In his first day on the job, the University of Virginia’s new president said Wednesday he supports the controversial appointment of a former Trump administration official to a one-year fellowship at a campus center that studies the U.S. presidency and public policy.
“I think it was the right call,” U-Va. President James E. Ryan said of the decision to bring Marc Short, President Trump’s ex-director of legislative affairs, to the Miller Center as a senior fellow.
Two U-Va. history professors, Melvyn P. Leffler and William I. Hitchcock, resigned from the think tank Monday — before Ryan took office — saying the appointment was at odds with the center’s “fundamental values of nonpartisanship, transparency, openness, a passion for truth and objectivity, and civility.”
Ryan said Short will bring valuable perspective to U-Va. as a Trump insider — “someone who has been on the front lines of the presidency, who can help us try to understand it.” He said universities benefit from diversity of viewpoints. “I have found, in own academic life in particular, but also in my personal life, that I’ve often learned the most from people with whom I strongly disagree,” he said in a telephone interview.
The 51-year-old Ryan succeeded Teresa A. Sullivan, who had held the position for eight eventful years. He is the ninth president of a 24,000-student university renowned for its founder, Thomas Jefferson, and preparing to celebrate its bicentennial in 2019. Ryan was most recently dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but he knows his way around what locals call the Grounds. He holds a U-Va. law degree and served 15 years on the U-Va. law faculty.
One of Ryan’s first challenges will be to shepherd the community through the first anniversary of a traumatic weekend that drew international attention to Charlottesville. On Aug. 11, 2017, white supremacists marched with torches in a jarring parade through the iconic campus. On the next day, violent clashes erupted in the city. One woman was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, and two state troopers died in a helicopter crash.
Ryan said U-Va. has been working with the city and Albemarle County to “ensure the safety and security of the community” as the anniversary approaches. The university plans to mark the occasion with a community breakfast Aug. 11 featuring speeches, music and poetry reading.
The event “will allow us to reflect on the last year,” Ryan said. “It’s an opportunity to assess what’s happened in the year since, to acknowledge those who lost their lives and those who were injured.”
Looking further ahead, Ryan said he wants to gather opinion from students, faculty and others on how to strengthen the university community and fulfill its missions of academic discovery and service to the state. To that end, he launched a website to solicit ideas. “Ours to Shape,” he calls it. That conversation will develop, eventually, into a strategic plan for U-Va. at the outset of its third century.
The new president and his wife, Katie Ryan, have four children. Two are in college, he said. One is a senior in high school, and one is in middle school. Ryan said his family plans to stay in Massachusetts until the high school senior graduates. In the meantime, he is living in a pavilion along the central green known as the Lawn while the U-Va. president’s house undergoes what he called “long-planned renovations.” Ryan said he was looking forward to living near students. The Lawn is a premier location, he said, “if you don’t mind a little noise.”