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Posted Jan. 27, 2011

Ryan Wins State Outstanding Faculty Award

Jim Ryan

Law School Professor James Ryan has been awarded an Outstanding Faculty Award by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the organization announced Wednesday.

The award, the Commonwealth’s highest honor given to faculty at Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities, celebrates recipients for “excellence in teaching research, knowledge integration, and public service.”

“I’m honored by it to be sure, but mostly I feel a mixture of gratitude and embarrassment,” Ryan said. “I’m grateful to my colleagues, friends and former students for taking time to write letters of support, which were really touching. But it makes me blush to think of all my colleagues here who are far more deserving of an award than I am. I attribute the award largely to a mixture of luck, timing and the great lawyering skills of [Vice Dean] Liz Magill, who put the nominating packet together.”

Students praised Ryan’s work both in and outside of the classroom. Ross Goldman ’08 took constitutional law from Ryan in 2006. 

“I have earned three degrees from the University of Virginia and was fortunate to study with many outstanding professors, including university legend[s],” Goldman wrote. “Even so, I can say with full confidence that Professor Ryan is the finest professor from whom I have ever had the privilege of learning.”   

Another former student, Sarah Anthony ’01, said that Ryan “changed my life” and praised him for providing a model to students to follow their passion.

“No one taught by Professor Ryan misunderstands the conclusion he drew — everyone realizes that the articulate, gifted and accomplished man leading from the front of the room could lead an administration or corporation, author voluminous texts or publications, or make law from the bench. Instead, he chose us, and we knew it,” Anthony said.  

Colleagues are equally effusive.

“Professor Ryan is easily this generation’s most important, influential and creative law and education scholar,” said Cornell law professor Michael Heise. 

Fordham law professor Aaron Saiger agreed. “All of us who think and write about education law owe an enormous debt to Jim Ryan, whose work has defined and shaped the field for a generation of scholars.” 

Ryan’s recently published book, “Five Miles Away, A World Apart,” has been praised as a landmark text in law and education. Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow wrote, “This important and vibrant book demonstrates the role of law in perpetuating rather than reforming educational inequality.”   

Law School Dean Paul G. Mahoney lauded Ryan's mentorship of students, particularly in public service. With little credit or fanfare, Ryan worked to expand the Law School's loan forgiveness program so that more students could more easily work in the public or nonprofit sectors or represent underserved populations in Virginia, Mahoney said.

Ryan is also the founding director of the Program in Law and Public Service, which launched in 2009. In recent years Ryan has co-taught the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, and made his first argument before the court in October.

Ryan received UVA’s All-University Teaching Award in 2010. He has also won numerous awards for his scholarship.

Ryan is the third Law School professor in 25 years to win an Outstanding Faculty Award, and he is one of two University of Virginia professors to receive the distinction this year. Timothy Beatley, Professor of Sustainable Communities at the Architecture School, was also honored, in addition to 10 other faculty members. Each of this year’s 12 recipients will receive an engraved award and a $5,000 check.

Ryan said his teaching philosophy centers around trust.

“At the most basic level, I want the students to trust that I know the material and can teach it in an organized, coherent and clear fashion,” Ryan said. “But I also try to make the students sufficiently comfortable with me and their classmates to take risks.”

Ryan says he learned a great deal from his former professors and credits four in particular as models of good teaching he learned from. Michael Klarman, now a professor at Harvard Law School, taught him the importance of preparation. Professor John C. Jeffries Jr., a former Law School dean, “taught me the value of clarity,” he said. “The point of the classroom experience should be to make the materials less confusing, not more.”

Ken Abraham taught him the value of pressing students for less superficial answers to questions, and Pamela Karlan (now at Stanford Law School and the Law School’s first winner of the Outstanding Faculty Award) “taught me the value of humor in the classroom. Not that I’m very funny, but I do like to laugh.”

Reported by tim arnold