Leadership & Governance

U. of Virginia’s Next Chief Inherits a Wearied Institution  

September 15, 2017

Zack Wajsgras, The Daily Progress, AP Images
James Ryan, dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Education, will become UVa's president on October 1, 2018.

James E. Ryan, a Harvard dean who was named president of the University of Virginia on Friday, will take the helm of a historic institution that, in recent years, has had to negotiate some of higher education’s most unsettling and difficult challenges.

Mr. Ryan, who is dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, will return to Charlottesville, Va., where he was previously a law professor, this summer. He will assume the presidency about a year from now, on October 1, 2018.

He succeeds Teresa A. Sullivan, who became Virginia’s first female president in 2010. She has spent much of her tenure on the defensive, as the university lurched from one crisis to the next, the most recent of which was a march by white nationalists on the campus’s historic Lawn. Also included in this painful period were the murders of two students and criticism of UVa’s initial response to a Rolling Stone article about a fraternity-house gang rape, which was later discredited. Ms. Sullivan was even forced out of office in 2012, only to be swiftly reinstated amid public outrage.

In an interview with The Chronicle on Friday, Mr. Ryan acknowledged the difficulties of the past few years at Virginia. But he said he could not identify any systemic problem that these disparate and unfortunate events might suggest.  

"I don’t think that there is an easy answer," he said. "I do think that a number of these external events were just that — and it’s always easy after the fact to identify things you might have been able to do to prevent them or to act differently. But in reality, it’s difficult to know what you would have done in the moment. I don’t think they point to some deeper structural problem as much as they do to a series of unfortunate instances in pretty short succession."

Mr. Ryan, who is 50, earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies from Yale University in 1988. After earning a law degree from Virginia in 1992, he clerked at the Supreme Court for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. He then spent 15 years on the faculty of Virginia’s law school.

He inherits an institution, founded by Thomas Jefferson, that seems to be perpetually weighing the merits of history and tradition against a desire to evolve. Throughout the selection process, however, Mr. Ryan says he was given the clear impression that he was expected to push boundaries. There is "unrealized potential," he said, in the areas of student and faculty diversity, affordability, and research.

"It seemed they were far more interested in someone to push the university forward than simply being a caretaker," he said.

Traditions in Question

Like Virginia, Harvard has, in recent years, grappled with questions about its own traditions. Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s departing president, has described single-sex organizations, including the university’s elite Final Clubs, as antithetical to the values of diversity and inclusion that Harvard seeks to promote and uphold.

Mr. Ryan said he had not been closely involved with the debate over single-sex groups, which tends to concern undergraduates. That said, he will be leading a university where values of diversity and the prevalence of Greek life are sometimes thought to be in tension.

"I don’t think fraternities and sororities are necessarily antithetical" to Virginia’s values, Mr. Ryan said. "But it requires being thoughtful about what contributions fraternities and sororities are making to campus life."

Mr. Ryan said he had not been a member of a fraternity.

“It seemed they were far more interested in someone to push the university forward than simply being a caretaker.”
At Harvard, Mr. Ryan would have grown accustomed to a university being pulled into the political fray. On Friday, for example, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government announced that it would rescind a visiting fellowship offered to Chelsea Manning, a former Army soldier who was convicted of leaking classified government data. (President Obama commuted her prison sentence.) The decision, which came amid heavy criticism of the fellowship from intelligence officials who see Ms. Manning as a traitor, engendered equal condemnation from those who see Harvard as bowing to political pressure.

Asked about the case, Mr. Ryan said, "I haven’t thought about it at all." But he did share general thoughts about the public scrutiny that administrators have come to expect in higher education, and how that scrutiny can test the ideals of any institution.

"It’s always the case that it’s hard to stay true to your values when you’re being pressured the other way," Mr. Ryan said. "That’s when you have to have the courage to remember why you had those values in the first place."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.