Ryan’s Remarks: ‘Be Curious, Not Judgmental’

UVA President Jim Ryan spoke to the Class of 2025 Sunday evening on the Lawn. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

August 22, 2021

The following is the prepared text of University of Virginia President Jim Ryan’s remarks to the Class of 2025, delivered at Sunday’s Opening Convocation, held on the Lawn.

 

Class of 2025: Welcome to the University of Virginia, one of the finest universities in the world. I am absolutely thrilled to see all of you.

I believe in beginning at the beginning, which is why today I would like to focus on the point of the enterprise on which you are about to embark. To try to answer the basic question: Why are you here, other than the fact that your R.A. probably said you need to be here? And to answer that question, it seems sensible to explain the basic purpose of universities and of this university in particular. This includes explaining your role in all of this, our expectations of all of you, and my faith that you will more than meet these expectations. Indeed, I hope to persuade you of my opinion that you represent the last best hope of Earth, and our task is to prepare you for that role. Not to put too much pressure on all of you – or all of us, I should say.

But first, to clear away any misgivings, let me state what is obvious to me, but might settle a lingering question in your mind: You belong here. Our admissions office did not make a mistake. You can and will succeed here if you try. I say this as a first-generation college student, as more than one in 10 of you are now, but it is a message for all of you, whether you are first-generation or fifth-generation.

College will open doors for you and change your life in ways that many of you probably can’t even imagine at this point, and you will look back on your time here, I am confident, as four of the best, most enjoyable, most thrilling, and most important years in your life. I understand and appreciate that you may not feel that way now, as it’s only natural to feel uneasy in a new place. When I arrived on the Yale campus back in 1877, I felt like I had landed in another country or even on another planet. It seemed like everyone but me already knew the words to school songs – even the ones in Latin. They knew the secret handshake. I remember marveling at the students who had gone to boarding school, because the only kids I knew who went to boarding school did so by court order. I kept hearing boarding school names like Andover and Exeter and thinking: they must do an amazing job at juvenile rehabilitation.

In any event, no matter how things start out, I promise it won’t take long until you feel at home here. You are entering an incredibly caring community. Challenging, inspiring and provocative, to be sure, but also caring. The faculty, staff and your fellow students will care not only about how you do in the classroom, but how you do outside of the classroom as well.

It won’t always be easy, as I will get to in a moment, but for now let me just repeat that you all belong here. It doesn’t matter where you are from, the color of your hair or the color of your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation, your religion, or your political preferences – whoever you are and wherever you are from, you belong. People are fond of saying that this is Mr. Jefferson’s University, which is true, but know that as of today, it is also your university.

But what exactly is this university, or more specifically, what is its purpose? Universities in the 21st century engage in a remarkable array of activities, from academics to athletics, theater and dance. We offer medical care. We house and feed thousands of students daily, and transport even more. We host concerts. We have a heating and cooling plant. We light the Lawn – some students streak the Lawn when it’s not lit – and we host the most magical trick-or-treating event on the Lawn every year.

While all of these activities are important, enlivening, or both, the essence of a university – its fundamental purpose – is both simple and profound: universities exist to pursue the truth. As Thomas Jefferson said about this particular university, 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.” Universities, through research and teaching, discover and disseminate knowledge. That is our fundamental purpose.

Students play an important role not just as recipients of this knowledge, but as creators. They, too – which is to say all of you – participate in the search for truth through questions in class that challenge conventional wisdom or open up new avenues for discovery. They – which is to say all of you – also participate through your own research and through research done in partnership with faculty.

This search for the truth, importantly, is constant and unending. All assertions of truth can and should be questioned, because even if affirmed, that stance of skepticism can produce a deeper understanding of any topic, question or issue. And it is for this reason that universities must embrace and support, with the utmost vigor and sincerity, the freedom of speech and inquiry. To test ideas, to challenge conventional wisdom, to proffer new theories – all require the freedom not just to speak, but to ask questions – questions that may at times disrupt or even offend.

Just this past spring, a University committee drafted a statement of principles regarding free speech, which our board endorsed, and I cannot improve on the language of that statement:

“We endorse principles of free expression and free inquiry not because every idea is equally good. To the contrary, universities test and assess ideas every day, through myriad processes of research and inquiry. … Academic commitment to free inquiry reflects the view that every idea must be heard so that it may be subjected to the rigorous scrutiny necessary to advance knowledge. This process requires deep critical engagement, as well as humility in the recognition that many commonly accepted views have proved mistaken, while many ostracized views have illuminated the path toward truth.”

This search for the truth also extends to all of you personally, I should add. By that I mean that part of the journey ahead for all of you is to learn more of the truth about yourselves. Who are you as a person now, and who do you aspire to be? You will have the chance to explore those questions in countless ways over the next four years, in class and outside of it. My hope is that along the way you discover what your passions are, and what gives you a sense of purpose and a sense of joy. For me, it’s being a New York Yankees fan. But not everyone is as enlightened, I realize, and you may choose another path, regrettably and likely regretfully. I also hope that along the way here that you fall in love with the search for truth, if you haven’t already, and that it remains an abiding interest long after you leave here, because the world needs more people committed first and foremost to getting at the truth. That itself is the truth.

A great way to begin what I hope will be a lifelong love affair with the truth is to follow the advice supposedly offered by Walt Whitman, and amplified recently by the memorable and irresistibly charming character Ted Lasso of the television series by the same name: “Be curious, not judgmental.” If you remember nothing else from this speech – aside from the part about the New York Yankees – please remember this, as it will help you across these four years and beyond: Be curious, not judgmental. This, among other things, is how you learn – how you leave yourself open to getting past the surface of things and getting to the heart and truth of things.

The search for truth is a common, foundational feature of all research universities. There is a second purpose of this particular university that is, if not unique, then uniquely important: the goal of UVA, from the outset until today, has been to prepare students to be citizen-leaders. In the beginning, the only students eligible for admission, of course, were the ones eligible to be citizen-leaders: white males. UVA’s admission policies thankfully expanded as our national conception of citizen-leaders expanded as well, and today all are welcome to participate in this preparation for leadership. But the mission remains the same: to prepare students to be citizen-leaders.

So what is a citizen-leader, you might be wondering, other than a phrase that is surprisingly tricky to pronounce? In my view, citizen-leaders are engaged with the issues of their time.

A citizen-leader is someone willing to take a stand and to persuade others to follow. Someone willing to take on the responsibility for actually producing change and not just clamoring – or yammering – about it. It is someone who understands that leadership and service are synonymous, so that a citizen-leader is at heart a servant-leader. And, relatedly, it is someone who understands that citizen-leadership is ultimately about advancing the common good and strengthening our democracy – which means it is about more than simply private gain.

This does not mean you need to follow a particular path or career. Not at all. It instead means that you have to acquire and live by a set of dispositions and values. Chief among these are empathy, a willingness to act on behalf of others, and a willingness to work to improve the welfare of those around you or the environments in which we all live.

So how do we help prepare you to do this? We do so, first and foremost, through the outstanding education we offer, which will allow you both to explore and to develop expertise. We also further this aim through a uniquely robust system of student self-governance, which places a great deal of responsibility in the hands of students to govern themselves. Not all decisions are left to students, but many important ones are, including allocating funds for student groups, disciplinary hearings and upholding the honor code. The honor code is equally important in this respect. It is the oldest among public universities, and it is very simple: don’t lie, cheat or steal. There is often a lot of conversation about the appropriate sanctions for violating the honor code, but those conversations, while important, can sometimes obscure the basic values that underlie the code, which remain as admirable today as they were when adopted. These values are also at the heart of a community of trust, which, at its very best, is what this university is. We trust and expect that you can live up to the simple idea that it is wrong to lie, cheat or steal. But I will also tell you that it is a sad fact that living this way will set you apart from many others, as countless UVA alums would tell you as well, with gratitude that these habits were ingrained while they were at UVA.

We also have a tradition of fostering robust and respectful conversations across a range of topics and opinions. This, too, happens not just in the classroom, but in numerous student-led debating and literary societies, student organizations that bring together diverse groups of students to have honest conversations that build bridges across apparent lines of difference; and in student-led publications, including the Cavalier Daily. Learning to have honest and respectful conversations with those with whom you disagree may be one of the most important skills you can acquire in college.

It is for this reason that the recent statement on freedom of speech, which I quoted earlier, includes the reminder and the aspiration that “free and open inquiry inevitably involves conflicting views and strong disagreements. Indeed, some ideas may be offensive, noxious, and even harmful. We act as responsible members of a shared community when we engage as empathetic speakers and generous listeners.” The last part is especially important. To be an empathetic speaker is to consider alternative perspectives and experiences before formulating or expressing your views. To at least be aware of what you don’t know. And to be a generous listener is to resist drawing quick conclusions or judgments about a person’s character because of a view articulated – it’s about not assuming the worst, and instead about first trying to understand why someone would hold or express a particular point of view. In short, it’s about being curious, not judgmental.

This is not just civility for the sake of civility, but instead is part and parcel of preparing you to be citizen-leaders. If you want to accomplish any change in the world, you are going to need to be able to engage with others; to persuade them; to build bridges and to find common ground. You will never persuade others if you do not fully understand their views or their motivation. You need to be able to address the very strongest version of their position, not the weakest. As John Stuart Mill observed in 1859, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”

This will not always be easy. Taking on the responsibilities of self-governance, adhering to the honor code, and living and learning among the most diverse group most, if not all of you have ever met, will not always be easy. But here’s the thing to keep in mind: It’s not meant to be easy, because real learning and growth cannot occur without challenge – or without mistakes. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to suggest you will face four years of drudgery. Quite the contrary. You will have a great deal of fun while here, probably even more than you can imagine. You will form life-time friendships; you will do silly and slightly crazy things. You will experience a thousand small moments of joy or more. I promise. At the same time, there is a seriousness of purpose to this place, and to your time here – or there should be, or you will be missing out on the full experience on offer here, on what makes this place special.

I readily admit, I should add, that we are asking you to do things that, in many ways, my generation and those older than myself have not been particularly successful in doing. Considering the dysfunctions rampant in government and the internal threats to democracy, not to mention the intense political polarization plaguing this country, I would not currently give us high marks when it comes to self-governance. Many of those in my generation and older also score low marks when it comes to living and learning within a diverse group; instead, many of us have largely surrounded ourselves – whether in person or virtually – with those who think, talk and/or look an awful lot like ourselves. And civil discourse? As we say in N.J., where I’m from, “you gotta be … kidding me.” (See what I mean?)

I share this because you won’t catch me pretending that there was some magical age in the past when we were all able to do what we are asking of you. Nor will I pretend that when I was in college, or those before me were, that everything was rainbows and unicorns – a golden era when everyone felt free to express their views, when all views were treated with the utmost respect and dignity, and when everyone felt welcome and embraced; when no one did things they later regretted or were embarrassed by. Your generation is sometimes wrongfully criticized by your elders because you are not conforming to a time that never existed – a time free of conflict, strife, regretful acts, or the pressure to self-censor. That time never existed. The world was messy then, too, and we all made mistakes back then as well.

I am nonetheless asking that you do as I suggest and not necessarily as your elders have done because at the end of the day, I believe deeply in you and in the possibility of progress. I fully expect you to be better than we ever were or ever will be. I also believe that, in this particular moment, you all represent the last best hope of Earth. We live at a time of incredible progress and accomplishment along a host of dimensions. Truly. Just think of Tik Tok. At the same time, we face a host of heart-wrenching challenges, none greater than climate change, which threatens the world’s very existence. You did not create these challenges. You inherited them. But I have seen in our current students a strong sense of purpose, determination, creativity and responsibility to tackle big problems – whether related to the climate or a vast array of entrenched inequalities tied to demographics like race, wealth and geography.

Our joint task in the four years ahead is to prepare you for the world that you will not only inherit but will, in one way or the other, lead. You may not imagine yourself leading the world to come, but I guarantee you will in one way or another.

So let us get on with the compelling work ahead of all of us, with equal measures of determination and joy because we, through the luck of birth and circumstance, have been given this opportunity to make the world a better place. The opportunity, through our ongoing devotion to the truth, to make the world, and this university, a place that is not only great, but also good. Because that is what citizen-leaders do.

One final request. Please take a moment to look to the person on your left. And now look to your right. This is your second family. This is who you can and will depend on. This is who will inspire you and delight you. This is who will drive you crazy at times. But this is also who will help you find the truth and change the world, if you let them – if you are curious about them and not judgmental.

Thank you and welcome, once again.

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