President Ryan’s Remarks at ‘The Inauguration of the Ninth President of the University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Magill’

 

 

October 22, 2022

Thanks, Scott, for that introduction. It is an honor to speak at this most joyous occasion, the inauguration of a Cavalier Quaker, Liz Magill.

I first learned that I could completely count on Liz Magill when she convinced me not to send what I thought was a really important letter. As you may have already guessed, given that I mentioned its importance, the letter was addressed to my kids’ preschool and it was, let’s just say, something less than super friendly.

To give some background: Liz and I were law professors at UVA at the time; we started there together in 1998, nearly 25 years ago. I had heard of Liz a decade earlier, when we were both undergraduate students at Yale. She was president of the student council, so I often read about M. Elizabeth Magill in the student newspaper, the Yale Daily News. My main extracurricular activity was playing rugby. Strangely enough, our paths did not cross in college. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years after we met as law professors that I connected the M. Elizabeth Magill I read about in the Yale Daily News with the Liz Magill I met as a colleague.

Liz and I nonetheless became fast friends at UVA Law, as did our families. My wife, Katie, and I, along with our four kids, spent a good deal of time with Liz, her truly extraordinary husband Leon, as well as their amazing kids Alex and Claire. We hiked and traveled together; watched our kids from the soccer sidelines; shared meals, adventures, and more than a few misadventures; and we shared both joyful and tearful occasions alike. Liz was also one of my closest work friends. I often dropped by her office at the Law School to ask for advice or exchange ideas. Very rarely, because we were super serious academics after all, we would gossip or complain about university administrators, which of course we vowed never to become.

So back to the letter. Two of my sons were in the local Montessori preschool. The school one day announced that if a student did not stay through Kindergarten, any younger sibling would no longer be allowed to attend. We wanted our son, Sam, to attend Kindergarten at our local public school, but that would mean his younger brother, Ben, would be kicked out of the preschool. I thought this policy unfair and contrary to the stated philosophy of the school, which was to treat each child as an individual.

At the time, I had the unfortunate habit of drafting, and the even more unfortunate habit of sending, melodramatic letters when faced with an unjust situation that intersected with my life. The letter I drafted to the preschool was a doozy. Weaving together pedantry and hyperbole, I explained in some detail the gross injustice and rank hypocrisy of this policy. Luckily, before hitting send, I decided to consult with Liz, on whom I had come to depend for advice in matters of judgment, which she had in abundance, and I obviously did not.

Liz came to my office and said, gently but quite firmly, something along the lines of: “I understand why you’re upset. The policy is wrong-headed. But of course you know that you can’t send that letter. You won’t persuade anyone of anything, except perhaps that you are one of ‘those parents.’ Just call or visit the school and explain why you think the policy is unwise and unfair.” After some mild protest, I followed her advice, and it eventually worked.

I raise this somewhat frivolous story because it captures much of what I admire and love about Liz Magill. First and foremost, Liz is a fiercely loyal friend. When she decides she is on your side, she is ON. YOUR. SIDE. You become like family to her. Your hopes become her hopes. Your challenges become her challenges. She makes time to help when you ask, and even when you don’t. Her response to my letter was not driven by a desire to point out how ridiculous it was—and it was ridiculous. Her response was driven instead by the desire to prevent me from embarrassing myself and from making the situation worse. She was effectively sticking up for me and protecting me all at once. I can tell you that the entire Penn community now falls in the category of “friend of Liz,” and you will not have a better or more determined champion.

Liz is also both empathetic and tough, which is a rare combination, though perhaps more common for those, like Liz, who grew up in North Dakota. Going back to my letter, she made it clear that she appreciated my sense of injustice and shared my concern for my kids. But she also knew it was a really bad idea to send the letter, and she told me so, directly and plainly. What this means, and I’ve seen her do it many times, is that Liz can deliver hard news when necessary. And she can say no, which is sometimes as important as saying yes, especially when you are a provost or president. And Liz can do all of this without alienating those who are not receiving the news they want to hear.

Last but not least, Liz has exquisite judgment and an uncanny ability to keep her eye on what is important—on what really matters, on what is actually going to lead to the desired result. Although she is not a huge fan of sports analogies, she herself, as much as anyone I know, keeps her eye on the ball, which is why she suggested I just speak with the school leaders rather than send an overwrought letter.

It is because of these qualities, I believe, that Liz has been called on to lead all of her life. From student council president, to vice dean at UVA law school, to dean at Stanford law school, to provost at UVA, and now president at Penn—in every community she has been in or in those she has been invited to join, people have looked to her to lead, and for good reason. Liz is, in a sense, a natural leader, as her track record attests. But that’s an incomplete and in some ways diminishing description, because it misses the fact that few people, if any, work harder than Liz Magill. She is an effective leader because she works hard at it. I saw this time and again when she was in the provost’s office at UVA, but especially during the Covid crisis.

I hated to lose Liz as provost at UVA, given that I had begged her to join me when I became President, telling her, which was completely true, that I couldn’t imagine doing the job without her.

But it seems to me only fitting that she is now the president of Penn.

As you may know, our institutions are connected through our founders, Benjamin Franklin for Penn and Thomas Jefferson for UVA. Franklin was a trusted friend and mentor to Jefferson. Jefferson succeeded Franklin as Ambassador to France and called the experience of following Franklin a lesson in humility. And while Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin served as editor, supplying the critical and immortal phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”

Penn and UVA are connected in another interesting way. As some of you may have noticed, Liz is the 9th president of Penn, despite the fact that Penn has existed for more than two centuries. It turns out that, I too am the 9th president of UVA, despite the fact that UVA has also existed for more than two centuries. This coincidence is because neither institution, for over a century, believed a president was necessary. This is a fact that I think about a lot, and when I forget, others helpfully remind me that UVA did just fine for a century without a president.

Luckily, at least for Penn, a decision was made to create the president’s role in 1930. And I cannot think of anyone better than Liz to fill this role and to succeed the extraordinary presidents who served Penn prior to Liz’s arrival. Liz is where she is supposed to be, of that I am sure. Those of you at Penn, in turn, can be sure that Liz will work day and night to promote and protect your interests and aspirations with a determination, selflessness, and wisdom that few can match.

Jefferson referred to Franklin as his “beloved and venerable” friend. And so it is with Liz, for so many of us at UVA. I hope and trust that all of you at Penn will come to appreciate, if you have not already, just how incredibly fortunate you are to have as your president our beloved and venerable friend, Liz Magill.

Thank you.