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Ryan’s new strategic plan is bigger than its list of 10 key initiatives

University of Virginia President James E. Ryan’s (Law ’92) strategic plan paints with bold strokes. To enrich undergraduate life, it calls for creating residential communities, where all students live together on Grounds their first and second years and retain something akin to a house affiliation throughout all four years.

Where the Cavalier Inn once stood, between Central Grounds and North Grounds, the plan envisions a new “Open Grounds” taking form, an Academical Midtown bustling with one if not two schools of the University, a performing arts venue, a hotel and conference center, and lots of academic collaboration and foot traffic.

UVA aims to provide adult education on a grand scale, including creating avenues for lifelong learning that could benefit alumni.

There’s more, including ramping up the new School of Data Science; expanding UVA’s research and postgraduate presence in the Washington, D.C., market; and working with the local community to address issues of living wages, affordable housing, health care access and better schools.

The action items of The 2030 Plan, which the Board of Visitors approved by acclamation at its August retreat, appear in the back of the document as 10 “Key Initiatives” (see below). As ambitious as they are, that section of the report isn’t the most striking. The bigger story lies in the vision and goals, the profound sense of mission that drives all else, and even in the language. What distinguishes the Ryan strategy is the plan in toto, not just the to-dos.

The Caveats

There are some practical reasons not to put all the weight on the top 10 initiatives. For one, they’re not exclusive. A lot else strategic is expected to take place over the life of the plan, which is intended to operate for a minimum of five years and bear fruit into the next 10 to 15. “These initiatives … are not meant to encompass everything that the University does and will continue to do,” Ryan says in this issue’s president’s letter. “Instead, they are meant to focus our attention on a set of priorities that are both ambitious and as concrete as they can be at this point.”

A second disclaimer: It’s too early for specifics. Each project has passed some level of preliminary vetting but will next require more rigorous prodding and probing and, in most cases, the work of a task force to figure out the details. The task of determining funding and sequencing for the initiatives began over the summer.

We can say, for example, that residential communities are different from residential colleges, but a definition beyond that will await the work of subject-matter experts. “The use of the term ‘communities’ was to give ourselves more degrees of freedom on what that might actually look like,” says Michael Lenox (Engr ’93, ’94), the Darden School of Business professor who co-chaired Ryan’s strategic planning committee. At its heart, the idea is to create an affiliation, with supporting programming, to give groups of students a sense of community.

As for how the University plans to house all the second-years, that, too, is the subject of fierce whiteboarding, as opposed to a frenzy of new construction. “There are a lot of ways to get here,” says Margot Rogers (Law ’92, Grad ’92), co-chair of the strategic committee and Ryan’s senior strategic adviser. “This is a long-term play.”

Similarly, the initiatives don’t yet offer specifics for how UVA plans to step up its support of first-generation students or compete against every other top university to attract a diverse mix of exceptionally talented professors. Point is, at this point, those priorities made the short list and thus will get intense focus.

Those and several other items on the action list aren’t new. UVA’s Northern Virginia initiatives predate Ryan’s administration. So do the cited projects of a new student-health facility, a contemplative sciences building and the renovation of Alderman Library. What is new is that the plan frames each of those ventures in a strategic context—another reason some of the more groundbreaking aspects of the plan lie in the vision and the goals, and not as much in the key tasks.

To the good

The plan centers on a theme Ryan has promoted since becoming president. The shorthand phrase is “great and good,” that UVA must strive to be both. It must pair its pursuit of excellence with a sense of calling, civic-mindedness, and social responsibility. That was the theme of Ryan’s inaugural address last October: “I believe that in the future, it will not be possible for a university to be great unless it is also good.” The line runs through the vision statement that introduces The 2030 Plan. Readers of this magazine got a preview in Ryan’s letter appearing in the last issue.

At his inaugural, Ryan gave homage and attribution to Drew Gilpin Faust, the event’s keynoter, who often spoke of great and good while president of Harvard University. It was she who had recruited Ryan away from the UVA law school to be her education school dean. In the fall of 2013, Ryan’s first semester at Harvard, Faust launched a capital campaign with a benediction: “May Harvard be as wise as it is smart … as good as it is great.”

May it be as simple as it sounds to put into practice. Is UVA willing to be a little less great in order to be a little more good? We asked the president.

“There are some choices that you inevitably have to make, but I also think that you should be wary of false choices,” Ryan says. “The idea of being great and good in some way is pushing against the idea that you can’t be, say, excellent and compassionate.”

Goodness, in the Ryan plan, takes on at least three features. First is a full embrace of UVA’s mission as a public university. “All of our actions should be directed toward the ultimate purpose of serving the public,” the plan says.

Second is the outreach to the Charlottesville community. While several of the key initiatives find precedents in previous UVA strategic plans—residential culture, for example—the one titled “Good Neighbor” notably does not.

That’s another phrase Ryan introduced in his remarks formally accepting the presidency, one month after Nazis marched on the Grounds and a white supremacist drove into a downtown crowd and killed a woman in August 2017. Ryan chose the one-year anniversary of those events for his first official address as president, telling the Old Cabell Hall audience, “we must be a good neighbor to Charlottesville and the surrounding counties, which are also home to our employees, who are the lifeblood of this University.”

Third, the plan takes on a mission of social responsibility. “[C]reating economic and social opportunities is one of the highest callings for a public university,” it says in the section on first-generation and underrepresented students. Elsewhere, it calls on the University to “both study and be accountable as an institution to address pressing societal challenges,
including environmental sustainability, social mobility, educational inequities, and health disparities.”

A sense of social responsibility runs through Ryan’s biography, most directly in how he has devoted a legal career to education policy. The president’s plan very much reflects the officeholder, and his touch. When Lenox, who teaches business strategy and has done a fair amount of outside consulting, presented an all-but-final draft to the Board in June, he noted with admiration the amount of personal care Ryan took in the writing of the plan, unusual for a chief executive.

“I’m slightly obsessive about things like this, and I enjoy it,” says Ryan, a law professor and best-selling author. “You know, the words that you use matter an awful lot.”

People first

The focus on great and good prompted Ryan to frame the UVA strategic discussions around three themes—community, discovery and service. Community seeks to nurture those characteristics that make UVA UVA. That section of the plan gives a hat tip to the Honor System and student self-governance, faculty who care inside the classroom and out of it, UVA’s ability to seem not too large and not too small, and the University’s “uniquely beautiful, historic, and distinctive setting.”

Under this rubric the plan sets goals of preparing students to be “servant-leaders,” promoting “an inclusive community of trust,” being a community that “consistently lives its values,” being a good neighbor, and strengthening UVA’s engagement with alumni.

Discovery reaffirms UVA’s commitment to “pursuing the truth, wherever it might lead.” This goal largely refers to research preeminence but it also sweeps more broadly, making sure to encompass UVA’s renowned liberal arts, creative pursuits and all forms of learning, including international experiences.

Service speaks most directly to the good, harkening Thomas Jefferson’s founding ideal of preparing citizen-leaders. Says the plan, “The vision was imperfect, of course, as it included only white males as participants in this project. But the core idea—that UVA exists to serve the public—remains both relevant and compelling.” The goals under this section include offering “one of the best values in higher education,” “outstanding and accessible health care” (the health system will develop its own strategic plan), online education to a wider population, and promoting economic development through research and entrepreneurship.

As the strategic formulations progressed during the year, Ryan’s team identified a fourth goal and moved it to the front of the list—foundation, a catchall for UVA’s students, faculty and staff, as well as the resources necessary to ensure their success. Here, the plan aims for recruiting and supporting “exceptionally talented, diverse and service-oriented students” regardless of means; a talented and diverse faculty; and talented nonacademic staff, to whom UVA aspires to be “one of the best employers in higher education.” The section goes on to vow to promote a UVA culture of “integrity, mutual respect, excellence, collaboration and innovation.”

It’s not that attracting the best people wasn’t in the mix before the planners added the new goal. To the contrary, it was a recurring topic as the team talked through community, discovery and service. To Ryan, who deliberated on UVA’s strategy for an entire year while finishing his term at Harvard and into the following year at UVA, dedicating a separate goal to UVA’s people was tantamount to an aha, and he credits Margaret Grundy (Col ’06, Darden ’15), his chief of staff, for the insight.

“I thought, that’s exactly right,” Ryan says, “because if we don’t get that part right, none of the rest of it is going to be possible.”

Strategic Top 10 List

UVA’s recently approved 2030 Plan identifies 10 key initiatives. It’s still early in the process, so they come with several caveats (see above). Here’s a rundown of the priorities that made the cut.

NOTE: The charts below are unofficial Virginia Magazine assessments.

1. SuccessUVA

Primary strategic goal:  Foundation

Since its introduction in 2004, the AccessUVA financial aid program has undergone expansion and periodic reinvention. The strategic plan continues the evolution, incorporating the more generous and simplified aid programs Ryan announced at his inauguration, reaffirming commitments and redoubling efforts to attract first-generation and minority students, and building on existing programs and resources to help all students succeed. It’s under this item that the strategic planners included several projects already on the drawing board, including a student health and wellness center and the forthcoming Contemplative Sciences Center.

Gauges showing this priority combines existing and new initiatives, and will take place in the intermediate term

2. Citizen-Leaders

Primary strategic goal:  Community

Of the 10 initiatives, this one promises the most profound change to University life. It’s also the one that explicitly contemplates a role for alumni. It has three parts. The first and grandest proposes assigning entering students to residential communities. Members of a community will live on Grounds for both their first and second years and then retain some form of house or intramural affiliation throughout all four years. Exactly how the University would house all undergraduates for an additional year will require copious study and some amount of creativity, as opposed to a rush of construction. The second piece speaks most directly to UVA’s founding principle of developing citizen-leaders. It aspires to develop a robust set of opportunities to prepare “students for a life of public service,” and it cites alumni as a model, suggesting the possibility for mentoring opportunities. It also floats the possibility of loan forgiveness for undergraduates who enter public service. Third, to position citizen-leaders to thrive in a global marketplace, the initiative wants all students to have “at least one international experience before they graduate.”

Gauges showing this priority introduces new initiatives, and will take place in the longer term

3. Third-Century Faculty

Primary strategic goal:  Foundation

Reaffirming its commitment to attracting and retaining a diversity of A-list faculty, this initiative doubles down on several existing programs: Bicentennial Professorships, for which UVA partially matches seven-figure donations to endow faculty positions; cluster hiring of cross-disciplinary teams; opportunistic hiring of professors who may not have been on the market but fill a critical need; and several programs aimed at attracting Ph.D. candidates, a talent pool for faculty hiring.

Gauges showing this priority builds on existing initiatives, and will take place in the near term

4. Research Preeminence

Primary strategic goal:  Discovery

This item reaffirms the University’s commitment to research, which any strategic plan at UVA would need to include. The newest component is the creation of a catalyst fund of as-yet unspecified size and operation to fund new research initiatives. Elsewhere the strategic plan acknowledges that an “institution of our size cannot tackle all of the world’s challenges,” and so this action item designates five research priorities where UVA should focus its interdisciplinary strengths to have the greatest societal impact: democracy, environmental sustainability, precision medicine, the brain and neuroscience, and digital technology and society.

Gauges showing this priority combines existing and new initiatives, and will take place in the near term

5. Staff Success

Primary strategic goal:  Foundation

Devoting a separate goal to developing UVA’s nonacademic staff makes a statement. Here, UVA pledges to be a model employer, investing in professional development; creating career paths; and fostering a diverse, inclusive and supportive workplace. 

Gauges showing this priority introduces new initiatives, and will take place in the near term

6. Good Neighbor

Primary strategic goal:  Community

One of the most profound aspects of the strategic plan is its outreach to Charlottesville. Keying off the priorities of a community working group Ryan impaneled, this action item promises the University will work with community leaders in tackling issues related to living wage, affordable housing, access to health care, and youth education. Getting a head start on the first item, UVA will raise its minimum wage for full-time employees to $15 an hour on Jan. 1. This initiative also commits UVA to environmental sustainability; one project would be improving the University’s transportation system. It calls for a new community engagement office as well as a  faculty-community research collective to help redress local issues of inequity.

Gauges showing this priority introduces new initiatives, and will take place in the intermediate term

7. Adult Education

Primary strategic goal:  Service

With this provision UVA broadens its mission as a public university to provide adult education on a sweeping basis. It offers to help those who need additional credits to complete their undergraduate degrees (it notes there are an estimated 1.1 million Virginians in that category) and to help anyone else seeking career training. “This is one of the ways that we can engage with alumni across the course of their careers, and one of the ways that we can make real the idea of lifelong learning,” Ryan told Virginia Magazine. The strategic initiative comes as UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies completes layoffs of roughly half its 77 full-time employees. “There were challenges we had to address so we can achieve our mission,” says Alex Hernandez, whom Ryan appointed dean last year. “We’re really excited about increasing our impact across the commonwealth and growing our programs and serving more students.” The lifelong learning and midcareer programming involves the other schools of the University as well.

Gauges showing this priority introduces new initiatives, and will take place in the longer term

8. Emmet-Ivy

Primary strategic goal:  Discovery

The University’s most dramatic physical transformation takes place in this strategic item, the site plan for the 14 acres of prime real estate where the Cavalier Inn once stood. It’s adjacent to where University Hall also recently came down, as the University’s athletics facilities undergo a redevelopment of their own. Together, both swaths of land are seen as an important bridge between the University’s original Central Grounds and North Grounds, the outposts of UVA’s law and business schools. Pending not-insignificant amounts of site development and philanthropy, the plan envisions the Emmet Street-Ivy Road tract giving rise to a new performing arts venue, a hotel and conference center, the coming School of Data Science and, possibly, new quarters for the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

Gauges showing this priority introduces new initiatives, and will take place in the longer term

9. School of Data Science

Primary strategic goal:  Discovery

The forthcoming School of Data Science, announced in January with the impetus of a $120 million private gift, the largest in University history, takes its own action item. The school is the successor to UVA’s 6-year-old data institute. As the school becomes established it will expand its number of graduate and undergraduate degree and certificate programs. Though Data Science will be an anchor tenant of the planned Emmet-Ivy complex (see No. 8, above), the plan sees it as a “School Without Walls,” a collaborative that shares faculty with other schools, has other outposts across Grounds, and facilitates the use of data science in all disciplines. With financial commitments in place, it will be part of Emmet-Ivy’s early-round construction. 

Gauges showing this priority combines existing and new initiatives, and will take place in the longer term

10. Northern Virginia

Primary strategic goal:  Discovery

Over the past few years UVA has made various opportunistic forays into Northern Virginia, including opening a branch of the Darden School of Business in a Rosslyn high-rise and partnering with Inova Health System in Fairfax for medical training and health care research. Ryan’s plan puts those efforts in a new strategic context. It foresees the Rosslyn operations expanding to encompass not just business but also engineering and data science at the graduate professional-studies level. That coincides with Amazon’s opening of its much-heralded second headquarters within miles of there.

Gauges showing this priority builds on existing initiatives, and will take place in the near term

S. Richard Gard Jr. is editor of Virginia Magazine.