UVA Law Alumnus, Former Professor Jim Ryan Elected Ninth President of UVA

Jim Ryan

James E. Ryan previously served as academic associate dean and the William L. Matheson & Robert M. Morgenthau Distinguished Professor at UVA Law.

September 15, 2017

James E. Ryan, a 1992 graduate and former professor of the University of Virginia School of Law, has been chosen as the next president of the University of Virginia. His term begins Oct. 1, 2018.

A leading authority on law and education, Ryan has been dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education since 2013. (Watch or read Ryan's remarks today).

After earning his undergraduate degree summa cum laude at Yale University, Ryan attended UVA Law as a Dillard Scholar and graduated first in his class. Following law school, he clerked for then-Chief Judge J. Clifford Wallace of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist before working as a public interest lawyer.

As a professor at UVA Law from 1998-2013, Ryan taught law and education, constitutional law, land use law and local government law, and received several awards for his teaching and scholarship. From 2005-09 he served as academic associate dean, a role now known as the vice dean. He was an instructor of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, where he argued Abbott v. United States, and helped establish and was director of the Law School's Program in Law and Public Service. He has served on the U.S. Department of Education's Equity and Excellence Commission since 2011. Immediately prior to joining the faculty, he worked for the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal and as a Gibbons Fellow in Public Interest and Constitutional Law in Newark, New Jersey.

“Jim Ryan is a spectacular choice to be president of the University,” said former UVA Law Dean John C. Jeffries, Jr. ’73, who served on the presidential search committee. “He is a person of broad sympathies, impeccable judgment and considerable charm. He will provide leadership behind which all of us can unite and a vision of our future in which all of us can join.”

Jim Ryan teaching
Jim Ryan teaching at UVA Law in 2011.

Harvard President Drew Faust, in an article for UVA Lawyer, praised Ryan as “warm, open, wise, funny, humble and maybe the best public speaker I know.”

At Harvard, Ryan focused on increasing the strength and diversity of the graduate school’s faculty, and helped raise the largest gift in school history for the Zaentz Initiative, a new research and capacity-building project in early childhood education. In 2014, he helped launch the Harvard Teacher Fellows program, a new pathway into teaching careers for Harvard College seniors, and Usable Knowledge, a website that translates education research into helpful information for educators, parents, policymakers and journalists.

“Every time I see him, I learn from Jim, and he inspires all of us to join in his dedication to education as the most powerful vehicle of justice and human betterment,” Faust wrote.

(He’s also speedy, she added, having run the Boston Marathon on behalf of teachers in about three hours every year since coming to the city.)

Ryan has written extensively about law and educational opportunity, including race and education, and has also authored or co-authored a number of articles on constitutional law and theory. He is the author of "Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America," and co-author of the textbook “Educational Policy and the Law.”

He has become a social media star in recent years for his honest and poignant speeches that speak to the heart of the educational mission — and also to the heart, period. He turned the theme of his 2016 graduation speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which received more than 8 million views on Facebook, into a book published this year, “Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions.”

"In an age where we are so polarized, trying to understand something before you decide whether to agree or disagree — searching for common ground — I think we don't do nearly enough," Ryan said in an interview about the book with CBS, explaining the title.

He met his wife, Katie Ryan ’92, also a former UVA Law faculty member, as a student.

UVA Law Dean Risa L. Goluboff praised his selection.

"Jim is the best of the Law School and the best of Virginia,” she said. “This is special for us because it promises renewal with a dear friend and former colleague. We will support him in every way."

Board of Visitors Rector Frank M. Conner III '81 and Rector Emeritus William H. Goodwin Jr. released a statement announcing the selection today.

"We believe that the next 15 years will be critical in determining the future of higher education in the United States and the role of the University of Virginia in that future," they wrote. "As a leading public institution, we fully embrace the public service mission that we have to the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world to develop citizen leaders in all fields of endeavor and to contribute to the common good in solving the most challenging issues of our time. We know that Jim shares a passion for this purpose. We are confident that he is the perfect leader for this institution at this precise time in history. And we intend to support him in every manner we can in achieving our shared vision."

UVA’s current president, Teresa A. Sullivan, requested in January that the board begin a search for her successor. A 22-member committee of Board of Visitor members, faculty and students conducted a national search.

When Ryan left UVA Law for Harvard he said, “I've had the great joy of being part of a community of not simply colleagues but close friends.

“But as I always tell students who are interested in public service, you should follow your passion, even when it entails some risk and some sacrifice. I've been giving that advice for so long, I thought I should follow it myself."

Now Ryan’s passion will again center on UVA.

"I'm here because I believe deeply in the power of education, and in the power and goodness of this remarkable university," Ryan said in remarks today. His experiences in schools and education "literally changed my life."

"I know this sounds cliché, but I honestly care most about making a positive difference in the world, and I believe in the power of this institution to make the world a better place," he said. "I'm also here because I believe what you choose to do here and in Wise matters — not just to this community, but to higher education generally, to the city of Charlottesville, the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond.

"We live in tumultuous times, as you know well. In an era of deep societal divisions, it matters that you are not only committed to a diverse and inclusive community, but that you demonstrate how and why diversity is a source of strength and vibrancy and need not be a source of division.

"It matters that you disagree with each other, but do so with mutual respect and civility. In an era where there is increased distrust of established institutions, including in higher education, it matters that you show what a well-functioning and equitable university looks like, and that you demonstrate your value not just to this community, but to the wider world. In an era where there is too much suffering and stagnation, it matters that you remain a place of hope, and an engine for mobility and progress. And finally, in an era when some would choose the darkness of prejudice, bigotry and racial violence, it matters that you are a place of light, indeed a place of thousands of candelights, that help illuminate the goodness that resides in all of us."

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