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A Good Example of Great

On the way to bringing home the national championship, this year’s UVA men’s basketball team taught us some important lessons. They taught us that it’s possible to grow through adversity; that there is no substitute for hard work; and that Tony Bennett is clearly a national treasure.

But there’s another lesson I hope you take away from this team’s story, which also happens to be how I think about the future of the University of Virginia: It’s possible to be both great and good. 

During the first week in June, I will be presenting a draft strategic plan to the Board of Visitors.  Creating this plan has been my highest priority as president, and it includes input from hundreds of faculty, students, staff, alumni, members of the community, and friends of the University. It also lays out a vision for UVA based on our original, and enduring, reason for being.

When Thomas Jefferson founded the University, he set out to create a school that was unlike others in existence at the time. From the layout of the Grounds, to the courses offered, to its overriding purpose—to serve our new democracy—UVA was distinctive. Jefferson’s vision was far from perfect, and it excluded more students than it included. But the core elements of his design were visionary, and the commitment to serve the public remains compelling.

As we enter our third century, we would do well to rededicate ourselves to our animating purpose of service to the public, through our teaching, our research and our medical care. To be sure, we should strive for excellence, and set our sights on being the unquestioned leader in public higher education by 2030 and one of the very best universities in the nation. But we should always couple excellence with a sense of purpose.

To reach this goal, we must imagine what will be expected of universities a bit more than a decade from now. With the growing skepticism of higher education, combined with the explosion of data that gives insight into what happens on campus and after students graduate, I believe that colleges and universities will be, and should be, judged quite differently from how they are now.

If I am correct, colleges and universities in 2030 will be judged by the quality of their classroom and residential experiences. They will be judged by how well students are prepared to secure their first jobs and live meaningful, satisfying lives. They will be judged by how long it takes for students to graduate and how much debt they will carry with them. They will be judged by how well students are prepared to lead in a diverse and globally connected world. They will be judged by how well they promote social and economic mobility.

Their faculty will be judged not just by their productivity or research funding, but by their influence and impact. Universities will be judged in part by whether they are great places to work and good partners with their surrounding communities; whether they are engines of economic growth; and whether they reach students—of any age or walk of life—who do not have the good fortune to enroll full time. Both families and legislators will pay attention to the return on investment, as well as how well universities serve the public.

Even if the prediction about future assessments proves inaccurate, we should nonetheless ask ourselves what truly matters in higher education and begin building toward that future today.

But there is a larger point that captures the essence of our task: Like Coach Bennett’s Cavaliers, we should strive not simply to be great, but also to be good, recognizing that in the not-too-distant future, it will likely be impossible for a university to be truly great if it is not also good. The very best faculty, students, and staff are going to want to live, work, and study at institutions in which they can believe wholeheartedly; institutions that are both outstanding and ethical; institutions that are excellent, but excellent for a purpose. 

To be both great and good, we must never forget that our ultimate—and original—purpose, especially as a public university, is to serve the public.  If all involved with UVA—students, faculty, staff and alumni—understand that this is our ultimate aim and their primary obligation, I have no doubt that we will be the leading public university, and one of the very best overall, in 2030—and for good reason.

James E. Ryan (Law ’92)
President of the University of Virginia