As Edward Ayers begins his second full month as president of the University of Richmond and his first week with students, he finds himself probing for answers about the university's identity -- answers he has yet to find.
"My job this year, with as much honesty as I can, is to figure out what the University of Richmond is so I can help it fulfill itself," Ayers said.
Ayers, the former dean of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia, said his background as a historian is serving him strongly as he works through the early months of his presidency.
He is meticulously moving through the campus and among its community members, meeting with groups of students and faculty and doing whatever he can to sense a common pulse in a community that largely fails to fall into the rigid mold of a liberal arts university.
"It's very clear that nobody else is built like we are. Whether we want to be different or not, we are," Ayers said, citing the university's offerings in arts and sciences, leadership, business, law and continuing studies courses. "What's our common purpose? How do you focus all of that energy? How do you capture it? That's what I'm looking for."
He said he hasn't found the answer yet but that searching for it by talking with people is the most exciting part of the job.
He helped freshmen students move into their dorms, and Monday he began teaching a 12-student freshman history course in the basement of his house about Southern history. He has spoken to student-athletes and faculty members, alumni and university stakeholders, and has engaged with Richmond's civic leaders and other community members since taking over Richmond's presidency on July 1.
"It's not unlike, ironically, writing a history book, in which you have to wrap your mind around something really big and complex and then ... talk about it without draining the life out of it," he said.
There is one common thing among these constituencies: high expectations for the future. But such optimism usually follows any major leadership change, said Craig Kinsley, professor of psychology and member of the presidential search committee that appointed Ayers.
"You have to give people time," Kinsley said. "They can't come in and overnight bring about change. Nothing is going to be accomplished by himself. He needs to have all oars in the water."
Kinsley also said faculty members have displayed a positive attitude toward the new president and are appreciative of his efforts to bring people together. The committee, he said, was looking for someone who could be a bridge-builder.
"[Ayers'] energy, his charisma, the deep intellect: When you put all this together, it's a great combination," Kinsley said.
The presidents of the Westhampton College Government Association and Richmond College Student Government Association were part of the committee that provided recommendations to Ayers in a report. One of the committee's most important priorities was pushing for renovations to Tyler Haynes Commons -- a move that Ayers said he supported.
But Ayers also said he is seeking comments and suggestions from other students outside of the student government.
"Anybody will have a chance to talk to me," Ayers said.
Bridget Needham, president of WCGA, said Ayers is showing that he wants to work with students.
"I think he's really in tune with what the students want, and I think that's something we didn't have before," she said. "He's really willing to sit down and talk to people."
She said she felt Ayers left a favorable impression on the first-year students and their parents, explaining that he, too, is like a first-year student starting at a new school.
"We have to acknowledge that he's human," Needham said. "Mistakes may happen. We cannot judge him for those mistakes."
Ayers is also meeting and working with many alumni who were part of a Richmond campus that was much different now than it was even 15 years ago. He said he doesn't know of any university that has undergone so much change in such a short time. His job, he said, is to find out what ties the university together across 178 years.
"What I've been struck with is, despite the turbulence, what a remarkable job people have done making the transition," Ayers said. "[Alumni] have a longing to connect to the university. You need to have a sense that you're carrying on something great, [and] that you've inherited a lot of great things from generations before us."
Ayers said he was never looking to leave U.Va. when he was approached about applying for Richmond's presidency. He said his wife, Abby, played a crucial role in his decision to come here.
"Maybe it's time for a new adventure,'" he said, quoting her.
Kinsley added that Ayers has all of the pieces to be successful, but that everyone must buy into the vision he formulates after listening to everyone.
"He will listen, plot the course he thinks is best, gain consensus and lead," Kinsley said. "We all want the same thing: to keep Richmond at the top of the best school in the country. Let Dr. Ayers do his job"