President Ryan Speaks to Batten Students About the Current State of American Higher Education

UVA President Jim Ryan speaks to students in Gerry Warburg's policy challenges course

There’s no denying the state of American higher education is at a crossroads. From front-page news of admissions scandals to politicians promising and demanding free education for all, American colleges and universities are being increasingly scrutinized—and for good reason.

The University of Virginia is no exception.

Last week, Batten professor Gerry Warburg hosted UVA President Jim Ryan during his “Public Policy Challenges for the 21st Century,” course to discuss the current state of American higher education and how universities, like UVA, can become more diverse and inclusive.

Ryan, who joined UVA only eight months ago as the University’s ninth president, has, in his short time, implemented significant policy changes. As a first-generation student, Ryan is keenly aware of the challenges first-generation and other underrepresented students face, but firmly believes that education can open doors—as well as enhance economic growth—for all.

Ryan sees higher education as the solution to the deep partisan divide facing America today. However, in order for that solution to be realized and embraced, leaders and universities need to make the case for the value of a college degree and the contributions that higher education institutions provide to the economy and society.

“Institutions of higher education are real economic entities,” said Ryan. “Colleges provide a space for discovery and research to serve the public. Specifically, public colleges such as UVA can greatly help the surrounding communities with new ways to make sure that cultural awareness and diversity of thoughts are appreciated.”

In an increasingly polarized world, colleges like UVA can also become an antidote to the vitriolic tone that has permeated American culture, and instead show that differences of opinion are healthy and integral to the future well-being of democracies.

“College can be a place where you learn that people with different views are still good human beings,” said Ryan, who cited his formative time teaching constitutional law at UVA. “It’s important that people learn to respect each other’s views—even when it comes to contentious issues, such as abortion, gay marriage, etc.”

On the subject of Ryan’s latest initiative for all full-time University staff to receive a minimum living wage of $15 per hour, he was candid in expressing that this was a goal of his before he began his term as University president.

“There will never be trust between the UVA community and the Charlottesville community if we continue to underpay University staff,” said Ryan.

For Ryan, this kind of measure will not only foster trust between the academic and Charlottesville communities, but will also engender a sense of renewed pride in UVA amongst faculty and students. 

Other topics that arose during the discussion were issues related to free speech, online education, and student debt—issues for which Ryan spoke honestly and thoughtfully about, highlighting that there is a surplus of misinformation on these subjects.

One key theme that emerged was Ryan’s insistence that as a public university, UVA faculty, staff and students have a civic duty that extends beyond community to the state, the nation and the world. Just as UVA is a prestigious university with a long and rich, but also complicated, history, it still has the potential to be great and also to be good. 

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