The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As U-Va. prepares to open online amid pandemic, university president says: ‘If things change with the virus, we’re going to have to change’

Jim Ryan is president of the University of Virginia. (KK Ottesen/For The Washington Post)

Jim Ryan, 54, is president of the University of Virginia, where he was previously a distinguished professor of law. Before returning, Ryan was dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This interview was conducted Aug. 4.

You started as U-Va. president in another difficult time: following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Absolutely. And it was one of the reasons I decided to accept the job. I was actually thinking over the offer when the Unite the Right rally happened. And once it did, I thought, There’s no way I was going to turn my back on a university that had done an awful lot for me and my family. My wife, Katie, even said — it was the day after or two days after — “You have to say yes now.” And that’s exactly how I felt.

Drew Faust, who [was] the president of Harvard, gave this great speech after the marathon bombing. It was about spectators and first responders who, instead of running away from the bombing blast, ran towards the victims of it. That speech was playing in my mind when I was thinking about what had happened in Charlottesville and what this opportunity meant. The idea of running toward rather than running away. It seemed to me like it was a chance to have some conversations and to make some changes that were long overdue, in the way that tragedy can sometimes open up possibilities.

That’s certainly a good segue to where we are now. That must seem like a very long time ago.

It does. The past six months feel like about five years. I know more about pandemics than ever I thought I would. Luckily, we have a lot of experts at U-Va., and we have been following their advice faithfully. The difficult thing is that the progression of the virus is still unpredictable. So it’s an ever-shifting landscape. That’s a really difficult thing for a university that needs to plan a semester.

You announced the decision to bring students back to campus — can you talk about that decision?

Back in June, when we were looking at the numbers locally and nationally, and some of the stricter protocols were coming into place, we thought, Okay, we should forge ahead. And we have been working with the chair of the Department of Medicine and one of our lead epidemiologists, who’s an expert in infectious diseases and outbreaks.

We’ve continued to watch, and the numbers have gotten worse. So we developed a bunch of gating criteria that we would have to meet in order to be open. Right now, we’re a little concerned about the prevalence of the virus in the Charlottesville area and about the volatility in the supply chain for testing. We have sufficient testing, but we’re worried about: Are we going to have sufficient testing in October? And what happens in California or Arizona or Texas or Florida influences the supplies; supplies tend to go where the hot spots are. What we’ve been doing is trying to diversify our suppliers, and we’re having success. But what you don’t want is to bring a bunch of students back and two weeks later have to tell them that they need to return home.

So we’re announcing that we’re delaying the return of undergraduates to our dorms and the start of in-person classes by two weeks. We have to adapt to changing circumstances.

There’s a cynicism, which I’m sure you’ve encountered, that universities are waiting to announce, promising that there will be some in-person classes because they don’t want people to not enroll.

Maybe that’s happened at other universities. I can promise you it’s not happening at U-Va. The truth is that if students aren’t back and aren’t in the dorms and aren’t in dining facilities, and there are no sports, the financial consequences will be real and significant. But we’ll be able to weather them. And students will continue to want to come to the University of Virginia. So I’m not worried about this in terms of an existential crisis.

We are really just trying to balance our hope of bringing students back with concerns about their safety. We could just say, “Well, the most certain thing to do is just throw in the towel and not have any students back.” And there are some people in the Charlottesville community and in U-Va. who would say we ought to do that. I think it’s still too early to just give up on the entire semester. But if it turns out that at the end of August, when we look out and see what’s going on in the world, that we don’t think it’s safe to bring students back, we won’t.

Unfortunately, at that point, some students might feel like: Wait a minute, you pulled a fast one. But we’ve tried to be as clear as possible that this is our plan now. If things change with the virus, we’re going to have to change. The real difficulty, I think, is people have a very hard time — and I’m in this camp — with uncertainty. That has been one of the biggest challenges in dealing with this virus: the inherent uncertainty.

U-Va. got a bit of flak for not talking with, not working with, the city of Charlottesville in coming up with its plan. Is that fair?

We came in regular contact with both city and county officials. And I think that there’s a difference of opinion among people in the Charlottesville area. I think sometimes that gets translated as there wasn’t any consulting. The truth is, there was. And there was a difference of opinion, which I respect. People within the U-Va. community have different opinions. There’s no obviously correct answer here.

As both a university president and an education scholar, can you talk about some of the effects of this pandemic on education from an equity lens?

One of the main concerns I’ve had, and it’s shared by my colleagues, is that, for some students — those from low-income families, for example — being at U-Va., being on grounds, is the best place for them to be. It may be the safest place. And it’s likely the place where they’re most likely to be able to learn. I think all colleges and universities have to pay special attention to students who may be at risk of dropping out. For whom it’s a challenge to stay on course, and something as disruptive as this may lead them to not come back at all. It is a real risk, especially for the most vulnerable students.

This pandemic — and it’s true in education as in health care — has exposed the disparities that exist in our education system. And the thing that I worry the most about is the students who could be left behind. Families with resources are going to be able to weather this pandemic one way or the other. But those with fewer resources have a harder time. So it’s not just: They may not be able to afford a learning pod. But they may not have a computer at home. They may not have access to the Internet. And so if education is online, some students, especially at the K-12 level, are likely to be shut out.

You were talking about how tragedy can sometimes open up opportunities. What do you see as some potential opportunities now?

It’s a little early to tell, just because we’re in the midst of it. But I think that this has made everyone within universities realize that, if need be, we can be pretty agile and nimble. If you imagine, someone proposed, “Let’s move all our courses online for a half a semester,” that would normally take, you know, three years of deliberation. And we did it in eight days. So that, I think, changes the way people think about change itself.

It raises opportunities to think about the academic calendar — whether you should think about the full calendar year. And the ability to take courses at a distance adds to the possibility of having a more flexible approach to how students go through their four years of college. But no matter how great online learning can be — and I think it can be very good and very effective — it doesn’t replace the million-and-one interactions and encounters that you have when you’re physically on a campus. And I think that this has driven home how important that is to the college experience. Not just for students, but I think for faculty and staff as well.

So, in some ways, it opens up the possibility of change. But it also makes you realize what is truly important about the college experience.

What are the biggest worries for you?

It’s difficult. There’s no doubt about it. As much as you can follow the advice of public health experts, there’s a certain amount of judgment involved. No matter how much advice and information you get from public health experts. They would also be the first to say that what they can do is tell you the level of risk. They can’t actually decide for you.

What worries me the most is the health piece, about there being an outbreak among students. But even more, I worry about faculty and staff who might be older, who have underlying health conditions, and members of the broader Charlottesville community. I mean, Charlottesville is a classic college town that is impacted when we bring back students. When we think about is it safe for students to come back, it’s not just is it safe for them? But is it safe for faculty and staff and members of the Charlottesville community?

But the truth is there are going to be risks. You can’t promise someone that it’s going to be completely safe. You can create the conditions that you think are reasonably safe, and then you have to trust people to follow the requirements that you have about masking and physical distancing and size of gatherings.

Personally, are you glad to be in the position you’re in now, or would you rather be back in the classroom, not having to deal with these massive, weighty, life-or-death decisions?

I came to the job because I felt responsibility to do all I could for U-Va. I didn’t expect to be confronted with this. The weight of that responsibility is very heavy at this point. But it’s part and parcel, honestly, of what motivated me to take the job in the first place.

I can’t say it’s fun. It’s not fun. But you have an opportunity to help a lot of people, even if it doesn’t seem like it in the midst of a pandemic, and even though how you help them is less obvious and more complicated than it was in the past. But it’s still what motivates me as a college president.

Are you optmistic we’re going to be able to return to something like we had before anytime soon?

I’m cautiously optimistic, but I think you have to approach this virus with a great deal of humility. Because an awful lot remains unpredictable. And people who have made confident predictions have been proven wrong more often than they’ve been proven right.

This interview has been edited. KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen.