July 02, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


The past (and future) according to Ed Ayers 

One year since becoming president of the University of Richmond, the man hired to make everything better turns to history for inspiration.

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Edward L. Ayers sits on a plush coffee-shop couch in Shockoe Slip, tugging on a straw cemented in a milkshake, trying to ignore the radio. He recently wrapped up his first year as president of the University of Richmond, and he's here to talk about his newfound status as its leader. But like a bad dog, Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" bounds from the speakers and begs for attention.

It's not that Ayers doesn't like rock. He grew up on Rolling Stone magazine. He even wowed participants at a university retreat recently with his freakish command of rock trivia. As pop culture goes, Journey represents one of those not-so-productive periods. It's not all bad, Ayers figures. After all, the band's organ player, Gregg Rolie, played for Santana, a legitimate outfit. "But the very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes," as Fred Rogers was fond of singing. It's a very Ayersian concept.

"It's just that" AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý Ayers pauses to stir his shake AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý "maybe they'll play something" AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý abandons the straw and goes at the cup directly AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý "a little less" AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý furrows brows AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý "processed." No luck. Bon Jovi's up next.

Ayers doesn't look like a rock aficionado. He wears dependable suits and has a kind of finger-in-the-socket explosion of hair you'd expect on, well, a history professor, which he is. Jon Bon Jovi's bee-stung lips do not sway him, but he finds the music indeed offers a platform for a history lesson.

"In 1963," he says, "it's basically girl groups. By '66 it's The Doors. They would have been impossible to even imagine in '63." But somehow the nation's pop sensibilities shifted from sweet to psychedelic, he explains.

As a historian of the American South, Ayers' work has been celebrated with Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations. As a dean at the University of Virginia, he was lauded for his likeability and fundraising prowess. Since he assumed the presidency at UR in July 2007, he's been praised as a breath of fresh air, a visionary and, given the relative unpopularity of his predecessor, William Cooper, a relief.
He's also down to earth. At a party after his official inauguration in April, he served as a guest DJ, spinning a Journey-free block of rock and soul. An account in the campus newspaper, The Collegian, captures Ayers delivering a shredding air-guitar solo to a Beatles track, the soaring celebration of a triumphant first year.

"It's been so positive, it would sound dishonest if I told you," he demurs.

But his introduction hasn't been entirely smooth.

Ayers doesn't always get to pick the materials for his living history lessons. In a novelesque twist, the Civil War historian arrived on campus in a year that saw three racially incendiary incidents mar the picturesque campus. The ghosts from his research -- a man in blackface, an anti-Semitic newspaper column, a noose hanging in a public place -- became modern realities at UR.

The focus has been less about rooting out and making an example of the culprits and more about addressing the broader implications of the incidents. His response has reflected the kind of historian he's been and the kind of president he's shaping up to be.

"They've already happened," he says of the incidents, then gives his milkshake a hard look. "The question is, can you make something out of them?"

Ayers spent his first year shaking so many hands and radiating so much enthusiasm, he seemed to be the academic version of a yellow smiley face. There he was, schmoozing with alumni at 15 out-of-state events. Over here, it's rubber chicken with the Kiwanis again. Pan across a row of Spider football fans and double back to see Ayers leaping to his feet after a touchdown.

Crucially, he's been repairing relations with alumni. The uncomfortable truth is that Ayers has his job because his predecessor, Cooper, was a bit too prickly for Richmond's gentlemanly tastes. After several rough patches and unpopular decisions, the breaking point came in remarks Cooper made to the student body in his 2005 state of the university address: "The entering quality of our student body needs to be much higher if we are going to transform bright minds into great achievers instead of transforming mush into mush."

Alumni responded with public statements of dismay, circulating e-mail petitions for the president's removal and a line of "Fire Cooper" mugs and bumper stickers. Eventually, the pressure was too much, and Cooper announced in January 2006 that he would step down effective June 2007.

Enter Ayers, whom Alice Lynch, former executive director of the university's alumni association, calls a "knight on a white horse." Lynch, who booked Ayers to speak downtown at The Woman's Club earlier this year, recalls a room so packed she was forced to listen from the hallway.
Afterward, she stopped to shake his hand, relaying much of the praise that preceded him. "And he just kind of bowed his head and smiled and said, AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?1A…"Well, I guess I better do something, then.'"

With a mixture of that same humility and his perspective on how history works, Ayers attributes the university's success, and his own opportunity for change, to his predecessor. Using Ayers' penchant for music analogies, Patti LaBelle could no more know she prefigured Joey Ramone than small farmers and merchants realized they were headed for the events that unfolded during the Civil War.

Similarly, no one caught up in Cooper's unpopular decision to raise tuition at UR by nearly 27 percent in 2005 would guess that the hike would be, in retrospect, the move more critical in attracting Ayers than equating mush with mush.

UR had practiced a "need blind" policy for years, which meant the university didn't take a student's financial situation into account in determining whether to grant entrance. So Cooper's higher tuition pulled more money from students who could afford it to essentially help subsidize those who could not.

"What that means," Ayers says, "is that even more than a public university, if you want to come here and you can get in, [the tuition hike allows UR to] meet whatever cost of your demonstrated need." The increase allows the university to disperse $38 million last year in financial aid. "Bill Cooper made the thing that attracted me here possible," he says.

Ayers often says the history he writes doesn't focus on politicians and generals, but on the "broadest swath" of the population -- minorities, women, slaves. The more generous financial aid policy also lends intellectual continuity to his decision to leave Mr. Jefferson's large public school for a small private one.

Ayers laid out his plans for UR's future in his inaugural address in April. He wants more cross-pollination among the schools and departments, more international students, more students from different income brackets. But his desire to reunite the school with the city crowns the overarching vision of a more inclusive campus.

His old department buddy from U.Va., Paul Gaston, calls the speech "a pretty progressive and demanding thing. He finds in the history of the school adequate support for the kinds of changes he's going to make."
He did it by building the speech using two parallel versions of the university's past. The first version highlights legacy and tradition -- the buildings and the people for whom they're named.

The second version of the story revives the forgotten parts of the history -- the experience of regular folks and the precedent of diversity at the university. Ayers introduced his listeners to, among others, Ah-Fong Yeung, a former UR student from China in 1909 who, good alumnus that he was, sent his grandson to the university, too.

In Ayers' academic writing he tries to dissolve the modern coating of righteous indignation that commonly smears over, say, the Civil War, challenging the idea that Southerners are stupid and hateful and that noble humanitarians populated the North. In the speech he noted that Robert Ryland, the university's first president, owned slaves, but for more than 25 years he served as a minister to a black church and opened a school for freed people after the Civil War.

The speech revealed more than his plans for the future. It introduced listeners to the kind of historian Ayers is. Rather than giving a presidents-and-donors history of the school, or even exposing and chastising Ryland's slaveholding, he tells both parts of the first president's divided past.
"I feel like we need to honestly reckon with these hard parts of the past, but not by going out and beating up on dead people," he says. "It should be sort of a mirror to ourselves. What kind of injustices are we living with?"

It's a fine line to walk between honoring a situation's complexity and coming off as an apologist. Ayers warns that society might be living unwittingly with everyday injustices that will glare down at posterity. That idea doesn't so much let people off the hook as it places some of the burden across a semicomplicit society.

The bright side is that we haven't mucked up the future, yet. And we survived a past that was not as bad is it could have been.
Sipping on the milkshake, Ayers recalls one of the more lighthearted finds from his research on UR. Before the school's mascot became the Spider, it was a Mule. There's a lesson in that, too.

"The fact that we could have been the Mules means a lot of things could have happened," he says, "and a lot of things could happen now."

The ebb and flow of human events was hardly on Ayers' mind back in 1960, when he was a second-grader at Andrew Johnson Elementary School in tiny Kingsport, Tenn. It was then that he was given the great honor of playing the tambourine with the sixth-graders for their glee club performance. The teacher covered his face with burnt cork for the show.

He writes about the experience in an essay from a recent collection, "What Caused the Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History." After moving from rural North Carolina, where both his parents worked in a factory, they settled in Kingsport, west of Bristol, Va. His mother eventually found work as a fifth-grade teacher, and his father became a used car salesman after a union strike left him the choice of scabbing or letting his family starve.

Ayers had little interest in history at the time but devoured those issues of Rolling Stone and volumes from the bookshop where he had a summer job, looking for ideas more sophisticated than what he thought his small town was capable of offering. He attended the University of Tennessee and was sold on what seemed to be the glamorous, bohemian lives of his professors.

He spent the summer before he graduated from college running a Ferris wheel at a carnival. He got to pick the music that blared out of the speaker beneath the ride. As summer wore on, his mega-rock picks were joined by Al Green tracks as he cultivated a friendship with a black colleague.

He graduated from college, married his girlfriend Abby and spent a year as a social worker before being accepted to Yale for graduate school.
At Yale, Ayers' drawl made him "exotic," he says, and being branded un-Yankee gave him a chance to take a second look at his own roots. The full impact of the black cork his second-grade teacher had smeared on his face for the minstrel show gained fuller weight. A walk with his grandfather revealed his paw's belief that there had been slaveholders in the family. In ways he hadn't realized, Ayers was tied to that history.
Ayers wrote his thesis on crime and punishment in the South -- "murder, lynching, dueling, moonshine AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý chain gangs, hangings," he says. The research caught the attention of the hiring committee at U.Va., the only school with an opening in Ayers' field that year. After an interview, for which he took his first airplane flight, he was hired as a professor at age 27.

"I used to joke that I would have blocked his appointment had it not been the fact that he was born six months earlier than my older son," jokes Gaston, who began teaching Southern history at U.Va. in 1957 and helped hire Ayers.

Like many people who talk about Ayers, their recollections of specific interactions are clouded by a haze of laudatory adjectives: in this case, "smart," "wise" and "popular."

In 1985, when Ayers' first book came out, "Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South" Gaston held a party in his home with an advance copy of the book jacket pinned to the wall.
His next academic feat in 1992, the 500-plus-page "The Promise of the New South," examined the overlooked post-Reconstruction period, from 1880 to the start of World War I.

"Ask most people, name anything that happened then," he says in his office shortly after his arrival in Richmond last summer.
"Well, I said nothing happened -- except that America's only unique contribution to the world came: jazz. The most widely recognized brand name in the world was created" -- he raises his Coca-Cola. "You had the largest political revolt in American history: populism. You had segregation created, which became a model for South Africa. AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý It was the crucible for the most rapidly growing religious denomination in the world: Pentecostalism."

"So other than that," he says wryly, "nothing happened."

The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

"He was a rising star in the profession," Gaston says, "and a person who was mean or egotistical or a climber could have taken advantage of that. He never did anything but praise my work. And I praised his work. We were a team."

In Gaston's view, Ayers' stardom peaked a few years ago when both Harvard and Yale offered him positions in the same academic year. "I'm sure nobody else has ever gotten that kind of offer, and if they ever did, I'm sure they didn't turn both of them down," he says, laughing.
Ayers wanted to "write the history of the American South in the American South," he says, but perhaps more important, "I wanted to raise my children here, my wife wanted to raise our children here."

Ayers' new book was a big hit, but it also started doing the thing Ayers would get knocked for in scholarly circles. His history books read like novels whose arguments are embedded beneath the surface, not choked out with the kudzu of academic terminology. Criticism of Ayers' work tends to center on the idea that in his attempt to explain the mind-set, he doesn't condemn forcefully enough those responsible for Southern injustices.

"Ayers's willingness to blame the war on the AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?1A…"political system itself,' a AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?1A…"machinery' that AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?1A…"created controversy,' may leave us wondering once again whether Free-Soilers and slaveholders actually believed anything," writes David W. Blight, an American history professor at Yale.
"I think there is a way in which AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?1A…"Promise of the New South,'" his book on the post-Reconstruction South, "can be interpreted as saying we are all culpable," Gaston says. And that's a tough pill to swallow.

Ayers had yet to attack the Civil War in his scholarship. When he finally did, it was in the form of an online library, called Valley of the Shadow, containing more than 10,000 pages of newspapers, church records, census documents, memoirs and photographs from two nowhere counties near the border between North and South -- Augusta County, Va., and Franklin County, Penn. -- from the buildup to the Civil War.
The idea was to create a research tool to share with other academics and a teaching aid for high-school teachers. It took more than 10 years to complete and relied on computerized databases ahead of its time. The project was featured in Wired magazine. Now Ayers is continuing the project by building animated maps that show voting patterns with help from his son, Nathaniel, who studied kinetic imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Drawing on the Valley of the Shadow project, Ayers wrote "In the Presence of Mine Enemies" in 2003, drawing all his research from the digital archives. It won the Bancroft Prize, academic history's highest honor.

In the meantime he'd become dean of the college of arts and sciences at U.Va., where he oversaw a larger student body and faculty than he does now -- roughly four times larger than UR's 2,795 undergraduate population. After 9/11, the bottom fell out of the stock market and he was in the unenviable position of telling departments they couldn't hire replacement faculty for empty spots.

"He inherited one of the largest budget cuts since the Civil War," says Tom Jennings, an administrator who worked with Ayers at U.Va. He had to cancel hiring for positions while the candidates were on campus for interviews.

As a well-known academic, Ayers was often invited to speak in front of national organizations, but he would coordinate with Jennings to piggyback fundraising visits and alumni events.

"He was tireless," Jennings says. "He was multitasking all the time." His diet was dominated by club soda and appetizers at fundraisers; a U.Va. colleague jokes that Ayers is an "hors d'oeuvres-ivore."

Eventually, the economy recovered, and just in time. Ayers was able to raise $60 million of the $100 million-plus necessary for a project expanding the college facilities near Thomas Jefferson's original architecture. He stayed put despite job offers from Harvard and Yale. Rumors circulated on campus that he might follow U.Va. President John T. Casteen when he retired -- mutterings that persist.

Ayers was not looking for a job last spring when the UR search committee came knocking. Bob Burrus, an attorney and chairman emeritus at McGuireWoods, convinced Ayers to sit down for lunch, then another lunch, then afternoon lemonade with a few trustees, until they finally persuaded him to apply.

One of the things that drew Burrus, who headed the search committee, was Ayers' scholarship, he says. He'd read "In the Presence of Mine Enemies" and was impressed with his using the perspective of Augusta and Franklin counties.

"I liked the way he approached those counties and how they evolved and how they were affected by what was going on around them no matter what their views were going in," Burrus says. Specifically, how white non-slave-owning Southerners could fight to the death in defense of the idea of a nation based on slavery. He saw in Ayers a reconciler, just what the school needed.

Even as Ayers, the son of a used car salesman, began pushing the university to become more inclusive and learn from its past, the old story reared up again.

On Halloween, an individual was spotted wandering around campus in blackface. No one knew for sure whether it was a UR student, but Ayers sent out a campus-wide e-mail explaining that, as a Southern historian, he knew how hurtful the costume was and the spectacle was totally unwelcome on campus.

The week before campus let out for winter break, the student-run newspaper published a year-end opinion piece criticizing the student-posted signs around campus calling for more kosher meals at the dining hall. Intended as tongue-in-cheek, the editorial said the signs suggested "the Jews were completely taking over."

The incident yielded another e-mail from the president and a round of public apologies from the paper's editorial staff.

Then, perhaps most unsettling, in March a professor found a black doll hanging by a noose in the theater department just before the opening of a play contemplating a fictitious meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Marissa White, now a rising senior, was at the Halloween party where the person in blackface was spotted, but White left before he appeared.

"There were some students that were livid, absolutely livid," she says. "What's sad was I was sort of expecting something like this to happen on our campus."

White, who took her medical college boards last week, says she hadn't experienced anything resembling prejudice during her first two years on campus. There had been bumps in the road, but it was a more diffuse ignorance, like other students' amazement that her braids were not woven from her own hair and the occasional classroom discussions when she was called upon as a spokesperson for all African-Americans.

That fall she was taking a health-care policy and politics class where some comments crossed from ignorance to insensitivity, she says. In class discussions about poor patients, she says she heard remarks such as, "Oh, yeah, they should just get better jobs" or "They could stop having babies."

"Doctors are supposed to be the most compassionate people," she says, alarmed that other students seemed unaware of some of the systemic barriers that race and poverty still present in this country. She began to take a critical look at the school around her.

The blackface incident blew over and the newspaper column was handled, but the noose incident took place while students were leaving for spring break. Ayers and the theater department decided this time it would be best if it were not handled as a campus-wide issue. Still, rumors leaked out. White says many of her professors were confused about what was going on, and the student paper eventually ran a story. There was no e-mail from Ayers' office addressing the issue.

Ayers says he's comfortable with how he handled the incidents.

"The first time it was me sending a message," Ayers says. "The second time it was the students and faculty sending a message. The third time AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý I said, AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?1A…"You need to take ownership of this. It can't just always be me chastising you guys.'"

In White's view, Ayers' interpretation presents a false progression.

"I pay you," she says. "Tuition is over $40,000, yet you're telling me that I'm the one who has to make sure the students are educated. I was a little let down by that response. Isn't that your job to make sure that students feel safe?"

"I think a lot of people think [UR is] about exclusion rather than inclusion," Ayers says, "and I know that's not the true spirit of the place."

The open-arms approach underscores many of Ayers' first-year successes. In August, Richmonder Carole Weinstein, whose family is one of the university's top donors, announced a $9 million gift for an international studies center, a home base for students visiting from abroad. With Ayers' presence and vision in place, Weinstein says, the timing was right to make the gift.

Ayers also wants UR to be more inclusive in its own backyard, and he's leading the push to bring the university downtown, literally. The new pro bono family law clinic, called UR Downtown, will sit across the street from the new federal courthouse on Eighth and Broad streets. Students from the law school will staff it alongside students from VCU's School of Social Work. The center is slated to open in the fall.
Less noticeably, Ayers' office kicked off the Richmond Fund. It's an investing opportunity for some larger local nonprofits to have their endowments overseen by the same team that manages the university's $1.7 billion endowment. The idea had been around for a while, but Ayers spurred it to happen.

"I don't really see a limit to how good this place can be," Ayers says. "The hard work's already been done. The new building, the endowment AŸ’'A,.AŸ.A.,ª�­A,ªAŸ?sA,Ý that's the work of generations. So now we need a story."

He spun that story of a more inclusive university in his inaugural address and has started to make it a reality through his first-year initiatives. But it was perhaps best told in a tableau on inauguration day that only Marissa White, the dissatisfied senior, could have noticed.

After the noose episode, White and a group of students secured student council funds to print up shirts with the words "No Prejudice, No Ignorance, No Excuses" emblazoned across them. She wore hers to Ayers' April inauguration.

Her father, Steve White, had been put off by the incidents too, but having lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers, he has a more circumspect view -- it's not right, but it's been much worse.

Steve White pulled his family out of poverty through a career in the Coast Guard and now teaches computer science at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. He was present at the inauguration with his daughter -- invited by UR to join in the ceremonies in his full academic regalia.

And so one of Ayers' favorite concepts was enacted: Even an uncomfortable history can contain possibilities for a brighter future. Who knows what's possible next?

Meditating on the nature of the possible in his recent collection of essays, Ayers observes: "It is full of irony. It is full of danger. And it is full of hope." S



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