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Sunday, September 27, 2020

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Ayers' presidential inauguration

In early 2006, Westhampton College Dean Juliette Landphair asked her former history professor Edward Ayers to consider applying to be the next president of the University of Richmond. Ayers, content with his position as dean of the College of the Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, politely declined the offer.

"I hadn't finished what I had said I was going to do there," said Ayers of UVa., where he had been for more than 25 years. But while having lunch on the Richmond campus that fall, Ayers changed his mind and within 12 hours he had decided that the Richmond presidency was an opportunity he couldn't pass up. After an 11-month search process, the presidential search committee made its choice, and with that decision, a man who had dedicated his life to studying the past was suddenly responsible for leading a university into its future.

Ayers now stands at the eve of his coronation, preparing to join an exclusive lineage tomorrow, when he will be inaugurated as the ninth president in Richmond's history. Hundreds of scholars and alumni have traveled to campus for the weekend's festivities, and all of their eyes will be on Ayers, a leader anxious to let the next stage of his presidency begin as he wonders when the honeymoon surrounding his arrival will end.

"I'm still the new kid," said Ayers, who also said being the fresh face on campus had perhaps prevented some from openly criticizing him since he took office on July 1. "But we're getting close to the end of the year, and I don't know how long the honeymoon is going to continue for."

If Ayers has been on his honeymoon since he assumed the presidency, it has certainly been a busy one. Since taking the place of his predecessor William Cooper, Ayers has appointed vice presidents for advancement and enrollment management, a provost and a law school dean. He's signed a major university environmental commitment, taught freshman history courses and approved the construction of four campus buildings, including a football stadium and an international studies center. He's met with more than 4,000 alumni on tours around the country and expects to have met with all major campus offices by the end of the semester. Along the way, Ayers has even managed to enjoy himself.

"It's what I thought it would be like except -- it's more fun," he said.

Though Ayers can't keep from smiling when talking about his job, it's clear the demands have taken a toll on him. He said 16- or 18-hour days are not uncommon, and he pointed out his presidency wasn't a role he stopped playing when he left his office at night.

"It has complete possession of my life -- I'm never off," he said before stopping introspectively. "But it is the job and I knew it."

It's been nine months full of welcoming receptions and community events, information sessions and public addresses. It's a period Ayers said had at times felt like both nine years and nine days.

"I feel like I'm drinking from the water hose," he said. "Each day is so rich. I'm having so many new experiences and meeting so many people at such an intense rate that time has gone by very quickly. But there is still a lot I don't know. That's the nine days part."

When Ayers is inaugurated tomorrow at noon in the Robins Center, the service will be seen as a formality by most. The changing of the guard between Cooper and Ayers happened last summer; this weekend will be Ayers' time to show the university what happens next.

"It almost symbolically puts a close to the informational stage," said Steve Bisese, vice president for student development. "He's met with students, faculty, staff and alumni and has an idea of the direction we want to go in. Now is the time for him to lay out the goals for our university and where he sees our strengths leading us."

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After months of meetings devoted to finding out what Richmond wants to be known for, Ayers has begun to synthesize the answers he has heard into a unified vision for the university. In tomorrow's address, he is expected to unveil his strategic plan, one that he says is a direct reflection of what he has learned from the thousands of conversations he has had.

"No other university is built to our scale in the United States," he said. "The trick is to use that to our advantage."

Though Ayers has cautiously felt his way around Richmond administratively, he has relied on his personality to gain the favor of students, faculty and staff. He describes himself as outgoing and transparent, and said he uses honesty as his protection. Though it might be too early to assess, the president seems to have developed a strong reputation among the students.

"I think his popularity derives in large part from his approachability," junior Chris Florio said. "He is personable and funny, and students like that in an administrator."

Ayers has prided himself on reaching out to all members of the university community, but said he sometimes worried he might overstretch himself and establish expectations he can't meet. As his selfproclaimed honeymoon is expected to come to a close, many will be waiting to see if the relationship between the president and the university community will change.

"These are not calm waters that he is navigating," said Craig Kinsley, a psychology professor and a member of the presidential search committee that selected Ayers. "He must listen and try to balance all that he hears -- even the strident voices -- against his vision and imagination as the leader of this institution."

Students are also anxious to see the next stage of Ayers' presidency begin.

"His success really hinges on his ability to be on the pulse of all these groups without sacrificing his own vision," said senior Allison Speicher, a member of the Board of Trustees Student Development Committee. "While I enjoy his storytelling, I'm hoping to see rhetoric turn into reality soon." Ayers is aware that as he attempts to implement his plans people might not continue to be as supportive as they have been, but he said he will continue to address problems he sees in the most optimal way.

"One thing about this job is when you get up each day, you can't tell what is going to happen," he said. "I'm not out causing problems, but sometimes problems come to you."

If problems should arise, Ayers hopes to be a leader ready for the challenge. He said there was plenty of evidence indicating Richmond was headed in the right direction, including this year's 20 percent increase in applications as well as the continued national recognition of the school and its faculty. While he realized people were quick to criticize issues such as school spirit ("this place is the opposite of pompous"), Ayers is confident the university is in a better situation than students tend to give it credit for.

"People really respect this university, more than I think we realize," he said.

As a scholar of history, Ayers has not surprisingly spent a great deal of time reflecting on the University of Richmond's past -- its traditions, its buildings and its people. As he looks back on the relatively short list of the eight men who have preceded him as president, Ayers seems to find motivation.

"Nine presidents in 178 years," he said. "That's a strong incentive to do your best. So I will"

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