Thoughts on a New Semester, New Grounds and Unchanging Values



January 17, 2024

Hi everyone. Jim Ryan here. Welcome back. I hope you all had a wonderful break, and I hope the new year is off to a great start for all of you. I thought I would take just a moment to share a few thoughts about what’s ahead this semester.

There is a lot to look forward to. In addition to beginning new classes, which is always exciting, we will also be concluding a number of construction projects and opening three new buildings. Alderman library is now open, after extensive renovations. It’s stunning, and I encourage you to check it out—and especially if you are a student, please stay awhile and return often!  The building for our new, cutting-edge school of data science will open later this semester. It will be the first of several buildings to open on the Emmet-Ivy corridor. The Contemplative Commons will also open its doors this semester. Adjacent to Dell Pond, it will be the new home of the Contemplative Sciences Center. This amazing building will be available to the entire university community for classes and events that will stimulate mind, body, and soul.

In addition to these three academic buildings, the Chapel is reopening, having been faithfully restored, so to speak, to its original interior. And the Amphitheater will be ready for use in a few weeks.

With the conclusion of these projects, there will be fewer construction sites on Grounds, which I know will disappoint many of you. But that is the price of progress.

This semester will also feature some of UVA’s most beloved traditions, from Founder’s Day to Final Exercises. Our winter sports are in full swing, followed by spring season and hopefully more championships again this year. There are new art exhibits at the Rotunda and the Fralin, as well as new musical and theatrical performances on the horizon. And Katie and I, along with our dogs and cats, will continue hosting students at open houses at Carr’s Hill.

All that said, I know many in our community remain affected by the painful reports of war and tragedy around the world, including the continuing and apparently escalating conflict in the Middle East. The loss of so many innocent lives, both in Israel and in Gaza, has been staggering and horrific. For some in our community, this has meant the loss of friends, family, or both. My heart goes out to all who are suffering but especially to those who have lost a loved one, whether Jewish or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian.

In addition to the conflict, and in part because of it, there has been an alarming increase at home and abroad in anti-semitism, Islamophobia, as well as discrimination and harassment based on nationality, including on college campuses. To be clear, these and any other forms of bigotry have no place on our Grounds. To help honor that commitment, we have recently created a task force on religious diversity and belonging to assess the experiences of our community and ensure that UVA is welcoming to students, faculty and staff across the full spectrum of religions and cultures.

All of this activity, as you have probably noticed from news coverage, has led to an unusual amount of national attention focused on higher education, most of it pretty negative.

This is a challenge, of course, but it also seems to me a chance to rededicate ourselves to our core mission of research, teaching, and learning, including about the Middle East as well as the upcoming Presidential election, which kicked off in Iowa Monday night. There will be ample opportunities this semester to learn more about both topics. Many schools, departments, and student groups are planning talks, panel discussions, and gatherings related to these issues, and I encourage you to take advantage of what universities at their best do the best:  illuminate and educate. I also encourage you to engage and have a conversation with someone whose views do not mirror yours, not necessarily with the hope of convincing each other but with the hope of understanding one another.

Speaking of understanding, we also have a chance this semester to rededicate ourselves to our core values and to show the world what we know to be true about UVA. When we are at our best, we are not just a community; we are more like a family—a large and sprawling one, but a family nonetheless. We have seen this in both times of great joy and in times of intense grief. This doesn’t mean we will always agree and never argue. ( I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly not true of my immediate or extended family.)

Instead it means that, at a very basic level, we are committed to each other and committed to seeing the best in one another. It means that we give each other the benefit of the doubt. That we speak with empathy, understanding that the right to say something doesn’t always mean it is right to say it. That we listen generously, seeking first to understand someone’s perspective and motivation before jumping to a conclusion about their character or their ideas.

That we remain open to different views and to the possibility that we might change our minds. That we are neither selective in our empathy, nor closed-minded in our search for truth. That we give each other grace, and that we lend an ear to those who are struggling. And that we embrace the fact that, despite our different backgrounds, interests, identities, and perspectives, we have at least one important thing in common. We are all members of this unique community in higher education, and it is a membership that lasts a lifetime, just like family.

Our world right now could use more understanding. More empathy. More light than heat. And more dedication to the unbiased search for truth. I think this is a moment in time not to run and hide from these challenges, but to rise to meet them. I hope you agree, because I am confident you are more than capable of meeting this moment.

Ok, speaking of family, I’m about to become—if I haven’t already—the proverbial Uncle at Thanksgiving who doesn’t know when to stop offering advice. So I will stop here. I wish you a healthy, happy, and productive semester ahead, and I look forward to seeing you around Grounds. And in case there is ever any doubt, please know, that as a president and as a person, I always try my best to see all of you and to see the best in you. And I will continue to do whatever I can, along with my colleagues, to create the conditions that will enable all of you to thrive.