UVA has always been known for its traditions, many of them dating back decades or more. But every once in a while, it’s good to start a new one—connected to the old.

President James E. Ryan

I write this in January, a week after the first of what we’re calling “Democracy Dialogues.” This particular event was hosted by Larry Sabato and featured former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, CBS’s Margaret Brennan (Col ’02) and others discussing the current political landscape. More than 4,500 people tuned in, making it the largest virtual event in UVA history.

Part of the interest in the event stemmed from its timeliness. Earlier that day, rioters had overwhelmed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop members of Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. It was a violent attack on our democracy and a truly shocking moment in American history.

In the short run, we obviously must hold the people behind this attack accountable and make sure it does not happen again. In the long run, our task is more difficult: finding a way to bridge a political divide that seems to be growing deeper by the day. If we cannot do this, we risk losing the bonds of citizenship that hold this country together.

While the immediate steps in the aftermath of the Capitol attack are for law enforcement and lawmakers to take, universities have an important role in the longer-term work of repairing and restoring faith in our democracy.

The Democracy Dialogues, organized by my office and the newly formed UVA Institute of Democracy, are an attempt to contribute to that effort by examining the most pressing issues facing our democracy, considering different points of view and trying to promote understanding at a time when we desperately need it. The format of the events will vary, from debates and panels to roundtable discussions and fireside chats. But all of them will feature experts with different perspectives discussing a topic relevant to our democracy in a civil, respectful and informative way.

One of the reasons I’m excited about this new tradition is that it represents an extension of our original purpose as a university.  

UVA has always had a special connection to American democracy. Thomas Jefferson founded the University to train citizen-leaders, and we have been imperfectly serving a democracy that is itself imperfect ever since—growing and changing as our democracy has grown and changed, ever widening the circle of participants while continuing to struggle with and address injustices past and present.

That challenge remains as fresh and important today as it was in 1819. And as our democratic experiment faces its latest test, we should continue to work to strengthen and sustain our system of government in whatever ways we can. 

At the same time, these dialogues will help fulfill another core mission of the University, which is to prepare our students to be comfortable engaging with different points of view. 

In my experience, confronting ideas with which you disagree, sometimes strongly, is one of the best ways to sharpen your own thinking and even change your mind—both of which are part of learning and growing. It’s also an opportunity to practice the art of generous listening and developing a habit of trying to understand an argument before expressing agreement or disagreement. 

I continue to believe it is possible to be both persuasive and passionate while also being civil and respectful of others. Ideally, these dialogues will serve as a model for what passionate-but-respectful conversations and debate can look like. In this way, I hope the Democracy Dialogues will strengthen our own community, promote understanding, and encourage citizens everywhere to help perfect our union at a time when so much hangs in the balance. 

I hope you’ll join us in this endeavor.

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