“It’s hard not to think about our place in the flow of time,” President Edward L. Ayers, ever the historian, told the University community during his inauguration address seven years ago. Today, mindful of the upcoming conclusions of The Richmond Promise and the Fulfilling the Promise campaign, Ayers announced his intention to step down as the ninth president of the University of Richmond on June 30, 2015.
“Next year is a fitting one for a University transition as we finish important work,” he told the University community in an open letter. “With the conclusion of The Richmond Promise, we will begin to think about aspirations to guide the next strategic plan.”
Ayers, a leading scholar on the Civil War and the American South, has led the University with an historian’s understanding of himself as steward of an institution whose origins and promise are rooted in expanding opportunity. He has frequently said that what has brought generations of students to Richmond — whether Baptist ministers in training in the 1830s, the women who were Westhampton College’s first students in 1914, or students from all backgrounds on campus today — has been the promise of finding opportunity here that is available nowhere else.
Expanding that opportunity through advances in access and affordability, and in diversity and inclusivity, lies at the heart of the University’s ambitious strategic plan, The Richmond Promise. Its development and implementation during Ayers’ tenure set in place a unified, long-range vision of the University that built on a foundation of excellence to guide campus development in every way. Its impact can be seen in accomplishments as diverse as the establishment of UR Downtown and the creation of UR Summer Fellowships to the construction of the Carole Weinstein International Center and the soon-to-be completed Gateway Village Apartments.
Most importantly, its impact is seen in the students who choose Richmond today. Applications during Ayers’ tenure have increased nearly 50 percent, with rising academic quality and diversity becoming hallmarks of each new entering class. In the Class of 2017, more than one in seven students is a first-generation college student, and one in four is a U.S. student of color. One in 10 is a citizen of another country. The number and percentage of students receiving Pell Grants has doubled, and the University has remained committed to its policies of need-blind admission and meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need, a pledge shared by fewer than 40 American colleges and universities.
These students have experienced innovations in academics, reflected in the launch of new majors, programs, and first-year seminars. They learn from and work alongside talented and increasingly diverse faculty members — many recently recruited. New opportunities in student life and co-curricular support include the appointment of the first campus rabbi in the Office of the Chaplaincy, the expansion of LGBTQ programming through the Office of Common Ground, and other initiatives. More students than ever are combining learning, leadership, and service through our law clinics, local schools, and other community partners.
Ayers has set the University on a bold strategic trajectory. Since he signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, the University has developed and implemented a comprehensive Climate Action Plan. Through the Campus Master Plan, the University is creating and expanding academic spaces, renovating campus housing, and upgrading athletic facilities, most notably with the construction of Robins Stadium and the renovation of the Robins Center. Expanded student opportunities in club and intramural sports have accompanied these enhancements.
“The University is stronger today by every possible measure — in academic excellence, fiscal health, national and international reputation, and accessibility — because of President Ayers’ thoughtful leadership and vision,” says Charles A. Ledsinger Jr., rector of the University’s Board of Trustees. “As you can imagine, the Board accepted his decision with disappointment, but also with deep gratitude for his outstanding leadership over the past seven years.”
Ayers will depart from the president’s office, but not from the University. Nationally recognized for both his scholarship and teaching — he was awarded the National Humanities Medal at the White House by President Barack Obama and was named Professor of the Year by The Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education — he will expand his efforts to make history accessible to as many audiences and in as many ways as possible. These efforts will include his ongoing work with Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, the opportunity to again write books, and deeper engagement with public history projects, such as his nationally syndicated public radio program, “Backstory with the American History Guys.” He also serves as founding chair of the American Civil War Museum and will continue to teach Richmond students.
“I have a lot of unfinished work to do,” he told the University of Richmond community.