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UVa's President Ryan mentioned as a 'maybe' for Biden cabinet

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UVa President James Ryan


With one president on the way out and another on the way in, political pundits, experts and cognoscenti are busy making first and second guesses about who will fill cabinet posts in President-Elect Joe Biden’s administration.

Among the multitude of candidates bandied about to replace Betsy DeVos, President Donald J. Trump’s Secretary of Education, are teacher union leaders, superintendents of large school districts, sitting politicians and University of Virginia President James E. Ryan.

While most pundits, from those at Politico to Inside Higher Education, lean toward someone from the K-12 primary education sector or those with union support, opinion writer Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently selected UVa’s Ryan.

Several people on Ryan’s staff were saddened by the mention. They said they like their boss and would hate to see him leave. Others in the community mentioned that they, too, would hate to see him go.

Although staff declined to be named, others were less shy.

“Because President Ryan has a deep and abiding understanding of the ways in which the law shapes educational opportunity, he would be uniquely qualified to serve as the Secretary of Education,” said Kimberly D. Acquaviva, nursing professor at the UVa School of Nursing.

Acquaviva said the job would be both a challenge and likely not as much fun as running the university.

“President Ryan’s unwavering moral compass combined with his unparalleled ability to navigate rough seas, make him well-suited for the position,” she said. “However, if he were tapped to serve in that role, he’d be taking the wheel of a ship that Betsy DeVos all but burned down. No matter how skilled the sailor, there is little joy to be found in piloting a ship riddled with scorch marks.”

For Ryan’s part, he says he has more than enough to do in Charlottesville.

“I was surprised and flattered by the mention,” he said. “But my focus has been and will continue to be leading the University of Virginia, a place that I love, as we navigate the pandemic and the many challenges it has created for our community.”

If the number of times his name is listed in the bevy of predictions, guesses and supposals found in the education media and TV networks is any indication, Ryan is far down the list.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, a former president of the National Education Association, has been on the pundit prediction sheet since before the election. So too has Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Also receiving months of mentions is Linda Darling-Hammond, education professor emeritus at Stanford University and president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute.

There are at least a dozen names on the short list of possible nominees. Where Ryan’s name falls is the point where pundits question if those with strong union ties can make it through the approval process in the U.S. Senate, currently controlled by Republicans.

Larry J. Sabato, political professor and founder of the UVa Center for Politics and head of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said the time between presidents is the most wonderful time for making lists, checking them twice and finding out they’re wrong.

“We used to joke that ‘The Great Mentioner’ created every list of cabinet nominees, but in all these years, I’ve never found him or her,” Sabato joked when asked who created the lists of best-guessed executives. “But it’s not a bad thing to be mentioned. It’s a compliment, in fact.”

Sabato said choosing an education secretary, or any post in the presidential cabinet, is a different exercise for Biden than it was for Trump.

“Every president is different. Trump and Biden are opposites in almost every way. Trump had never been in government so he had to depend on others to advocate for potential cabinet nominees, outside of people such as Steve Mnuchin,” Sabato said.

“Biden knows almost everyone who has served in any major office, elected or appointed, over almost a half-century,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll listen to advisers, but he already has a good sense of most of his potential Cabinet members.”

Sabato said it’s likely more names may come and go before Biden takes office, Ryan’s included.

“In the meantime, it’s a favorite Washington parlor game to construct the lists, and we’ll see lots of them before the announcements are made,” he said.

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