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Courtesy University of Richmond
Ayers in 2007 when he arrived on campus
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Kim Lee Schmidt
Ayers gives a student welcome in August 2014
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Courtesy University of Richmond
Speaking with students and parents during a Family Weekend event
If time is a river, University of Richmond President Edward L. Ayers has been swimming furiously in its current for the past eight years. And now, at the pinnacle of position and power, Ayers — long distinguished by a boyish smile and a deep East Tennessee twang — has decided to step away from a job that in 2012 alone paid him more than $1 million in total compensation.
“The university is in good shape, and so I have things I need to do,” Ayers says. He emphasizes the urgency of returning to research and writing now, while his health is good and his mind still sharp. And, of course, it is what he loves to do. “I have a narrow band of ability. I’m not good in math or science. I can do words,” Ayers says.
His mission over the next year, while he is on sabbatical and before he returns to teaching at UR, will be to reconnect the mental wires that once made him one of the nation’s finest writers about the history of the South. “I’ve been going at it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And now I’m going to find out whether I can sit in a room alone and write a book,” Ayers says. He has done so before, most notably as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and again as winner of the Bancroft Prize, regarded as the most prestigious award in American history writing.
At 62, Ayers and his wife, Abby, will be heading to a woodsy retreat in Albemarle County where they have long had a home, as he seeks creative inspiration to write another book on the Civil War. “It would be a sin not to,” Ayers says.
A sin? Not writing another book on the Civil War would be a sin?
It depends on how you look at it, explains Ayers, a preeminent scholar on the war and its consequences. He says that in his mind, and in his accumulated research, he has assembled all that he needs to write the book, if only he can breathe life into the characters who will step out of the pages of diaries, wills, old newspapers, family Bibles and other sources to tell their stories. “I will not be writing about [George] Washington or [Thomas] Jefferson,” Ayers says, noting that the stories of lesser-knowns are no less valuable to an understanding of history, and to those who have come before us and the contributions they have made.
His book will be entitled The Thin Light of Freedom, reflecting on the lives and times of people, especially people of color, in the days and years after slavery ended.
“The accomplishments of African-American people in that thin light of freedom are remarkable,” Ayers says. “The task I’ve taken is to write the stories of people whose stories otherwise might be forgotten.”
The subject is perfectly in keeping with Ayers’ efforts to remind everyone during the ongoing 150th commemoration of the end of the Civil War that it is also, and abidingly so, a commemoration of the end of slavery.
Richmond, after all, was not only the Capital of the Confederacy, but also the site of one of the nation’s biggest slave markets, a site of untold suffering and degradation.
In assembling the elements of The Future of Richmond’s Past, a series of talks for all sides to express their views on the war and their shared history, Ayers tried to bring a healing spirit to the Civil War sesquicentennial. “What he’s done is establish the centrality of African-American stories and of other immigrants into the fabric of Richmond,” says Gregg Kimball, director of public services and outreach at the Library of Virginia. “The city changed for the better. The conversation opened things up,” says Kimball, who recently helped mount an exhibit on the slave trade in Virginia at the state library.
“I couldn’t have imagined doing that before,” Kimball says. “It would have been a nonstarter.”
Similar themes of inclusivity and diversity have played out at the University of Richmond in the past eight years under Ayers’ leadership. Much of it has been incorporated into the university’s strategic plan, the Richmond Promise. The Promise has sought to expand access, affordability, diversity and inclusivity at an institution that had a ways to go in those areas when Ayers came aboard in 2007.
Notably, during Ayers’ tenure the university hired its first campus rabbi and director of Jewish life. In early March, the university posted a story on its homepage about Rabbi Andrew Goodman, but the story wasn’t about Jewish life on campus. Rather, the story’s unstated theme was inclusion, focusing on Goodman and his husband, Rabbi Jesse Gallop of Congregation Beth Ahabah, and their adoption of twin boys, shortly after the state of Virginia accepted same-sex adoptions.
The university, during Ayers’ tenure, also established dedicated staff positions to support Catholic and Muslim students on campus, and it created its first LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) alumni group.
A Brush with Controversy
One of the crises during Ayers’ administration came last year when Paul Queally, a UR trustee and a major donor from Wall Street, was quoted in New York Magazine as having made toxic sexist and homophobic remarks during an annual dinner of a Wall Street fraternity where comedy writers produced outrageous jokes for the speakers. Queally is co-president of the Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe investment firm, and is a 1986 UR alum. His wife, Anne-Marie, also is a UR graduate. Together, the couple has given the university nearly $20 million.
Several times Queally has apologized for the remarks at what amounted to an initiation into a secret Wall Street fraternity. “The lesson I learned is that there is no situation or context, public or private, where it is appropriate to make an ill-considered remark in an unwise attempt at being humorous,” Queally said in a statement published in the university’s student newspaper, The Collegian. “In today’s world there is no place for any remark under any circumstance that implies a lack of tolerance. It is my life’s work in education and support for diversity, which defines who I am and what I believe. Those who know me understand this,” Queally added.
But much of the damage had already been done.
Ted Lewis, who was hired in the summer of 2012 tenure to work with the LGBTQ community on campus, has said he was saddened, frustrated and hurt by Queally’s comments. In an email, he declined to speak further about the incident. However, he praises Ayers’ leadership in enabling the university to become more inclusive. He pointed out that The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian news magazine, named UR one of the “7 Brave campuses for LGBTQ students in the South ” in September 2014.
Ayers and trustee Allison Weinstein, whose family is among UR’s largest donors, appeared at a forum called to discuss Queally’s comments and voice their support for equality and inclusion on campus. Of Queally’s remarks, Ayers says, “I think the only way for those things to go away is to do good things after them. We’ve done a lot of good things that show we’re committed to diversity and inclusivity in every dimension.”
Still, some members of the UR community are upset that the university’s admissions building will be named for Queally after a $10 million donation. “There are still serious concerns,” says Crystal Hoyt, an associate professor of leadership studies and the current chair of the University Faculty Council. But she adds, “There’s a lot of respect for Ed.”
Hoyt says everyone she knows is proud of the Richmond Promise, noting that Ayers worked collaboratively to produce its principles. “He’s not coming from on high,” Hoyt says of the president’s working style on the strategic plan. “He got working groups together and gave a lot of folks ownership. He’s very collegial.”
Of course, Hoyt says Ayers also made what some faculty members regarded as a misstep, in another highly publicized dispute during his tenure: adding men’s lacrosse as a sport while discontinuing men’s soccer and track and field. Longtime university supporter Bobby Ukrop, a strong soccer advocate, resigned from the school’s board of trustees as a result.
“Faculty felt they didn’t have a voice in that very big decision” in terms of shared governance, Hoyt says.
Hoyt says Ayers later pushed for the creation of a Faculty Senate that will give faculty members a direct voice in shaping the core mission and direction of UR.
Always the Teacher
Ayers said he never wanted to stop being a teacher when he became UR’s president, and the university permitted him to continue.
Brad Groves, president of the Richmond College Student Government and a former pupil of Ayers, is majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance. Studying history never entered his mind, until he attended a first-year seminar that Ayers was teaching.
Groves, who is from New Jersey, says Ayers’ Southern accent took a little getting used to. But the accent became largely irrelevant as Ayers’ observations flowed over the classroom. “He’s charismatic,” Groves says. “You find yourself sharing his passion.”
Groves adds that one important aspect of Ayer’s teaching style is to let students make their own discoveries, then seamlessly weave those discoveries and student comments into his lecture. “He captures your attention, tunes you in,” Groves says.
Others have recognized that as well. While teaching at the University of Virginia, Ayers was named Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation.
Mia Haggerty, a 19-year-old math major from Traverse City, Michigan, also took Ayers’ freshman seminar class, and she says the university president’s presence in the classroom made her realize “what an amazing place this is to be.”
Haggerty says she knows that Ayers would frequently fly in Sunday night from a trip but still be prepared and eager to teach class Monday morning. “You could see the energy,” she says. “It was cool to see him excited.” Haggerty adds that Ayers was also willing to do the unconventional if it helped him connect with students or advance a worthy cause. She cites an ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) fundraiser, where Ayers agreed to have an ice bucket dumped on his head, and another time when he danced on a fountain for a “Happy” video to promote the university.
One of the charges against the University of Richmond from its critics has been that it’s a high-dollar school catering to privileged elites.
Well, it is high dollar, with tuition, room and board approaching nearly $60,000 annually, making it one of the nation’s most costliest institutions.
But under the Richmond Promise, the university has tried to leverage its endowment to create a window of affordability for students who are well-qualified but come from financially strapped families who couldn’t dream of paying to send their children to UR for a year.
Ayers knows the feeling. His mother was a teacher and his father was a used-car salesman, but they managed to pay $114 a quarter in tuition for Ayers, their eldest child, to attend the University of Tennessee.
“I know the opportunities that can be created, the doors that can be opened, by an affordable education,” Ayers says.
Yale University later offered him a scholarship, where the vaults of learning, and the greatest teachers, were at his disposal without cost.
When the University of Richmond extended him a bid to be its president, Ayers was dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. He says it took him about eight hours to say “yes,” even though U. Va. had been his home since he was appointed to the faculty at the age of 27.
At UR, Ayers said he saw the possibilities of providing the kind of affordable education he received at the University of Tennessee with the intense academic experiences he received at Yale. The fruits of that idea, embodied in the Richmond Promise, are in the metrics, Ayers asserts: “It’s not rhetoric. The numbers are there.”
The heart of the effort is embodied in the university’s need-blind admission policy, coupled with a pledge of providing the full amount of demonstrated financial need for entering students. Only about 1 percent of the colleges and universities do both, Ayers says. At UR, 40 percent of its students require need-based aid.
Moreover, gifted Virginia students who are accepted for enrollment, and whose annual household income is $60,000 or less, receive grants equal to tuition, room and board without loans.
A priority of the Richmond Promise was to expand socioeconomic diversity on campus, while increasing the number of first-generation students. “We had 11 percent students of color in 2007. Nobody wanted that,” Ayers says. In 2014, domestic students of color in the entering first-year class at UR reached 28 percent.
The number of first-year students receiving Federal Pell Grants — need-based funding that promotes college access for low-income students — rose from 9 percent in 2007 to 17 percent last year.
“We’re giving these students a gift,” Ayers said of the financial aid available to students with a broad range of household incomes.
In an era of widespread debt among college graduates, UR graduates in 2013 carried an average debt of $22,285, compared with a Virginia average of $25,780, according to the national Project on Student Debt.
Beginning this summer, UR will be offering every traditional undergraduate student university funding for at least one summer research experience or internship, to help provide them an edge when they reach the job market.
The improvements during Ayers’ term have not gone unnoticed by prospective students. Undergraduate applications have grown by nearly 50 percent, from approximately 6,600 for the fall 2007 entering class to 9,825 for the fall 2014 entering class. Of those applicants, 31 percent were accepted.
Ayers was recognized nationally in 2012 when he received the National Humanities Medal. He was cited for his commitment to making American history widely accessible, from pioneering work in digital scholarship to his co-hosting of the nationally syndicated public radio program BackStory with The American History Guys.
Ayers has been engaged with the community — a rarity among past UR presidents — in many ways personally. But he also has extended the university’s reach into the community, with the opening of UR Downtown.
Among other activities, UR law students donated 2,600 hours of free legal services to area residents in 2013-14. “We’re paying a debt to the city we live in,” Ayers says of the efforts to reach out to the community.
Kimball of the Library of Virginia says Ayers, who served as his graduate advisor at University of Virginia while he was pursuing his doctoral degree, has been a remarkable ambassador for UR. “He’s made the university relevant to the rest of the city,” Kimball says. “He’s given it a real role in the cultural life of the community.”
Marcus Weinstein, a UR donor who made his fortune by developing apartments throughout the Southeast, has been one of Ayers’ biggest supporters. He says what has impressed him about Ayers is his unwavering sense of decency and sense of fairness, along with his grit in standing up for his principles.
Within two months of Ayers’ arrival on campus, Weinstein’s wife, Carole, donated $9 million to the university to construct a new campus facility dedicated to the university’s international programs, which planted seeds that continue to blossom. In 2007, Newsweek named UR the “hottest school” for international studies, and in 2012, Bloomberg BusinessWeek ranked the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond No. 1 in international business education.
“We’ve had a wonderful relationship,” Weinstein says of Ayers.
At the end of June, Ayers leaves office. Under his tenure, approximately $175 million has been raised — $150 million of that satisfying a recent capital campaign goal. The university’s endowment also grew from $1.65 billion in 2007 to $2.31 billion in 2014.
While Ayers looks forward to the writing and research, and a return to full-time teaching, he will miss being able to bring people together in common cause as a university president.
“What I think I’m doing,” he says, “is paying back the opportunities that education gave me.”