James E. Ryan, president-elect of the University of Virginia, spoke to University community members gathered at the Rotunda on Friday, following his election by the Board of Visitors. These are his remarks as prepared:
Thanks, Bill and Rusty; thanks to all of you for coming.
I realize many of you may be wondering about a question I’m asking myself: What am I doing here? I’m here, first and foremost, because like all of you, I love UVA. But I’m also here because I was told that this is where they’re handing out free tickets to the upcoming concert at Scott Stadium. Is that not true?
In all seriousness, I would like to begin by giving thanks. First, I’d like to thank two presidents.
Thanks to President Sullivan for her tireless leadership of the University. It will be an honor and a privilege to follow her and to build upon the tremendous progress she – and all of you – have accomplished during her tenure. President Sullivan has been a champion for UVA and has helped this institution not simply weather some stormy seas, but to emerge stronger every time.
I am confident this will also be the case in the aftermath of the deadly, hateful rally in August. Like you, I was heartbroken and horrified to see UVA and Charlottesville invaded by groups of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and I join those who have condemned this violent display of hatred – but condemning bigotry and racism is, in many ways, the easy part.
The hard part, which you are all facing now, is what to do in response, both in the short and longer terms, and as an alum and former faculty member, I am heartened by the progress so far and eager to help continue that progress – though I fully recognize that progress, while it is happening, can seem both messy and a version of “two steps forward, one step back.” But that is still progress.
I would also like to thank Harvard President Drew Faust, who took a chance on me four years ago when she hired a law professor from UVA to be dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It has been a great privilege to lead a school with such a clear and compelling mission, and President Faust has been a mentor, role model and a friend. Without her support, I’m quite sure I would not be here today.
I would also not be here today but for the decision of the search committee. I’d like to thank that committee, especially the chairs, Rusty Conner and Bill Goodwin, as well as the Board of Visitors. I am grateful for the trust they have placed in me, and I will work to justify their faith and to earn your trust. Although I am saddened to leave the Harvard Ed School, a community I have come to love and admire, I am honestly thrilled and genuinely honored by the opportunity to serve my alma mater and the institution at which I taught for 15 years.
The simple truth is that this is home for me. This is where my wife, Katie, and I met when we were both law students in the early 1990s. This is where our four children spent the bulk of their childhoods during my 15 years on the law faculty. And this is where I developed lifelong friendships, many with people who are still a part of this community. I see this very much as an opportunity to serve and to give back to a university and a community that have given so much to me and my family.
And speaking of my family, I’d like to thank them for joining me on this journey. My sons, Will, Sam and Ben, and my daughter, Phebe, have been incredibly supportive and game to return to Charlottesville. For sure, there may have been some mild bribery involved and vague promises of endless Bodo’s bagels and tickets to sporting events, but still, I appreciate their flexibility and sense of adventure. I’d like to thank Katie’s parents, Steve and Marcie Homer, and Katie’s sister, Susan, who are here today, for supporting Katie and me throughout this process, even though they knew it meant we would move farther away from them. I’d also like to thank my sister, Claire, who is here today and has always been there for me. More than anyone else, especially since our parents passed away, Claire reminds me to stay true to the person my parents raised me to be. I’d like to thank my close friend, Steve Gillon, also here today, who is not technically family but has over the course of more than three decades become like a brother to me and an uncle to all of my kids.
And last but not least, I would like to thank Katie, who recognizes as much as I do that this is an important moment in the history of higher education and the history of this university and this community. Katie is a remarkably talented and dedicated public interest lawyer who works with special education students and their families, and she has a heart as large as her talents. For those of you who don’t already know us, you will soon come to realize that the best thing about my becoming president is that it means that Katie will again be a part of the UVA and Charlottesville communities.
So back to why I am here. I’m here because I believe deeply in the power of education and in the power and goodness of this remarkable university. I attended public schools in my hometown of Midland Park, a small, then mostly blue-collar town in Northern New Jersey. I was a first-generation college student, and was able to attend Yale University thanks to generous financial aid and the hard-earned savings of my parents, and later I attended UVA Law School on a full scholarship. These opportunities and experiences changed my life and opened doors for me that I never knew even existed.
The basic truth is that the education system worked for me; it worked the way it is supposed to work. And I have spent most of my professional life dedicated to ensuring that it works for others; indeed, working to expand educational opportunities for others has been the guiding principle and aim of my professional life. This is why I taught and studied law and education and the different ways that law structures educational opportunity, and this is why I went to Harvard to become the dean of their education school, and it is why I am returning here at this point in time. I know this sounds cliché, but I honestly care most about making a difference in the world, and I believe in the power of this institution to make the world a better place.
I am also here because I believe that what you all choose to do here, and in Wise, matters – not just to this community, but to higher education generally, to the City of Charlottesville, the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond.
We live in tumultuous times. In an era of deep societal divisions, it matters that you are not only committed to a diverse and inclusive community, but that you demonstrate how and why diversity is a source of strength and vibrancy and need not be a source of division. It matters that you disagree with each other, but do so with mutual respect and civility. In an era of skepticism about the credibility and veracity of information and experts, it matters that you remain dedicated to the pursuit of the truth in both the sciences and the humanities, and in the professional schools. In an era where too many student-athletes are forced to choose to be either a student or an athlete, it matters that students here are both – and that you help them succeed in both arenas. In an era where the world, and the world of education, are changing rapidly, it matters that you are brave enough to experiment with new ways of teaching and to change the curriculum for College students. In an era where there are serious doubts about the quality and availability of affordable health care, it matters that you offer high-quality health care that is accessible to all. In an era where there is increased distrust of established institutions, particularly in higher education, it matters that you show what a well-functioning and equitable university looks like and that you demonstrate your value not only to this community, but to the wider world. In an era where there is too much suffering and stagnation, it matters that you remain a place of hope and an engine for mobility and progress. And, 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 candle-lights that help illuminate the good that resides in all of us.
I’m sure you are curious to know what exactly I hope to do during my time here, which is understandable. I do not lack for ideas or opinions, as you will come to know soon, for better or for worse. But it would be foolish and disrespectful to spell out priorities in detail without first spending time here and without speaking with students, faculty, staff, board members, alumni and friends and getting a sense of your aspirations. Any vision for moving forward, in order to be compelling and workable, must be a shared vision.
What I can say is that I will work every day with all of you to help make this University the very best it can be and to live out its core values of academic rigor, accessibility and diversity, honor, student self-governance, public service, civility and mutual respect. I believe this is the preeminent public university in the country, and my goal will be to make this true beyond any doubt. This means, at the very least, recruiting a talented and genuinely diverse group of students, ensuring that this university remains accessible and affordable for all and that all can flourish within a culture of trust, respect and belonging; it means nurturing and strengthening the distinctive and remarkably vibrant student experience that features frequent interaction with faculty, high levels of engagement, and outstanding athletics, music, and art; it means recruiting and supporting talented and broadly diverse faculty across all disciplines and in every school and providing them the resources they need to be both outstanding teachers and researchers; it means continuing to provide first-class health care and supporting basic scientific and medical research; and it means being a partner and good neighbor with Charlottesville and being of real service to the commonwealth and beyond. It also means taking some risks and not being afraid of failure.
And it means confronting and understanding this university’s past, both the good and the bad, the distant and the not-so-distant; it means acknowledging without apprehension, but instead with all due humility, both the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson and the brutality; it means appreciating that the history of this university is intertwined with the history of this country, including links to our highest and most enduring aspirations and to our original sin of slavery.
It also means, however, that we not simply understand and learn from our past, but that we also – and always – keep our eyes on the future, recognizing that it is ours to shape. Indeed, it is crucial to remember that Jefferson himself was literally a revolutionary, who believed in progress above all. To remain true to Jefferson is, in a way, to constantly strive to form a more perfect university. To me, what this university looked like in 1850, or even 1950, is important to understand, but it is far more important to envision what this university will look like in 2050.
I am excited to begin, though I recognize and appreciate that my start date is next fall. In the meantime, you are in strong hands with President Sullivan, and UVA does not need two presidents. Indeed, it is not lost on me that Thomas Jefferson did not think UVA needed even one president, and for more than 75 years that was true, with no apparent effect on U.S. News and World Report rankings – which technically didn’t exist yet, but still. In any event, like I said, you are in good hands, and I have a full-time job back in Cambridge, to which I am fully committed until the end of my deanship at the conclusion of this academic year. You should expect nothing less than my full and complete commitment when I begin as president, but until then, I would ask for your help in allowing me to honor my current obligations.
Let me end by making two promises that I know I can keep. The first is that, when I begin and throughout my time here, I will ask a lot of questions. Some of them, undoubtedly, will be annoying. But I promise that I will carefully listen to your answers. I see my first task as getting reacquainted with parts of the University I knew well before I left and learning more about parts that I did not know as well, and listening to all of you here and in Wise. I have a lot to learn, and I will look forward to hearing both your concerns and your aspirations for the University, all in an effort to set a clear and compelling path for the next chapter in the life of this wonderful place.
The second thing I can promise is that I will make mistakes. But I will also follow the advice of a basketball coach I had when I played in the fifth-grade Catholic youth league in my hometown. “It’s OK,” he said, “if you make mistakes from exuberance. But I will not tolerate mistakes from lethargy.” At the time, I knew this sounded important, but had no clue what my coach was saying, because I had no idea what “exuberance” or “lethargy” meant. Once I learned the meaning of those words, I came to appreciate the wisdom of my coach’s warning. I will, undoubtedly, make mistakes, and some of those will be from exuberance. But I promise I will never make a mistake from lethargy.