the job. But an event like that also causes you to think about some issues that you may have been working on, or you may have been trying [to], but the event brings those issues to light. And so, in that category, I would say the relationship between the University and the Charlottesville community is one area where I've spent a lot of time personally on that. I'm sure I would have spent time on that anyway. But one of the things that that weekend brought home was just how interactive the University and the Charlottesville community are and that, you know, we rely on each other, we lean on each other. We’re each as strong as the other. And so making sure that the relationship between the University and the broader Charlottesville community — not just the City of Charlottesville, but Albemarle County and the other surrounding counties — has been a priority of mine since I became president. It would have been a priority, but I think that event shone a light on how important that relationship is.
Another area is just the area of democracy itself in the presence of extremist groups. Racist, bigoted, anti-semitic ideology is honestly a threat to our democracy. There have been a lot of groups, organizations [and] institutes on Grounds focused on democracy, but I think those events accelerated the creation of the Karsh Institute of Democracy. That is one thing that a university can do — not limited to responding to what happened on August 11 and August 12, but it's in some respects responding more generally to the threat that it poses to democracy, as well as other challenges to democracy.
Then the last I would say is it's important to remember that this happened to U.Va. in Charlottesville, but at the same time, it's also important to make it perfectly clear that you completely reject those ideologies and to double down on the bedrock values that undergird this University. So to emphasize the fact that we believe that diversity is a strength and to emphasize the fact that we believe that everyone who was here deserves to be here and deserves to feel a sense of belonging, that that's obviously something that you ought to be doing and would be doing anyway. But an event like that makes it especially important that you're absolutely clear what your values are.
Eva Surovell: You've kind of anticipated my next two questions.
President Ryan: Sorry.
Eva Surovell: No no, all good — we can still discuss them. So I guess another aspect of “Unite the Right” and the events of August 11 and 12 that is often discussed in parallel with more recent controversies that we see today is the concept of free speech, which you and I are both pretty familiar with.
President Ryan: Yes, we are.
Eva Surovell: And I think both of us know that you've been a pretty ardent supporter of free speech on Grounds. So I guess I'm just curious, in what ways do you think free speech and “Unite the Right” are intertwined and in what ways might they not be?
President Ryan: That's an interesting question. Well, I would say, first and foremost, and this is obvious, but it’s worth stating that speech is protected — violence is not. The second thing I would say, the unfortunate reality is that sometimes what starts out as, say, a peaceful protest or a speech can induce or end up in violence. And so protecting speech, protecting the ability of people to speak, protecting the ability of people to hear — even if it's objectionable — has to be balanced with making sure that you pay attention to any risks to safety that a protest or a speaker might present. And this is not unique to U.Va. — it’s happening on college campuses all around the country. It's an unfortunate thing that you have to be prepared for. You can't just assume that a protest that is described as peaceful is going to remain so or that a speech is going to be just a speech. And so it doesn't make me personally any less supportive of free speech, but it makes you understand that you have to be prepared for what can happen, and you have to do your best — going back to the safety and security — to make sure that events can go off safely.
Eva Surovell: So you kind of touched on this a little bit earlier, but I wanted to circle back to it. One thing that I have heard a lot about through my interviews with people, but also classes, is that the events of “Unite the Right” and August 11 and 12 really forced the University to consider its proximity to, relationship with and impact on the Charlottesville community. So does “Unite the Right” still impact that relationship and what do you see as our responsibility to the greater Charlottesville community?
President Ryan: It’s hard to trace back all that's happened in the last several years and know whether a particular strand of the relationship between U.Va. and Charlottesville traces right back to August 11 and 12. That said, you’re exactly right that U.Va. in Charlottesville is incredibly important. And the “Unite the Right” rally underscored that fact. And that's like I said, one of the reasons — but not the only reason — ensuring to the best I can that we have a strong relationship with Charlottesville has been a priority of mine.
So a few things that we've done, maybe most importantly, were early on after I started we created the U.Va.-Charlottesville Advisory Council or the Advisory Council for U.Va., Charlottesville partnerships. And I asked that group to identify the key issues that they thought U.Va. and Charlottesville could work on together — the issues that were presented were the most pressing needs, and they came back identifying jobs and wages, affordable housing, education and healthcare. And so one of the things that we did early on is raise the minimum wage for U.Va. employees to $15 an hour, addressing the issue of wages. We then formed a number of working groups under each of those broad categories of jobs and wages, affordable housing, education and healthcare and have made progress on all of them. That was the working group around jobs and wages. There was one working group on pipelines and pathways, and that group identified ways that U.Va. can make sure that those in the broader Charlottesville community were fully aware of and encouraged to apply for and take jobs at U.Va., and then once here, they would have career paths that would enable them to stay at U.Va,. even if they moved from one part of U.Va. to the next.
There was another group, the local economy group, that was really focused on U.Va. procurement practices and identifying ways that U.Va. can purchase more goods and supplies from local companies. We're still waiting for the report on education and then the report on healthcare. Meanwhile, the affordable housing initiative is moving forward and we just issued an RFQ for potential developers. So I would say that there's been a good deal of progress on that front, and I think some of it is these tangible things.
But some of it is that this group of people from the outer Charlottesville community who are leaders in the community, working in different fields, and those at U.Va. over the course of these four years have really developed a strong partnership. And there's a sense of trust within that group that I think is reverberating outside of that group as well. And we have approached it truly as a partnership. So thinking about what can we do together, not ‘Oh, well, we're U.Va., so we're going to tell you what you need,’ or ‘We’re the community, we're just going to ask UVA for X, Y or Z’ but instead thinking about ‘Okay, how can we bring together our different areas of expertise and actually tackle the problem?’ And I will tell you, it's among the more compelling and gratifying work I've been involved in. As a president, I've had the great fortune of meeting incredible people at U.Va. [and] incredible people in the Charlottesville community. And so I think, I think it's fair to say we're in a stronger place today as a result of that.
Eva Surovell: Thank you. Yeah. Okay, so shifting gears a little bit. One fact that I've found many students — my writers included — are completely unaware of, is that two of the white supremacists who organized the rally, Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, are U.Va. alumni. You discuss both of these men during the one-year anniversary speech I referenced earlier. Yeah. And you added that “to be a part of this community — to be an honest and courageous member of this community — we have to recognize that there is a gap between our aspirations and our realities.” So I have two questions related to this. Could you maybe elaborate on this and what this gap might look like today, and do you have any advice for current students or community members on reconciling the fact that both of these alumni went to and graduated from the same school that we all go to, yet came back and organized this horrific event?
President Ryan: Yeah. So on the first, you know, I think every institution — given human nature — [and] every individual has a gap between aspirations and reality. That is to say we articulate values, we articulate the ways we want to be as an institution and the goals that we might have for ourselves, but we don't always meet those aspirations. And the point that I was trying to make in that speech was to essentially say it's still worth it. So we were talking about being U.Va. in Charlottesville. The aspiration there is to have as productive a relationship as possible. That is an ongoing project and will always be incomplete, but it doesn't mean that you shouldn't continue to aspire to it, it doesn't mean you shouldn't continue to try to meet those aspirations.
In terms of the two students, what I said in the speech is that we have to acknowledge that those two students came from U.Va., but we also — going back to what we were talking about earlier — have to make it absolutely clear that they do not represent U.Va. Not at all.
Eva Surovell: Thank you. Okay, and this is probably my biggest question. Today, like I've said a few times, I know undergraduate students at U.Va. were not present for the events of August 11 and 12th. Is implementing or continuing education surrounding “Unite the Right” important to you and the University, and if so, what steps have been taken or what steps does it plan to take to ensure that students continue to understand these events?
President Ryan: That's a good question. So I would divide it into two parts. One is education around those particular events that happened at U.Va. in Charlottesville, and then the other part is the broader issues facing democracy we were talking about earlier.
With respect to the former, I don't think that there's a specific class about this, but I know they target in a number of different contexts and a number of different classes. And my hope would be that that would continue because it's a part of local history and still relatively recent memory for those who are on Grounds.
But I think just as important as the second part, that is a an education around and exposure to understanding the state of democracy today and not just the opportunities, but also the challenges and the challenges that were on play during the “Unite the Right” rally, not that dissimilar from the challenges that were on display during January and the attack on the Capitol. You know, we are a University that is designed to and aspires to — to get back to points of aspiration — prepare students to be citizen leaders. And I think in order to do that, we need to expose our students to a level of understanding about the past, both locally and nationally, and an understanding about the present in terms of what's working in our democracy, and what's not.
Eva Surovell: To clarify, so there is no formal, required course [or] anything related to what happened in August 2017? I remember my orientation group discussed it very briefly following former dean Groves’ free speech talk at orientation. But I can't I can't think of anything else.
President Ryan: There is not a required course on it, that's for sure. I don't know if it's a bad question. I need to ask Robin Hadley. I don't know whether it is a part of orientation any longer, but I mean, that would be easy enough to find out.
Eva Surovell: Sure. And then I guess one last follow up is just — you've spoken to this a few times — U.Va. perhaps being emblematic of a lot of challenges facing democracy in the nation. Do you see U.Va. as kind of a microcosm, I guess, of a lot of the challenges facing the world today? And, and if so, maybe could you elaborate more on the University’s efforts to tackle that?
President Ryan: So I don't think of U.Va. as emblematic of the challenges facing democracy, but I think of the “Unite the Right” rally that has happened in Charlottesville at UVA as emblematic of the challenges facing democracy. I do think given that U.Va. has a long connection to this country's democracy and our stated goal to prepare students to be citizen leaders does impose an obligation on us to do what we can to not just study democracy, but to offer solutions to the challenges that are facing our democracy. And that's why I think the Democracy Institute is such an important piece of all this, because it's not just part of our history. I think it's part of our current obligation.
Eva Surovell: Great, thank you. Just to wrap up, on this five-year anniversary, is there anything else you wanted to reflect on with regard to “Unite the Right” or the events of August 11 and 12? Is there anything you want to make sure students know that we haven’t discussed? Or faculty or community members?
President Ryan: So one thing that we haven’t discussed that I think is an important piece of this story is the courage and the resilience of the students, faculty and staff who were there, including those who were physically attacked, and also the way the community came together in the weeks and months afterwards to affirm the values of the community and to make clear that students, faculty and staff were a part of a strong community and were there to support each other. And that is sometimes lost, but I have heard from people — and like you, I wasn’t here — that one of the most moving experiences they’ve had at their time at U.Va was going to the candlelight vigil that was held on the Lawn after August 11 and August 12. I tend to think that really strong communities become stronger in the face of adversity, and I think that’s what’s happened at U.Va., in part because sometimes you appreciate what you have the most when it’s under threat.
Eva Surovell: Thank you.
President Ryan: No, it’s my pleasure.