It’s Not a Sprint

Jim Ryan laces up to lead UVA into its third century. 

Throughout the October weekend marking James E. Ryan’s formal inauguration as ninth president of the University of Virginia, the new leader of one of the nation’s top-ranked public universities sported an incongruously informal pair of running shoes. Presented to him by the university’s famously secret Seven Society, the shoes served as an appropriate signifier for the new generation of college leadership Ryan represents. Father of four, one half of a working couple, marathon runner, backyard-chicken enthusiast, unlikely viral-media star, Ryan (who goes by Jim) is the first Gen-X president of UVA, bringing a low-key affability to a high-pressure position.

But about those running shoes: At the start of the school year, Ryan, the university’s first true social-media president, issued an invitation over his various feeds to join him in an early-morning run. “I thought four or five people would show up,” he says. Instead, “It was a crowd.” Now the runs have become a regular event and a way to connect with the university community, and “Run with Jim” has become both a literal and metaphoric symbol of Ryan’s presidency. 

Ryan comes to UVA—returns, actually—with an exemplary academic pedigree: Yale undergraduate (summa cum laude), UVA School of Law (graduating first in his class), a clerkship with former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, UVA law-school professor. Ryan spent 15 years on the university’s law faculty, where he was awarded recognition both for his teaching and scholarship. In 2013 he was hired as dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, where he served until rejoining the UVA community last summer.

 The sterling credentials, however, tell only part of the story. The other is a narrative of serendipity and opportunity that began with Ryan’s adoption as a baby into a loving family and what he describes as “a wonderful childhood.” He was a first-generation college student and attended UVA law on a full scholarship, and as an educator, a scholar, and now as president, he has focused on the importance of access, affordability, and equity in education. 

Ryan’s life took an unexpected turn in 2012, when, as he told an audience during the convocation weekend, he began the process that would end in an emotional reunion with the birth mother he’d never known. In October, she was part of Ryan’s family in the audience to see the son she’d once heartbrokenly surrendered for adoption formally accept his new role.

 It’s a moving story, but one Ryan leavened with a wry humor—a quality he also displayed in his inaugural address on the theme of faith (“How much faith do you have that this speech is going somewhere?” he joked) and in the 2016 graduation speech at the Harvard school of education that made Ryan an unexpected viral star—the video has now been viewed some 10 million times on Facebook. That speech is also the basis of his bestselling book, Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, which outlines “the five truly essential questions that you should regularly ask yourself and others.”

In his return to UVA, Ryan says, asking questions is how he has approached his leadership at the university. What makes UVA special? What is its past, good and bad? What is important for its future? “Ours to shape” is the theme of the initiative Ryan has launched. 

Acknowledging that it’s not an easy time to take on the role of college president, he says he accepted the position because, “I have never felt that higher education was more important than it is right now.” At his inauguration, he outlined a vision for a university community that is willing to acknowledge where it has failed, but also to seize “the extraordinary opportunity we have to light a path forward, not just for ourselves but for a fractured nation and a divided world.” It was an unabashedly spirited invocation of the ideal of what an educational institution could be, but one that rang with genuine conviction. 

“We have a chance to show the world what progress looks like,” he told his audience, before thrusting a sneaker-clad foot forward to display. “Friends,” he said, “my running shoes are laced up.”

This article originally appeared in our February 2019 issue.

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