A New President

I pulled out my phone to check the time. It was only 10:45, but I didn’t want to be late. UVA has a way of not following its schedule. I stumbled on the Clem steps, missing a ledge in my rush to take them two at a time. I didn’t slow down until I saw Dean Groves walking in front of Alderman towards the Rotunda. If he was still making his way there, then I was safe.

Around 150 people were already at the Lawn when I arrived, standing in the shade of the oak trees either chatting or setting up camera equipment. That number would soon grow to over 400 by the time of the announcement. About 60 chairs were placed on the grass in front of the steps, sun bathed front row seats to the biggest announcement of the semester, next to D.R.A.M.’s free concert. I could see the seats slowly fill from my vantage point in the shadow of an oak behind the cameras. Well-dressed older folks, balding men, long gray hair, and clothes too formal for the dry heat of the morning sun all drifted into my scope.

As the clock struck 10:55, the doors of the Rotunda opened, and out poured more suited adults. Many were professors, a handful of Deans, with Teresa Sullivan herself making an appearance before moving off to the edge of the crowd behind one of the pillars. I was later informed that the 6th and 7th presidents of UVA were there, along with many members of the Presidential Search Committee and Board of Visitors who had just voted on the new President.

As the Chapel bell struck 11, Dean Groves walked around the 400 odd viewers and beckoned them closer to the Rotunda steps, out of the shade and in front of the cameras that had been set up. My phone buzzed and I saw I had just received an email from the University introducing James E. Ryan as the ninth President of the University, beating the Rector of the Board of Visitors, Frank M. Connor III, by a solid two minutes. The Rector then gave a brief introduction, which contained mostly information that was in the email. Rector Connor thanked Teresa Sullivan for her service, prompting a long applause break preluded by a short search for the incumbent president. Those at the Rotunda had not seen her move away from the main group.

James Ryan was a first generation college student, graduating from Yale before attending Law School here at UVA. He met his wife Katie at UVA in graduate school. Ryan later served as a clerk and public interest lawyer before returning to UVA to teach, where he had four children. Serving on faculty until 2013, Ryan became the Dean of the Harvard School of Graduate Education.

The former Rector of the University and head of the Presidential Search Committee William H. Goodwin, Jr. then talked for a few minutes about the role of the Search Committee. Goodwin made a comment about how he was pleased with the secrecy with which the Search Committee acted, making it sound like he was thankful for the lack of transparency about the process. In addition, Goodwin waxed poetic about the way the University was headed, saying that he believed it was moving in a good direction.

After about 10 minutes, James Ryan spoke. Ryan loosened the already amicable crowd up with jokes, mostly about his surprise over being chosen. These jokes would be intermittently dispersed throughout the rest of his speech. He then mentioned that he wanted to thank two presidents, but only got around to mentioning one: Teresa Sullivan. It can only be assumed that the second president would have been Thomas Jefferson. Strong condemnation of white supremacists was made, followed by a call for activists to have hope, saying that “progress can feel like one step forward, two steps back” while it is happening, but that in the end we end up in a better place. Ryan went on to talk about UVA as his home, the place he met his wife and where he raised his children. Plans for the future were mentioned, but only in the sense that they existed. Details were not given, because Ryan believed that he should talk with and listen to the University community before placing his vision on the University. His vision happened to include many buzzwords such as honor and integrity, with the word “diverse” appearing four times in two minutes (yes, I counted).

Then, Ryan mentioned UVA’s and Thomas Jefferson’s history, specifically that he wanted to acknowledge both the goodness and the “brutality”. He even went so far as the call slavery “the original sin” of the United States, something that I was very much not expecting from the newly selected President of UVA.

UVA Students United was present, with members sitting in at Board of Visitors meetings before and after the speeches, the same places where the vote for Ryan had taken place just before. Members were passing out a sheet of paper entitled “The UVA Board of Visitors: What You Need to Know,” a flier similar in content and purpose to their Disorientation Guides that have been handed out around the University. A few members of Students United talked about their thoughts after the announcement, saying that they were wary.

You can’t blame them. The person chosen as the ninth President does not immediately fill more progressively minded students with hope. A white male graduate of the Law school with little experience in academic administration. His CV, available on the presidential search website, shows a focus on racial inequality that is heartening, but little else shows the progressiveness that many University students desired.

Ryan ended with two promises to the University community. The first being that he would ask a lot of questions and the second being that he’ll make mistakes. Ryan says that he will live by the words of his basketball coach from fifth grade, which were that mistakes from exuberance are acceptable, but mistakes from lethargy are not. More specifically, Ryan promised to never make mistakes from the latter.

Promising to not make mistakes derived from lethargy is far easier to vocalize than it is to not commit. Take Teresa Sullivan’s email about protestors covering the Jefferson statue, for example. In it, Sullivan mentions that someone was arrested for public intoxication at the protest. Based on her lack of details, the implication was that a protestor was drunk and arrested when in fact it was a white supremacist pointing a weapon at University students, faculty, and Charlottesville community members. I characterize that as a mistake of lethargy. Sullivan decided to either send an email to the University community without knowing all the information, or chose to omit important information from the narrative. I give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was unintentional.

But that mistake caused a lot of backlash – as well as hurt. Its repercussions were tangible and negative, both for Sullivan and the relationship between the University and protestors. I wish President-elect James Ryan the best in keeping his promises. For our University’s sake, we need him to.


Sam Nicol is a third-year who uses Bitcoin in place of plus dollars.