Jim Ryan ’92, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has become famous in recent years for his honest and poignant speeches that speak not only to the heart of the educational mission, but to the heart, period.

After earning his undergraduate degree at Yale, Ryan attended UVA Law on full scholarship and graduated first in his class. He then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist before working as a public interest lawyer, then joining the Virginia faculty. At the Law School he served as academic associate dean from 2005-09 and founded and directed the school’s Program in Law and Public Service. While at Virginia, Ryan also received an All-University Teaching Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and several awards for his scholarship. Ryan is co-author of the textbook “Educational Policy and the Law,” the author of “Five Miles Away, A World Apart,” and the author of “Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions,” available in April.

Ryan’s tally of accomplishments after joining Harvard in 2013 shows he’s a man of action, too. He has focused on increasing the strength and diversity of the graduate school’s faculty with the hire of 18 new faculty members across a wide variety of fields and disciplines. As part of a $250 million capital campaign, he helped raise the largest gift in school history for the Zaentz Initiative, a new research and capacity-building initiative in early childhood education. In 2014, he helped launch the Harvard Teacher Fellows program, a new pathway into teaching careers for Harvard College seniors, and Usable Knowledge, a website that translates education research into helpful information for educators, parents, policymakers and journalists. Ryan also oversaw the creation of a new online certificate program for high-level education leaders and helped guide the growth in professional education programs at the school, including Scaling for Impact, which helps education entrepreneurs bring good ideas to scale.

“I would urge you to resist the temptation to have answers at the ready and to spend more time thinking about the right questions to ask. The simple truth is that an answer can only be as good as the question asked.”

—Jim Ryan, speaking at the 2016 graduation ceremony of the Harvard Graduate School of Education


Dedication To Education

Drew Faustby Drew Faust, President of Harvard University

“Learn to Change the World.” This is the motto that Dean Jim Ryan devised for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s fundraising campaign soon after he arrived in 2013. “That simple, five-word phrase,” Jim said, “goes a long way toward conveying our central beliefs and aspirations.” It is also a phrase that captures the trajectory of Jim’s own life and his deepest commitments.

As a first-generation college student who received financial aid, Jim was transformed by his undergraduate years at Yale. He has devoted himself ever since to enabling others to have access to similar opportunities to improve their own lives and the wider world. In the highly contested field of education, Jim is about “usable knowledge,” about what works, about finding the evidence for practices and policies that create educational leaders, close achievement gaps, improve student performance, translate research into action on the ground, and nurture lives of meaning and purpose.

Jim is warm, open, wise, funny, humble and maybe the best public speaker I know. (Check out his reflections on “5 Essential Questions in Life” on YouTube.) He is almost infinitely patient with people, but impatient in his urgency to make a difference. He is also speedy — completing the Boston Marathon in under three hours as he “runs for teachers” each year. Every time I see him, I learn from Jim, and he inspires all of us to join in his dedication to education as the most powerful vehicle of justice and human betterment.




UVA Lawyer

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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