President Jim Ryan: Great and Good, Revisited

Jim Ryan sitting on steps

Photo by KK Ottesen

Editor’s Note: With the recent news coverage regarding the University’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson, we thought it might be useful to highlight this article from nearly two years ago for those who might have missed it. President Jim Ryan assures that this still represents his views and he’s not anticipating changing his mind anytime soon.


would like to take a step back from the current pandemic that has gripped the world, our country, and our University and talk a bit about some non-COVID news, including the recent Board of Visitors resolutions and the controversy over some signs on Lawn-room doors. I’d like to put these into the broader context of where we have been as a university, where we are, and where we are headed. It can be hard to remember life pre-COVID or to imagine life post-COVID. But I think it’s important, especially in these tumultuous and challenging times, both to remember the recent past and to imagine the not-too-distant future.

To start with our ultimate aim: As I have said on many occasions, we are striving to be a university that is both great and good. We have, before and during this pandemic, seen remarkable examples of both – from research breakthroughs to outstanding student and faculty achievements; from the creation of the first test for COVID-19 in the Commonwealth to an ongoing effort to offer free testing within the Charlottesville community; from innovative online teaching to the heroic work of Student Health, Student Affairs, and resident advisers to support returning students; from the opening of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers to the opening of a new bed tower in the Medical Center; from the record rate of research funding to the record-breaking philanthropic support of friends and alumni; from the courts and fields of athletics to the laboratories of infectious disease specialists and neuroscientists.

It is certainly possible to think of great and good as separate categories, and to identify examples of achievements or initiatives that fall into one or another. I tend to think of them as intertwined.  Consider, for example, the development of a COVID-19 test – that was the result of ingenuity based on academic expertise, but it also was of service to the public. It was both great and good all at once.

This is how I think about what it means to be great and good – it means striving not just for excellence, but excellence for the purpose of advancing the common good, whether by preparing students to be citizen leaders, generating new knowledge, or providing excellent and accessible medical care. 

In my view, the most effective way to achieve this dual goal of great and good is straightforward:

1. Recruit and retain the best people, whether students, faculty, or staff;

2. Create and sustain an atmosphere where all can thrive and do their best work; and

3. Nurture a culture that emphasizes the importance of serving not just ourselves, but others.

To do this, we must – absolutely must – be a community that is diverse, inclusive, and equitable.  Diverse because talent exists all around the globe and within every demographic, and because the very best ideas emerge from the consideration of diverse viewpoints and perspectives.  Inclusive and equitable because it’s the right thing to do, and also because we will not reach our full potential as a university if we do not provide every community member with opportunities to reach their full potential. And for that to happen, all of us – every one of us – should feel at home here, fully welcome, and with truly equal opportunities to grow, succeed, and lead.  

It is within this context and with these aims in mind that the Board recently endorsed a number of goals and initiatives related to racial equity, which the senior leaders of the University and I presented to them. The challenge of achieving racial equity is as old as our country and our University, as is the persistence of racism. But the topic received renewed and intense attention this summer because of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, and the protests that followed. The goals and initiatives endorsed by the Board represent our efforts to address this topic and to continue the hard and enduring work to make UVA a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable university. These include ambitious goals to increase faculty, staff, and student diversity; ensure equitable opportunities for staff; provide additional support to the Carter Woodson Institute; create and offer additional educational programs on the topic of race and racial equity; provide greater support for the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and review tenure and promotion policies. Fulfilling these goals and implementing these initiatives will, I believe, make us a stronger and better university.

The Board also approved several changes to the historic landscape, including removing the name Curry from the School of Education and Human Development, relocating the George Rogers Clark statue, removing or rededicating the Hume memorial, contextualizing the Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda, and removing the name Withers from Withers-Brown Hall at the Law School. The Board resolutions explain the rationale for each of these changes and are available here. But the common thread is simple: Our built environment should represent our core and enduring values, as well as our highest aspirations. 

One of those core values traces back to the Declaration of Independence and therefore to the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson: All men – which we would translate today to mean all people – are created equal, with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We should recognize and celebrate those who worked to advance that core value, and not those who actively worked in opposition to it. This does not mean, of course, that only those without flaws should be celebrated, as we would soon find ourselves unable to honor anyone, nor does it mean that we should ignore the historical context in which those from the past lived their lives.  But it does mean that those whose primary legacy contradicts the foundational premise that all people are created equal should not have a place of honor at this University. Some might say this is bowing to present-day trends. I believe, to the contrary, that it is endorsing not transient values, but upholding fundamental ones, which we may have long professed but not always followed. And endorsing these fundamental values is one way that we communicate with those within our community and those we hope to attract here. To be a place that is open and welcoming to all, our built environment should signal as much.

Which leads to Thomas Jefferson and the Jefferson statue on the north side of the Rotunda. I have received a number of inquiries, many of them skeptical, about the proposal to contextualize the statue or Jefferson himself. This statue, particularly in the last few years, has become a touchstone for concerns about the University’s complex history with regard to race. Some members of our community have called for the removal of the statue. This idea gained greater urgency in light of the recent protests across the country this summer.

I do not believe the statue should be removed, nor would I ever approve such an effort. As long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson. On this topic, I share the view of historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who in a recent interview pointed out that:  

[T]here is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it. Both Washington and Jefferson were critical to the formation of the country and to the shaping of it in its early years. [Unlike statues of confederate leaders], no one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation. They put up monuments to T.J. because of the Declaration of Independence, which every group has used to make their place in American society. Or they go up because of T.J.’s views on separation of church and state and other values that we hold dear. I think on these two, Washington and Jefferson, in particular, you take the bitter with the sweet. 

Contextualizing the statue, whether done through a plaque or digitally, will merely provide historical facts to help understand both Mr. Jefferson and the statue – which was to honor his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It will not make judgments, but relay historical truths about his remarkable life, an effort consistent with our purpose as a University – to educate and pursue the truth. And, indeed, that was Mr. Jefferson’s admonition to us.  Universities, he wrote, are “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Speaking, finally, about our purpose as a university, I would like to address the recent controversy created by some signs on Lawn-room doors. The signs contain profanity to condemn the University. They are offensive and have understandably and deeply upset many in our community and among our alumni. Personally, I find the signs deeply disappointing, not simply because of their language and location, but because they fail to acknowledge any of the progress that this University has made to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. This progress was made possible, it bears emphasizing, because of the dedicated and at times heroic efforts of students in the years and decades prior, as well as the efforts of faculty, staff, and alumni over decades. I believe those efforts deserve our gratitude and respect and are a source of inspiration to continue the work ahead.

The signs evoke a clash of values. On the one side stand the values of reasoned debate, civility, and respect for the role of the Lawn in the life of the University and as a place visited by many, including young children. On the other side stands our firm and enduring commitment to the freedom of speech and the tolerance of protest and dissent, which is at the heart of any university, including ours. This is also a constitutionally protected right, which we are bound as a public university to respect. Although some may wonder how this may be so, there is no doubt that the signs are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, as our General Counsel has ably explained. Were we to remove the signs, we would be violating the Constitution. In this clash of values, the Constitution and its protection of speech must prevail. 

Some have suggested that this episode is about courage or cowardice, or about politics and ideology. I respectfully disagree. I believe it is a matter of principle and the obligation, especially of universities, to protect speech even when it is offensive, and to stand firm against pressure to ignore the Constitution. The late Justice Scalia demonstrated precisely this resolve when he cast the deciding vote for the Supreme Court in an opinion making clear that the First Amendment protects the right to burn the American flag as a sign of protest – an action deeply offensive to many, including Justice Scalia. Upholding fundamental principles against temptation or pressure to contravene them can be a hard thing to do, but I believe it is the right thing to do.

Going forward, we can and will consider whether additional regulations are needed for the Lawn, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and attracts visitors locally and from around the globe.  Time, place, and manner restrictions would be legally permissible if they are narrowly tailored to protecting that environment, apply neutrally to all opinions and points of view, and preexist any particular controversy. We will consider whether changes to regulation of the Lawn should be adopted before the next academic year and before the next class of students moves onto the Lawn.

Regardless of passing controversies, I stand firm in my belief in the possibility of progress and in the good will and dedication among so many in our community and among our alumni. Some of the work ahead involves confronting our history, for sure. But the bulk of the work is about shaping our future, which is in our hands. This work is fundamentally not about becoming an entirely different university, but instead about becoming the best version of ourselves.

And what does that look like, exactly? As I said almost a year ago in an address about the future of the University, and as I still believe today:

We aspire to represent the very best in higher education. To be a university with the most vibrant community in all of higher education. A university that is enabling discoveries that enrich and improve lives, and a university that is synonymous with service. A university that has worked to protect and promote democracy through our teaching, research, and actions. A university that has done the same to help the world ameliorate and adapt to climate change. 

A university that helps unlock the mysteries of the brain and harnesses the power of data to help make medicine more precise and education more personalized. A university that is a model for treating students holistically – the head and the heart, the intellectual and the emotional. A university that is a true place of opportunity and one of the very best for first-generation students. A university that prepares students to be ethical leaders in an increasingly diverse and globally connected world. 

A university that has attracted and retained outstanding and diverse faculty, students, and staff who want to make a difference in the world. A university that is not merely more diverse, but also more inclusive. A university that is living its values, day in and day out, and is helping to make the Charlottesville region a great place – for everyone – to live. A university that is not just excellent, but excellent for the purpose of serving the public through our teaching, research, and health care.

And while we will continue to change and grow, as all universities must, we will carry with us the values that define this University – trust, honor, integrity, student self-governance, respect, curiosity, diversity and inclusion, and opportunity. In our effort to keep up with the times, we should not let go of the timeless.

That is the University I envisioned a year ago. It is the University I still envision. I look forward to continuing to work with you to make that vision a reality.

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