Sanjay Suchak

On a sunny, spectacular October afternoon on the Lawn, James E. Ryan (Law ’92) took the oath of office as UVA’s ninth president, emphasizing service, community and a commitment to low-income students.

The Oct. 19 ceremony started with a 25-minute procession of dignitaries and deans, faculty and students, walking the length of the Lawn from the Rotunda to where a crowd was gathered before Old Cabell Hall. Several UVA musical groups performed, and guest speakers included Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam and the president emerita of Harvard University—and Ryan’s former boss—Drew Gilpin Faust.

When Ryan finally spoke, his message was characteristically warm, engaging and, most notably, forward-looking. Thirteen times he used the word progress.

He spoke of fair treatment for all, “especially the most vulnerable, including our lowest-paid workers,” and pledged deeper connections with the UVA College at Wise in southwestern Virginia. Ryan also received cheers—and made headlines—when he announced a tuition-free program for Virginia families earning less than $80,000 a year (with room and board also covered for those earning less than $30,000).

Even as he touted UVA as a world-class institution with a heart, Ryan acknowledged the “sins of our past.” The Grounds were built by slaves, he noted, asking his audience to recognize “Jefferson’s brilliance and brutality” and remember “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.”

In many ways, he said, UVA is Mr. Jefferson’s University. “But it is also—even more so—your University. It is our University.” (See Ryan’s letter in this issue, which uses similar language to reinforce the theme.)

Ryan spoke with the authority of having studied and taught at UVA. “I know the magic of this place,” he told the crowd. “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.”

Sanjay Suchak
Afterward, as attendees strolled to a reception outside the Rotunda, they spoke enthusiastically about Ryan’s message and goals.

“It was extraordinary—we are very, very lucky,” said Tom Piper (Col ’63). “Everything that he said fits what we need today. Badly.”

Mackenna Gordon (Col ’22) was equally delighted: “It definitely made me excited to be a student here under his presidency.”

F. Blair Wimbush (Law ’80), vice chairman and a commissioner with the Virginia Port Authority and chair of UVA’s Law School Foundation, was particularly pleased by Ryan’s commitment to low-income students and first-generation students.

“Like President Ryan, I was a first-generation student,” Wimbush said. “Most of my family were. Education made a difference in our lives. I thought that President Ryan’s message was a wonderful, inspiring example of what we should aspire to be.” 

 Ryan’s energy and unconventional attitude were most evident at the end of his speech. Six days before his inauguration, Ryan, a passionate runner, had enjoyed what has turned into a weekly morning run with 100-some members of the UVA community. As he finished the speech, he pulled up his academic robe, raised his foot and displayed a black Asics running shoe to the cheers of the crowd.

“Friends, my running shoes are laced up,” he said. “I’m ready, with your help, to begin anew on this unfinished but glorious project that is the University of Virginia.”