Education School Dean Talks Keys to Leadership

James E. Ryan, dean of the Graduate School of Education, says good leaders must continually ask themselves two questions: “What truly matters?” and “How can I help?”

In an interview Wednesday at the School of Public Health, Ryan—who is departing the Ed School to become the president of the University of Virginia—discussed the importance of asking these crucial questions, reiterating themes from his viral commencement address in May.

“The question of what truly matters is a really useful way to stay focused on what you are trying to accomplish...and is as important to structuring your day as it is to setting long-term goals,” Ryan said. “The other question, which is actually related, is ‘how can I help?’ I tend to think of leadership as a form of service.”

Michelle A. Williams, Dean of the School of Public Health, interviewed Ryan as part of the school’s “Voices in Leadership” speaker series. In the discussion, Ryan focused on the importance of overcoming the hesitation that may hold people back from asking questions in the first place.

“You see all the time, ironically often in academia, that people are worried about asking questions. They’re worried that they’re going to be embarrassed or that they’re going to ask a dumb question,” Ryan said.


Before becoming dean of the Ed School, Ryan previously served on the faculty of the University of Virginia Law School; he will return to UVA as its president at the end of the academic year.

“Going from being a faculty member to being a dean reminded me most of going from having no children to having one child. It fundamentally changed my life,” he said. “I feel like going from dean to president is like going from having one child to having thirteen or fourteen children. It’s the same idea, but there are just many more children in your family.”

Asked how white supremacist riots near the UVA campus had weighed on him as he prepares to take the helm as president, Ryan said that in the wake of the riots, he recalled a speech by University President Drew G. Faust that she delivered shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings. In that speech, Faust cited the various first responders, runners, and spectators who ran to the aid of those injured, calling upon students to “run toward” unknown challenges.

“I hadn’t yet decided to take the job, and that clinched it for me, to be honest,” he said. “Her speech was running through my mind, and I thought this is the moment to run toward.”

The next Voices in Leadership event will take place on November 9 and feature Donna Shalala, Board Member and former President and CEO of the Clinton Foundation.


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