A former first-generation college student takes the helm at UVA
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.
He has focused on the importance of access, affordability, and equity in education
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.