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Why Liz Magill may have more influence than any prior provost

New provost Liz Magill
Dan Addison

New provost M. Elizabeth “Liz” Magill (Law ’95) and the president she serves go way back. So do the conversations that led her to the post.

James E. Ryan (Law ’92) says he stayed in fairly good touch with Magill while the University of Virginia was courting him for president in 2017. When it came time for him to start thinking about a provost, he turned to his former UVA Law colleague Magill, then the dean of Stanford Law School.

A formal search and vetting process ensued. Within his first days in office, Ryan was able to present Magill for Board of Visitors approval. She began her first full semester as UVA provost this fall.

Ryan’s early decisiveness—knowing from the get-go his go-to for the University’s chief academic officer and his second-in-command—signals just how influential a figure Magill will be in the new administration. “My complete partner,” Ryan calls her.

That hasn’t always been the case for provosts at UVA, where the deans they oversee can be forces unto themselves and the chief operating officers have wielded considerable power. “I don’t know that the provost at UVA traditionally has been as strong as I expect Liz to be,” Ryan says. “I don’t think there will be any daylight between us.”

That’s true for their biographies too. Both graduated with Yale University humanities degrees in 1988, though they didn’t know each other until afterward. Both graduated at or near the top of their classes at UVA Law, though three years apart; Magill first spent four years as a senior aide to her home state’s U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota). Both clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court, Magill for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, three years after Ryan had clerked for Justice William H. Rehnquist. Magill joined the UVA law faculty in 1997, a year before Ryan, and became vice dean; she left in 2012 for Stanford. The two almost overlapped there too. Ryan was a contender for dean of the Stanford education school circa 2011.

If they’re like-minded, they're not necessarily like-styled. “I am more impulsive, and she’s much more thoughtful,” Ryan says. “I’m a foot-on-the-gas kind of person,” while Magill likes to make sure everything gets thought through. He says that  makes them a good combination.

We sat down with Magill in June, shortly after she had flown in from California and the day before her first official Board of Visitors meeting. An edited and condensed version of that conversation follows.

Virginia Magazine: What sold you on being UVA provost?

Liz Magill: The idea of being at a place I love, at a public research university. And then the last piece of it for me was being able to work with Jim.

One great benefit of being at Stanford is I saw a provost [John Etchemendy] and a president [John Hennessy] who were partners for 16 years and reshaped Stanford in extraordinary ways. Provost-president relationships are not always that way. Probably about half of provosts would like to be presidents, and about half of provosts have the job they want. I’m in that latter category. I have the job I want, with the person I want to work with.

Part of the UVA secret sauce is the undergraduate experience. How do you gain the full sense of that as a law professor?

I want to get in the classrooms and see the people teaching the classes and spend more time in the dorms and spend time with the students to get more texture of the relationships that are formed with this place and [that] people carry with them forever. It’s really powerful.

I had many experiences when I was here where I was exposed to the strength of the ties that are created among undergrads and between and among alums. One of them was, ironically, [the Sept. 29, 2006, capital campaign kickoff]. These people in black tie came out onto the Lawn, and there was a band playing on the steps of the Rotunda and there were fireworks. And there were 4,000 students on the Lawn with these people in black tie. And they all locked arms and swayed back and forth singing together. These people wearing black tie, who [had] come out of a fancy dinner, are locking arms with people in flip-flops who look like undergraduates look—and they’re all singing the same songs together.

I mean, it was moving. So that’s my signal moment.

How do you view UVA, having been away for a while?

August 2017 has changed conversations. The conversation about race and the commonwealth, the University, the future reckoning with our past, it seems to me, is at a different level. And it’s very complicated to say that that presented an opportunity, because it was a horrific set of events. But I take the conversations around race to be this institution’s and this community’s way of demonstrating resilience and optimism about the future.

There are 10 “Key Initiatives” in the strategic plan (see related story). What do you see as the two or three that will have the most impact?

I guess I love all these children equally. There are ones where I feel that I will play more of a role; the faculty and research pieces are big parts of what I think I’ll be working on.

The plan talks about recruiting exceptionally talented and diverse faculty, a hallmark of yours at Stanford Law. What edge does UVA have over every other top university with the same priority?

Recruiting is quite retail. I mean, you as dean learn the names of the kids and what dog park they like. You’re trying to move a person, not just a scholar and teacher.

There’s a kind of affective or qualitative part of being here that every person I talk to talks about, which is unusual. That’s rare. So I think that’s an advantage.

Liz Magill
Dan Addison

A lot of nationally renowned scholars prefer research to the classroom. UVA requires excellence in both. To be competitive in recruiting, do you see that balance shifting?

No. I just reject the conflict. I just think it’s false. There are many ways in which research is synergistic with teaching. I think the talented folks here would all say that, in every department I know of.

The strategic plan highlights democracy as one of the University’s five research priorities. There are so many different endeavors here under that heading. How do you see coordinating all that?

It’s a huge advantage that we have so many people across Grounds who think they own part of this. That’s why we’re a unique place to do this. I mean, the birth of democracy is part of this institution. It’s sort of like, you know, you’re swimming in the stream, and you say, what’s water? It’s all around us. So I don’t have the four pillars of the democracy [plan] answer for you. I’m excited about it because it’s everywhere.

What was it like to clerk for Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

I have never worked harder in my life. I’m a pretty hard worker, but I didn’t work any harder than she did.

Will there be “Runs with Liz,” like President Ryan has? What are your outside interests?

My primary outside interest is my family. I’ve got two kids [a son at Stanford and a daughter who starts at UVA this fall] and a husband and a large extended family. I’m one of six kids.

Other than that, I’m boring. I kickbox.