U-Va. picks 9th president
James E. Ryan’s selection comes amid combustible times at the university
James E. Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, will replace Teresa A. Sullivan as president of the university.
James E. Ryan, a scholar of law and education who is dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, will be the University of Virginia’s ninth president, school officials announced Friday.
His selection comes at a fraught moment for the state flagship school, just a month after white supremacists marched on campus during a weekend that descended into deadly violence. And it arrives at a time when the university is delving into its complicated history, even as U-Va. prepares to celebrate its bicentennial.
For the 50-year-old Ryan, whose term will officially begin in October 2018, his elevation to president marks a homecoming: He attended the U-Va. law school and was on its faculty before going to Harvard.
“This in many ways is like returning home,” he said, describing the place where he met his wife and where his four children spent much of their childhoods. “I have been impressed by the willingness of this university to take a hard look at its past and celebrate not just the achievements but talk about the more difficult aspects and the negative aspects of the past.”
The other powerful motivation is his belief in the power of education, he said; his deanship at Harvard has been an opportunity to work with people focused on ex-
panding educational opportunity. “I see being president of U-Va. as a continuation of that.”
Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust praised Ryan’s work there.
“Jim Ryan elevated the Harvard Graduate School of Education with an effective combination of academic passion and organizational expertise,” Faust said. “He excels at developing institutional vision, aligning strategies with their resources and, most importantly, inspiring others to join together to make it happen.”
Stanford Law School Dean Liz Magill speculated that if you had a phone book of all of Ryan’s former colleagues and classmates, “you could call any of them randomly and they would sing his praises.”
Magill, who started on the U-Va. law school faculty with Ryan in 1997, said Ryan loves U-Va.’s mission as a public university. That mission is personal: As the first member of his family to go to college, Ryan has a deep connection to the profound ways that higher education can transform lives, she said.
And she said Ryan believes universities are powerful forces for good in the world through their ability to solve problems with research and ideas.
“He has thought a lot about opportunity and race and class in his thinking about education,” Magill said, so “some of the challenges that were made very evident by the August events in Charlottesville and U-Va. are ones he’s deeply committed to making progress on.”
Last month, Charlottesville became a national symbol of the threat posed by violent hatred. It also came to represent the struggle over how to mark history when white nationalists converged on the college town to rally around statues of Confederate leaders and the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.
A woman was killed and others were injured when a man drove into a crowd of people protesting racism. Two police officers died when their helicopter crashed.
The school year began with people asking U-Va.’s president, Teresa Sullivan, how white supremacists carrying torches had been allowed to march through campus and clash with students and counterprotesters.
Next month, the university begins its bicentennial year, with an exploration of Jefferson’s legacy that will include not only his fundamental contributions to the nation’s ideals and the character of U-Va., but his ownership of slaves and an exploration of race relations at the school.
“The university warmly welcomes Jim Ryan back to Grounds,” Sullivan said in a statement Friday. “The University of Virginia will be in good hands.”
Sullivan announced last winter she would step down from the presidency she has held since 2010.
During her tenure, she imple- mented a strategic plan, began an investigation of the role of slavery at the institution and completed a $3 billion fundraising campaign. But she also held the university together through several traumatic events.
It’s a difficult time in American higher education, with political and ideological attacks on the academy, and public funding cuts, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at U-Va. But it’s an especially difficult time at U-Va.
“This transition is coming at a desperately needed time,” he said. “We’re about to start our third century,” and the handoff of the presidency can happen “at the very moment we are looking back at our history and making an honest account of our sins and our successes and looking forward to ask, ‘How can we not only maintain our well-earned reputation, but grow into being the best possible university we can be?’ ”
On Friday, he mentioned three subjects he knows will be challenges for U-Va., as they are for most universities: issues of access and affordability, student and faculty diversity, and the evolving use of technology.
Anne Coughlin, a professor at U-Va.’s law school, said Friday she was “absolutely joyful” upon learning of Ryan’s appointment.
“He’s a superb scholar, a man of great vision and integrity,” with administrative experience, “thoughtful and balanced and decent and fair,” Coughlin said.
Ryan graduated summa cum laude from Yale University and was first in his law-school class at U-Va.
He clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and then worked in Newark, as a public-interest lawyer. He joined the U-Va. law school, where he rose quickly, becoming academic associate dean, the No. 2 position in the school, and founding and directing the program in law and public service.
He was honored for his teaching at U-Va., winning a universitywide award in 2010 — the same year he argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court — and a statewide award in 2011.
One thing that doesn’t come through in his impressive résumé is his joy, Magill said.
He throws a good surprise party, she said, he’s ready to laugh and he plans elaborate (and successful) practical jokes.
His wife, Katie Homer Ryan, is a lawyer for the Education Law Clinic and Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative at Harvard Law School, and an adjunct lecturer in education who graduated from the U-Va. School of Law in 1992 with him.
His interests, according to a U-Va. statement, include skiing, surfing, mountain-biking, flyfishing, cooking, photography — and running. Both he and his wife have finished the Boston Marathon the past seven years.