Ryan Wilts in Conversation with Azher

UVa President Jim Ryan

by James A. Bacon

I concluded my previous column, “Hira Azher Speaks,” by asking the question, what is it about the University of Virginia that foments such deep-felt aggrievement and resentment that Azher, a self-described Muslim person of color, would feel motivated to plaster the words “Fuck UVA” on the door of her Lawn residence? Azher would say that she is motivated by the desire to condemn UVa’s culture of “white supremacy.” For many people, such an explanation is sufficient. But for those of us who find it absurd to describe the modern-day institution as a bastion of white supremacy, Azher’s sentiments call for a deeper explanation. The question I ask is this: Has the ideology of grievance and victimhood created a toxic culture at UVa?

The intellectual currents underpinning the left-wing Oppression Narrative run deep. But this also is part of the problem: UVa’s leaders — in particular, President Jim Ryan — share so many of the underlying assumptions of that narrative that they find themselves incapable of responding forcefully to students like Azher. UVa’s leaders are conflicted, therefore, they are weak.

Ryan’s ambivalence comes through clearly in conversation with Azher, which she recorded and posted on Twitter. “For everyone who asked about the convo with Jim Ryan,” she tweeted, “he kept laughing, talked about himself, & ignored everything I said :))” 

Having read the transcript and listened to part of the recording, I have a very different reaction. Ryan was very solicitous of Azher’s views. He allowed her to do most of the talking. She was confident and forceful. He, like a supplicant, laughed nervously in places. Never disputing her assertions about the prevalence of white privilege, he meekly pressed the point that the KKK reference and her use of profanity was counterproductive to winning over people to the need for “change” that both she and he shared.

Listen to the recording here. Read her transcript here.

While it is part of Ryan’s job to “listen” to the university’s stakeholders, it is also his job to stand up for the university. One would think he has some cred with left-wing students. He has, after all, led a wide range of reforms around race/ethnic identity in penance for the university’s misdeeds during the eras of slavery and segregation. But in his conversation with Azher, he fumbles for words. These excerpts illustrate the less-than-rousing defense he gave of the institution he leads.

Ryan: You know, I’m sure you’re receiving a lot of emails. I’m receiving a lot of emails. Um, a lot of the reaction is to just “fuck UVA” and the, just the profanity. Um, and I think that precludes a lot of people from actually thinking about what the rest of it is. I also think the KKK Cops, um, stops a lot of people in their tracks who think it’s basically an epithet. Um, so I’m curious, like how, how do you respond to that, right? That is completely fine to raise complaints about these issues, um, and, and, and, um, and, and concerns about them, many of which I share, but, but a lot of the reaction I’m seeing anyway, it’s just as a visceral reaction to the headline, a subsidiary reaction to, wow, are you saying all cops are members of the KKK? And I think that, that stops a lot of people from thinking about the valid points that you’re raising. And I, I’m just curious, like, how do you think about that? And if you were me, how would you think about that?

Azher: So, the first thing is like for which people? First of all, which are the people who are most offended?

Jim Ryan: Oh yeah. It’s all, it’s all alums. …

Azher: if that is something that you don’t understand, the relationship between the KKK and the cops, the history there, there’s a reason that they say the cops and Klan go hand in hand. If those are all things that if you were serious about addressing these issues that you can check with a quick Google search.

Jim Ryan: Oh, I, I, I, I, I’m more than well aware, but I’m also aware of the modern-day complexities of police too.

Hira Azher: Okay. Which are what?

Jim Ryan: Well, which is that, um, modern day police are not in hand in hand with the KKK.

DeVante Shands (a third participant in the conversation): So, if the police in the United States, if the institution of the police in the United States came directly from slave patrols, then how can you say that? If at its base, integrally, this is an inherently racist institution, how can you say “Oh, today it’s different because it’s different.”

Jim Ryan: Well, I mean our country, I mean, um, I think it’s just more complicated.

Shands: Could you explain what’s complicated about it?

Jim Ryan: Um, well the, the origins of things don’t necessarily represent the current day reality of them. … The, the part that’s hard for me on it, I’ll be honest
with you is, um, [pause] um, I get, uh, the idea of saying things in really bold ways. Um, I personally don’t believe that, um, that is always the most effective way to bring people along. It’s just, it’s a question of, um, how you promote change. Um, and I think that the sign has alienated people who might’ve listened. …

Azher: “When a disagreement completely invalidates student suffering, student pain and trauma, and the history of pain and trauma and extreme exploitation here, that’s not just something you can disagree about. Those are facts. It is a fact.

Ryan: Well, I, I, um, I think we’re [laughter] I think we may just be disagreeing about the means, um, and, and disagreeing about how you actually invite people into a dialogue. Um, and I think that, that, um, the sign itself in, in my view is not inviting people to a dialogue except people who already completely agree with you. …

Azher: And again, I’d say in that you’re privileging the experiences of people who are already privileged. Um, and you’re saying this sign is meant for those privileged people who’ve never had to experience these problems, um, and because the sign makes them uncomfortable, it is our duty as students who have experienced the pain and trauma.

Ryan: It’s not, no, no, no.

Azher: I mean, you’re not explicitly saying that, but that’s, what’s implied.

Jim Ryan: No, no, it’s, it’s not about duty at all, honestly. I mean, it’s just about strategy really at the end of the day. … It’s about, like, how do you actually promote change? … There are reasonable disagreements about strategy. Um, I feel like in my role, my job is to bring as many people along [pause] to change UVA in the way I think it should be changed. Um, and my worry honestly, is that this sign makes it harder for me to do that.

In summary, Ryan’s disagreement with Azher is not about her radical-left critique of the university or society, it’s about strategy and tactics. Unlike her, he has to fend off furious alumni who have collectively said they are revoking some $150 million in gifts to the university. He doesn’t have the luxury of speaking as boldly and forthrightly as she does.