Read President Jim Ryan’s Inaugural Address: ‘Faith in the Unfinished Project’

President Ryan speaking at a podium after his inauguration

President Ryan spoke shortly after taking the oath of office Friday afternoon on the Lawn. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

University of Virginia President Jim Ryan delivered the following address (as prepared) during his inauguration on the Lawn Friday.

Welcome to all of you – Governor Northam, family, friends, colleagues and distinguished guests. I am deeply touched that you are all here, though I confess that this is all slightly surreal and a tad overwhelming. Given the gowns and the pageantry, the gathering of basically everyone I have ever known, and the wildly unrealistic things being said about me, I have to say it feels a little like a cross between a wedding and a funeral.

You are here to celebrate the inauguration, which is really a celebration of both the University of Virginia and the long tradition of higher education, given the delegates from colleges and universities near and far, for which I am grateful. But if you will indulge me, I would like to note another cause for celebration, more personal to me. This is the very first occasion where my birth family is meeting my adoptive family. There is a longer story there, some of which I will share at the Double Take story session tomorrow. For now, I’d just like to acknowledge and thank both my Aunt Lynn, who is the matriarch of my extended adoptive family, and Anne, my birth mother. I owe a great deal to you both and am thrilled that you are here.

I am also grateful for the work of the presidents who have preceded me, most recently Terry Sullivan, John Casteen and Bob O’Neil. Bob passed away recently, and I would like to acknowledge his leadership as well as the many kindnesses he showed to me when we were colleagues at the Law School. I’m equally grateful to the Board of Visitors, including the Rector, Rusty Conner; the vice rector, Jim Murray; and former Rector Bill Goodwin for the trust they have placed in me and the remarkable support they have afforded my family and me. I’m beyond grateful to my wife, Katie, and our four kids for their willingness to embark on this adventure. And last but not least, I’m thankful for the countless hours put in by all who have worked on this event – it’s a privilege to serve this university with all of you.

My only regret is that my parents, Jim and Sheila Ryan, and my Law School roommate and dear friend Doug Kendall, who have passed away, are not here. They would have loved this celebration. They would have also told me to get on with it already, so I will.

One piece of advice I received was not to make this speech a sermon, so today I’d like to talk about faith. More precisely, I would like to talk about faith in the unfinished project. And even more precisely, faith in the unfinished project of our university.

It might seem incongruous to talk about faith in the shadow of the Rotunda, the centerpiece of our university, which was designed intentionally by Thomas Jefferson as a library and was meant to distinguish the secular basis of UVA from the religious basis of most other universities at the time.

But the faith I would like to discuss is of the secular variety. It’s the faith of the Emily Dickinson poem: “The pierless bridge supporting what we see unto the scene that we do not.” The faith that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

It’s the faith of a parent, when you realize there’s no instruction manual. No guarantee that you are doing right by your children, or that things will work out even if you are. Yet you remain buoyed by the faith that if you love your children enough, if you give them your time and attention and support, you will help them find their path in the world. You know that they will always be – like all of us – an unfinished project, but you also know that you will never lose faith in that project that is your child. That, in a sense, is what it means to be a parent.

It’s also the faith of the runner, when you rise on a cold winter morning and head out into the darkness with little else but faith. Faith that your training will pay off and that, at some point in your run, the sun will rise to signal a new day. You don’t know what’s ahead, exactly, but you get up anyway, you lace up your shoes, and you get started.

So what does this type of faith have to do with universities, and ours in particular?  In other words, how much faith do you have that this speech is going somewhere?

In reality, the answer is simple. Universities are committed to the truth and demand proof, to be sure. But they also rest on precisely the kind of faith I have just described.

To conduct research, for example, is to have faith in the power of discovery even before the discovery has been made. Research itself is the pierless bridge of the Dickinson poem, which supports what we see, but carries us to the scene that we do not. To begin that research is to take the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase; to lace up your shoes and head out into the darkness, faithful that you will emerge into the light of day.

To teach is to have the faith of a parent, knowing that you are helping to prepare students not just for their careers, but for their full lives – as friends, parents, spouses, partners and citizens. It is to have faith that students will emerge from their time here not only smarter, but wiser; more prepared for life, but also more curious than when they arrived.

To be a student is to have faith that even if you wait until the last minute to write that paper, it will still get done well. This is what we might call “misplaced faith.” More seriously, to be a student is to have faith, perhaps only dimly realized at the time, that what you learn and the relationships you build will enrich your life in countless ways.

To be on the staff here, as I am, is to have faith that your work matters – to believe in the importance of our mission and that what we do is critical to its success. Our doctors and nurses share the faith that their training will allow them to heal the sick and mend the injured. Parents of our students have faith that we will keep their children safe and help them grow. And our alumni have faith that, while we must adapt to meet today’s challenges and to prepare our students for a changing world, the fundamental values of this unique institution will remain constant.  

What stitches these acts of faith together is a profound belief in the future and, more precisely, in the idea of progress. This is the grand faith of universities and those who participate in them: Faith in the possibility of progress. Progress toward a more prosperous, just and peaceful society, and progress toward lives that are more meaningful, purposeful and passionate. This is not, or should not be, a blind faith, but a realistic one, even a critical one. It is a faith that understands that progress is rarely linear, often messy and sometimes impossible to fully grasp in the moment.

To adhere to this faith, to practice it, requires an honest assessment of the past and the present, because this is the only way to measure progress. It requires that we acknowledge the sins of our past, including, for example, the fact that slaves built these Grounds. That we recognize, with requisite humility, both Jefferson’s brilliance and his brutality. That we acknowledge this university’s role in promoting eugenics and the fact that African-Americans weren’t fully welcome here until the 1950s, and women not until the 1970s. We must also identify, with courage and resolve, the gaps that exist today between our aspirations and our realities.

At the same time, we should just as readily celebrate the fact that the majority of our students today are women; that over 400 first-years are first-generation students, and that our newest class is the most diverse in UVA history and hails from 43 states and 82 countries. That is progress, even as our work remains unfinished.

We should also recognize and celebrate the fact that members of our community have advanced the common good in countless and profound ways. Our health system, for example, improves the lives of hundreds of thousands of patients each year. Our faculty and alumni, collectively, have discovered the Higgs boson particle and the vaccine for yellow fever; they have mapped the human genome, served as this country’s poet laureate, brought clean water to the developing world, found the link between the brain and immune system, built tools to help detect infections in premature infants, broadened our understanding of black holes and the Milky Way, served as governors and senators, and won Nobel Prizes in medicine, economics, literature and peace.

Our athletes have won national championships and gold medals, and our artists have earned Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tony awards, inspiring the world with their grace, their wit and their grit.

And then there’s the possibility of progress yet to come. Today, faculty from across the University are working together to address some of our most pressing challenges – curing diabetes and understanding autism, making self-driving cars safer, tracing the origins of religious discrimination, examining how artificial intelligence and social media are changing the way we interact, using hip-hop to examine the expression and repression of black voices in America, and studying why democratic institutions succeed or fail and how we can strengthen them.

This is just a small sample of the remarkable progress made at and through this university. But while proof of our progress is abundant, it is not always easy to maintain faith in its continued march. Our faith as a community has certainly been tested over the years – by fires, riots and floods, and by the various crises in recent years. We are also in a moment of deep skepticism and great turbulence in higher education. And there have been times when some may have wondered whether we were losing our footing, if not our way.

I confess that, in this regard, I maintain the strong faith of a parent. I know this project we call the University of Virginia is not finished and never will be. I know it’s not perfect, and it never can be. But I believe in its fundamental goodness. I believe in its ability to be even better than it is now. I see the brilliance, the kindness, the decency and the progress every day as I walk across the Grounds and spend time with the students, faculty and staff with whom I am lucky enough to share this journey.  

I know the magic of this place – the feeling of walking the Lawn at sunset and standing on top of Humpback Rocks at dawn; of getting a hug from Ms. Kathy at Newcomb and a high-five from Cavman; of hearing a concert in Old Cabell Hall or a lecture in Nau Hall that changes the way you see the world; it’s the feeling of meeting people who challenge and support you all at once.

It is this indescribable but unforgettable collection of experiences, ideas, friendships, discoveries, traditions, settings, sights and sounds that thrill and inspire students and lead to a life-long love affair with this place, this institution, this community. I can promise you that I will never give up on this unfolding and unfinished project that is our university, for the simple reason that I can’t give up on the people I love. That’s what it means to be a parent, as I’ve said. It’s also, I believe, what it means to be a president.

Now, before you get worried, let me say that I do not mean to suggest that I think of you as my children. Katie and I are all set in that regard. (Speaking of which, hi to Phebe, Ben, Will and Sam. This is me keeping my promise that I would do at least one thing in my speech that would embarrass you.) 

In comparing parenting to being the president, I mean only to suggest that I feel what others who love this place feel:  a deep sense of responsibility.

The University of Virginia is, in a sense, Mr. Jefferson’s university. But it is also – even more so – your university. It is our university. Jefferson himself wrote that the earth belongs to the living. So, too, does this university, which means it is our responsibility to preserve what is best about this place and to shape its future with boldness and creativity.

This is where all of you come in. I have had the good fortune to speak with many of you about your hopes for the future of UVA. And on my first day in office, we launched a website entitled “Ours to Shape,” which invited members of our community to share their ideas online, organized around three themes: community, discovery and service. These themes are foundational to our university. They have animated our past, they define our present, and I believe they hold the key to our future.

My thanks to all who have participated in these conversations and have offered their thoughts about how we can strengthen our community and better promote both discovery and service.

Your suggestions have left me teeming with ideas and filled with great excitement about – and deep faith in – what lies ahead. I would like to leave you with a sketch of how I see our future, which rests on what I have learned from all of you. I cannot say this is a full-blown vision or a finely tuned blueprint for our future. Instead, think of what follows as a set of glimpses and propositions to be tested in the months ahead as this conversation continues.

At this point, here is what I see when I look ahead over the next decade or so:

I see a community, first and foremost, that rests on an exceptionally strong moral foundation. A university that lives its values; that embraces honor and acts honorably; that studies sustainability and practices it; that promotes justice and is just; that endorses free speech and academic freedom and protects them robustly. My friend Drew Faust, from whom you just heard, often said that universities should try to be not just great, but good. I agree and would take it one step further:  I believe that in the future, it will not be possible for a university to be great unless it is also good.

I see a community that is as vibrant as it is diverse, a community bound by shared values of student self-governance and responsibility, honor and integrity, openness and civility, intellectual rigor and human compassion, and a community willing to build bridges across apparent lines of difference. A community that is not simply inclusive and equitable, but also genuinely integrated.

I see a community that opens wide the door to opportunity for first-generation, low- and middle-income students. A community that, from this day forward, promises that Virginia families who earn less than $80,000 a year and have typical assets will be able to send their children to UVA tuition-free. And further promises Virginia families earning less than $30,000 a year that we will cover not only tuition, but also room and board. There is more work to be done in this space, but we might as well get started.

I see a community that helps our faculty become the very best teachers they can be, a community that embraces innovation in teaching and sees technology as a tool to enhance our pedagogy and extend our reach, but at the same time never forgets that the human interactions among our faculty and students, in class and out, are the heart and soul of this place.

I see a community that understands the growing importance of engineering, computer science and data science, but one that also recognizes that the liberal arts are a vital part of this university, and that preparing students to be ethical citizen-leaders requires exposure to the enduring and profound questions encountered in the humanities, basic sciences and social sciences.

I see a university community that is a strong partner and good neighbor with our surrounding communities. A university that tries to model the beloved community of which Dr. King spoke, one that is bound by the fair treatment of all, especially those most vulnerable, including our lowest-paid workers.

I see a community of alumni who are even more engaged with the life of the University, and whose connection with this place begins during their time on Grounds but continues to blossom over time.

I see a faculty that is as diverse as it is outstanding and continues to contribute to the remarkable growth in research in recent years. And a faculty that is easily able to work across the traditional boundaries of department, school or discipline in order to bring their collective expertise to bear on the world’s most pressing challenges.

I see the creation of a new crossroads for the University at the 14-acre site that begins at the intersection of Emmet and Ivy Road, a parcel of land that is as large as the academical village that you see around you – a parcel that invites us to reimagine, as Jefferson did in his day, what a university should look like.

I see an equally vibrant presence in Northern Virginia for our business and medical schools, as well as new academic ventures that take advantage of that location.

I see a university even more global than it is today, one that offers every student a real opportunity to have at least one international experience before graduating.

I see a university that prepares students for a life of purpose and service, regardless of their chosen careers. At the same time, I see a university that continues to serve the commonwealth and beyond through outstanding medical care, economic and workforce development, the cultivation of entrepreneurs, and a robust array of affordable and accessible continuing education programs.

I see a strong, mission-driven College at Wise and deeper connections between our campus at Wise and our faculty and students on the Grounds in Charlottesville.

I see a flourishing of the arts and an athletic program that is successful on the field and off, and one that offers the best student-athlete experience in the country.

I see, in particular, a football team that upsets a nationally ranked opponent from Miami. Oh, wait.  

To bring this to a close: The University of Virginia is considered the commonwealth’s flagship university. This is not a formal designation, and it can mean different things in different states, but in most places it connotes some degree of excellence and prestige. My favorite description referred to flagships as world-class institutions with a heart.

This is the way I like to think of UVA and, if you ask me what I see ahead, I see a university that is considered not only Virginia’s flagship university, but our nation’s. One that represents what is best about our country’s higher education system. One that is both excellent and accessible, one that is driven by the wonder of basic discovery and a commitment to the public good. A university dedicated to strengthening our democracy and making the world a better place. A university, a community, that is prepared to be different from others, just as this university was when it first began – so different in fact that it, like today, drew visitors from Harvard who were curious to learn what we were doing here.

I see, finally, a community that has been thrust into the national spotlight and refuses to shrink from it. A community that understands the extraordinary opportunity we have been given to light a path forward – not just for ourselves, but for a fractured nation and a divided world. Because this is no longer just about us. It’s bigger than that. We have a chance to show the world what progress looks like.  

Whether you see exactly the same picture, or only parts of it, I hope you share my faith in the future, which is in many ways nothing more and nothing less than my faith in all of you. If we are able to realize the vision I have sketched, I have faith that we will be an even stronger university than we are today, and we will have done some good in the world as well. But we will forever remain an unfinished project, just as this nation, whose founding is bound with our own, will also remain unfinished. That fact should not dampen your faith but instead strengthen your resolve. We may never be finished, but we can certainly make progress. The future awaits us, albeit impatiently, and it remains ours to shape.

Friends, my running shoes are laced up.

I’m ready, with your help, to begin anew on this unfinished but glorious project that is the University of Virginia.

Thank you.

Media Contact

Anthony P. de Bruyn

Office of University Communications