President Ryan Dishes Goals, Bagels with Law Weekly

M. Eleanor Schmalzl ‘20
Executive Editor

1.      Among the myriad options you had, what led you to become a law professor and then a university administrator?

I know from experience that education transforms lives, and working to expand educational opportunities for others has been the guiding principle and aim of my professional life.  

It’s why I taught and studied law and education and the different ways that law structures educational opportunity, it’s why I went to Harvard to become the dean of their education school, and it’s why I returned to become president of the University of Virginia.  Simply put, I care about making a difference in the world, and I believe law and education offer some of the best ways to do that.

President James E. Ryan ‘92. Photo courtesy Harvard Magazine.

President James E. Ryan ‘92. Photo courtesy Harvard Magazine.

2.      You clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist after graduating. What advice do you have for students thinking about clerking? Did you enjoy the experience?

For students thinking about clerking, I would strong[ly] encourage them to pursue the opportunity.  They are terrific jobs and ones that you can really only do shortly after graduation.

3.      One of our editors had an article you wrote with Professor Jeffries assigned for thier Religious Liberties class. Do you have time these days to focus on your legal scholarship? Anything interesting you’re working on?

Sadly, I don’t have much time to pursue serious academic writing, which for me requires sustained periods for research, thinking, and writing.  As for working on something interesting, my day job is actually pretty interesting at the moment!

4.      What’s the biggest challenge facing you as UVA’s ninth president?

I don’t know if there’s a single biggest challenge or a series of them.  UVA has accomplished a great deal already, but we also have the potential to accomplish even more and define what a public university should look like 12 or 15 years from now.  

For example, we should look for ways to become even more accessible to anyone who is qualified to study here, regardless of their economic circumstance.  We should find more ways to work together across schools and disciplines to solve some of our biggest challenges.  And we should focus on building stronger relationships with surrounding communities and being of even greater service to the Commonwealth and beyond. 

The common thread here is the need to live out our values and close the gap between our aspirations for the University and our everyday realities.  I see that as our biggest challenge and greatest opportunity.

5.      What do you see as the role of lawyers in today’s society?

My father never attended college, but he made sure to impress on me from a very early age that the highest calling in life is to serve others.  At its best, law is a form of service—a chance to speak for those without a voice and make the system work a bit better for those who need it. 

6.      Are you ever going to give Professor Jeffries back to us?

Hah!  No.  I’m kidding.  John has agreed to serve for three years, for which I am grateful—and for which I apologize to all of you.  But he is doing very important work for the entire university.

7.      When can the students of the Law School expect to see you on North Grounds for a public event?

I was at the Law School for an event with the Ron Brown Scholars not too long ago, and I’m sure I’ll be back up there again soon.  It still feels like home to me.

8.      Bobby or Teddy? Scalia or Ginsburg?


9.      How has UVA changed since you were a student?

The University is a very different place than it was when I was here in the early 1990s, but I think one of the most profound changes—and the one that makes me the most hopeful—is just how much more diverse we are.  The current first-year class is the most diverse in UVA history, and I truly believe we are stronger because of it.

10.  How did the events of August 11th and 12th affect you in Cambridge? How has what you’ve seen since coming back to Charlottesville affected your view of those events?

I was horrified watching the events of last year unfold in real time online.  I love this University and I love Charlottesville, and the events of August 11 and 12 convinced me that coming back was the right thing to do.

Since coming back, I’ve been both humbled and incredibly impressed by the people who have endured so much pain and yet have also found the strength to move forward.

11.  Students and community members have criticized the University and Charlottesville for the heavy police presence on the one-year anniversary of the 2017 rallies that seemingly targeted counter-protesters. What led to the University’s actions on the one-year anniversary?

Uncertainty.  Leading up to the anniversary, we didn’t know how many people would come to Charlottesville, whether they intended to do harm, and even where they planned to show up.  As a result, we had to prepare for every possible situation.  While I realize some people thought the police presence was excessive or at least worrisome, in a situation with that many unknowns I would make the same choice again. 

12.  What led you to come back to UVA after your time other places?

UVA is home for me.  I met my wife when we were both student at the Law School, and this is where our four children spent the bulk of their childhoods during my 15 years on the law faculty.  I see this very much as an opportunity to serve and to give back to the University and a community that have given so much to me and my family.

13.  What was your favorite thing about the Law School during your time as a student? As a professor?

It was the same for both:  the people and the sense of community.  The law school attracts remarkably talented people who are not only smart, hard-working, and ambitious, but who are also humane, grounded, and decent.  

14.  Is there something you wish you’d known as a law student or advice you have for the current UVA law students as they go through law school and enter the workforce upon graduation?

Instead of thinking about what you want to be, think about what you want to do and the difference you want to make in the world.  If you focus on the work, the rest will take care of itself.

15.  Favorite restaurant in Charlottesville?

Totally depends on the occasion, so I can’t say I have a single favorite.

16.  Word on the street is you’re a big Bodo’s fan, so I have to ask: What’s your Bodo’s order?

Chicken salad on an everything bagel with horseradish.  Trust me, it’s a lot better than it sounds.