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Future Forward

A Conversation with New UVA President James E. Ryan​

James E. Ryan, the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and president-elect of the University of Virginia, discussed his vision for the future of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences with Dean Ian Baucom and members of the College Foundation Board of Trustees at the College Foundation’s spring 2018 board meeting. The conversation touched on everything from the importance of a liberal arts education to the College’s burgeoning Democracy Initiative, about which Ryan has great enthusiasm. The following is an excerpt of the conversation, with questions from Dean Baucom, board members, and Arts & Sciences students.


Q: What are your thoughts about the changing attitudes about the role of a liberal arts education?

JR: I think that liberal arts education is as important today as it’s ever been. There is an increasing tendency among students and among parents to think about preparing for careers, and I completely understand that. But I actually think that a liberal arts education is incredibly useful in that context. Broadly speaking, a liberal arts education helps prepare students for a life of meaning and a life of purpose. But when you think about also preparing students for a career, the basic fact is that we’re in a time when it’s impossible to predict what sort of jobs will exist 20 years from now or 30 years from now. And in an environment like that, you need to have the skills that will enable you to move from one career to another. A liberal arts education prepares students incredibly well for that. If you think about the skills that students gain in terms of communication, in terms of analytical skills, in terms of inspiring creativity—those are the sort of skills that will enable students to be flexible, and lifelong learners, which is also going to be crucial for students to be successful throughout their careers.

I’m a product of a liberal arts education; I was an American Studies major in college. And the skills that I gained there have been useful to me as I’ve moved from being a law professor to being an academic administrator. A similar pattern exists in other careers as well. Part of our goal—and I think this is especially true for the College—is not to be shy about the continuing relevance of a liberal arts education, but in fact, I think the increasing relevance of liberal arts education.

Q: What excites you about the new Democracy Initiative, and how do you think the College and  Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will benefit from this new initiative?

JR: I love the initiative. It’s perfect for UVA and its history. I think of UVA, honestly, not just as Mr. Jefferson’s university, but as America’s public university. Focusing on democracy, especially in today’s age where we’re recognizing that democracies can be fragile, is absolutely critical. And the thing that I really like about it is the idea of focusing on areas of challenge to democracies. Whether it’s focusing on issues of migration or issues of religious diversity or the role of the media, I think that’s exactly the right approach, and I would like to see the Democracy Initiative include not just faculty and students at the College, but all across the University. This is an initiative that can draw on the strengths of the University and is an example of the importance of interdisciplinary research. I think there are faculty and students all across the University working on different pieces of this, from the Law School to the Batten School to McIntire to Darden, and pulling those faculty together to focus on some of the biggest challenges to democracy, that’s the part that excites me the most.

Q: We’ve been inspired by Dean Baucom’s vision for the College, and very proactive about planning with the dean for the Third Century Campaign. Which of the College’s priorities are the most exciting to you, and why?

JR: I love all of them. I’m a big fan of the new curriculum, and I’m in awe of how Ian organized that and managed the transition. And some of that is really not just admiration but envy. We’re in year three of a conversation about changing the master’s curriculum at the Ed School up at Harvard, and I can tell you from that experience, it is no small thing to change the curriculum. So, the fact that Ian was able to do that in such a short period of time, and to do it in an incredibly thoughtful way—and going back to the earlier conversation about the liberal arts education, to do it in a way that I think makes the education provided to students even more powerful than it was—and even more coherent and relevant than it was—is a huge accomplishment.

I’m also a fan of the World Challenges, the Democracy Initiative being one, but also the Environmental Resilience Institute, and the neuroscience undergraduate major and the Brain Institute.

I think that every campaign has to focus on core issues of faculty renewal, on core issues of financial aid. And the truth is that a university is only as strong as the people who are in it. So, doing whatever we can to ensure that we continue to attract the most talented faculty and students has to be at the very top of the list of priorities. At the same time, I’ve discovered that some of the most exciting parts of the campaign are ideas, and I think that it is powerful ideas that excite donors. And so, the focus on the Democracy Initiative, the focus on pan-University institutes, I think those are incredibly exciting ideas, and I personally am looking forward to being involved in them—in both brainstorming about how to improve them, and in raising funding for them.

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