Photo by Karen Morgan
Photo by Karen Morgan

At the end of the semester just now underway, Spiders in the Class of 2015 will don their graduation robes, hug their loved ones, and process into the Robins Center. When they do, another member of the University community — and the University itself — will be marking an equally significant rite of passage as Ed Ayers, University president, presides for the last time over a Richmond commencement ceremony. By the time it has ended, an estimated 9,500 undergraduate, law, MBA, and professional and continuing studies students will have graduated during his tenure.

Since he took office in July 2007, Ayers has been a nationally visible leader for Richmond, one who has embodied Richmond’s academic excellence and, by doing so, helped raise its national profile. As students and faculty continued to receive impressive national awards like Trumans, Goldwaters, and Guggenheims, Ayers continued the scholarship and service for which President Obama awarded him the 2013 National Humanities Medal. He served on the executive committee of the American Council for Education and the board of the National Humanities Center. For the American Library Association and National Endowment for the Humanities, he wrote and edited America’s War: Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on Their 150th Anniversaries, a publication that supported a national reading and discussion program at thousands of libraries across the country. And he continued to host his public radio program, “BackStory With the American History Guys,” which just celebrated its five millionth podcast download.

It's hard not to think about our place in the flow of time. Our history holds the seeds of what we can be, of what we can do, of what we can dream.

Edward AyersMuch of his most important work, of course, focused on tying the University closer to the Richmond region by more intentionally connecting students and faculty with it through their academic work. Ayers has also deepened these ties by orchestrating important local conversations about history in this place where, he said, “an especially rich, concentrated, and problematic past surrounds us.” Each year, he explores that rich history in depth with students by teaching a First-Year Seminar. The course’s title, Touching the Past, speaks to Ayers’ abiding conviction that, as he puts it in the course description, “History is everywhere, saturating everything.”

History will no doubt be on Ayers’ mind as he makes one of his last major presidential addresses from the Robins Center commencement stage this year. His first major address came in the same spot during his inauguration. “It’s hard not to think about our place in the flow of time,” he said that day in April 2008. “Our history holds the seeds of what we can be, of what we can do, of what we can dream.”

He told a well-known tale of Richmond’s history, of its rise from a small schoolhouse on a farmstead called Dunlora in 1830 through its growth into Richmond College, the creation of Westhampton College and the coordinate college system, and their evolution into becoming the University of Richmond. He talked of his predecessors and the University’s abundant supporters throughout its history.

He also told a story of Richmond as a place that “from the beginning, in various ways … has been about expanding opportunity,” if not always quickly enough. As far back as 1836, half of students received scholarships. From its earliest days the school welcomed “pupils of every creed and of no creed.” Admission of African Americans lagged until the 1960s, but once policies changed, the number of African American students slowly increased, as did enrollment of Americans from other under-represented groups.

As Ayers put it, “We have opened doors — though sometimes only after a great deal of knocking.” His challenge to the University that day was simple: “Now we need to open the doors of opportunity even wider.” In many ways, that has been the theme and the accomplishment of his presidency.

32% of the class of 2014 completed at least one course in three or more schools
of the class of 2014 completed at least one course in three or more schools
First-year retention to sophomore year among first-generation students
First-year retention to sophomore year among first-generation students
Domestic students of color in entering first-year class
Domestic students of color in entering first-year class

Sunshine, cole slaw, and academic excellence

A good way to begin understanding the impact of Ayers’ presidency is with a visit to his house at the corner of River and College roads. Or, more precisely, to his back lawn in August, where he and his wife, Abby, host an annual cookout to welcome first-year students. These students have joined a community where they will live out Richmond’s commitment to its mission in ways they can hardly yet anticipate.

Milling around excited and probably a bit nervous too, these students won’t break the ice with that old college cliché, “What’s your major?” They’re far more likely to be talking about their First-Year Seminars, interdisciplinary courses on such topics as faith and difference, game theory, entrepreneurship, and bioethics taught by faculty drawn from all five schools. Every incoming undergraduate now takes two. Their titles can be catchy — It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s a Reporter: The Journalist in Popular Media is being taught this semester — but at their core is the serious business of introducing students to academic inquiry and the modes of expression that lie at the heart of a liberal arts education.

More than 180 of Richmond’s faculty — including deans, the provost, and Ayers himself — have taught them. Law faculty, to take one example, have taught 25 FYS courses, as well as another 11 courses for undergraduates, since 2010. And these students will continue to have access to the full academic range of the University throughout their four undergraduate years. A third of 2014 graduates completed at least one course in three or more schools. There are two new and popular cross-school majors: Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law, and Healthcare and Society. The five-school configuration unique to Richmond — combining the traditional liberal arts with schools of business, law, leadership studies, and professional and continuing studies — is integrated as never before.

The integration accustoms students to examining issues and questions through multiple lenses and regularly puts them in conversation with professors and classmates who prompt new ways of thinking. “The best questions, many times, come from people who are not in the same field,” said Tiho Kostadinov, ’02, who went on to get his doctorate from UC-Santa Barbara and is now a research associate on campus. “If you are in the field, you inadvertently take some things for granted and don’t ask about them.”

The variety of perspectives these students will encounter runs far deeper than academic disciplines. Richmond now attracts the most geographically, racially, and economically diverse incoming classes in its history, even as incoming students’ average SAT scores continue climbing. The richness they bring to campus — not only to the classrooms, but also to student organizations, residence halls, and intramural fields — adds immeasurably to their Richmond experience.

We have opened doors, though sometimes only after a great deal of knocking. ... Now we need to open the doors of opportunity even wider.

A recent analysis by The New York Times ranked Richmond among “the most economically diverse top colleges” in the nation among those with a graduation rate above 75 percent — and the most economically diverse in Virginia in that group. Richmond is one of fewer than 40 American colleges and universities that promise need-blind admission while still meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need for undergraduates. Richmond has also extended its commitment to the commonwealth through Richmond’s Promise to Virginia, which provides grants equal to tuition, room, and board, without loans, to Virginia students whose total annual household income is $60,000 or less. As a result of these and other initiatives, Richmond’s percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students — a form of federal, need-based aid that promotes access for low-income students — has doubled from 8 to 16 percent since 2007.

Such policies also help draw students who are the first in their families to go to college, and they are succeeding at Richmond more than ever, too. The first-year retention rate to sophomore year among first-generation students rose from 88 percent to 95 percent from 2007 to the current year.

The student body has become more diverse in multiple, important ways. A comparison of the incoming classes of 2007 and 2014 illustrates the changes. Over that period, the percentage of domestic students of color rose dramatically, from 11 percent to 28 percent. The number of international students has nearly doubled, and the number of students for whom English is not their first language is now 14 percent.

Take a close look at those students loading up their plates with barbecue and cole slaw on the Ayers’ lawn. They look, sound, and are more and more like our country and the world at large every year.

225 First-Year Seminars created since 2009
First-Year Seminars created since 2009
At least one University-funded summer research or internship experience guaranteed for every traditional undergraduate student
At least one University-funded summer research or internship experience guaranteed for every traditional undergraduate student
Qualifying household income for Richmond’s Promise to Virginia
Qualifying household income for Richmond’s Promise to Virginia

The Not-So-Simple Walk to Class

For another view of Richmond today, you might be tempted to leave the president’s picnic and tag along with a student on the brick walkways leading to his or her next class. You might expect to end up in a classroom, but don’t be so sure.

The number of community-based learning courses — which get students out in the city and region as part of their curriculum through the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement — has nearly doubled in the last five years to 85 in 2013–14, with courses ranging from languages and literatures to marine biology, accounting, marketing, and more. A student enrolled in one of these courses might be going anywhere from UR Downtown in the center of Richmond to a middle school in Northside, a neighborhood resource center in the East End, or a rural farm in Goochland County. That student might be doing anything from running statistics for a nonprofit, serving as a classroom aid, or creating and curating exhibits, and more.

“The real world is messy,” said Terry Dolson, who manages community-based learning initiatives at the Bonner Center. “When students participate in actual events, meet real people, develop real relationships, it troubles the notion of any sort of simple solution. They’re challenged to make sense of things that have no simple answer and to connect academic theory with their experiences in the community.”

Or the student might be on his or her way to a residence hall. Living-learning communities, which offer opportunities for students with common interests to live together and share learning experiences that extend beyond the classroom, have grown dramatically. In 2007, 48 students lived in one. This fall, 252 students did, focusing on interdisciplinary topics including global health, art, social justice, and the business of science.

If you are with a law student, he or she may very well be headed to UR Downtown, a public school, or the Supreme Court of Virginia. During the 2013–14 academic year, Richmond Law students logged more than 2,600 hours through the Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service, and stipends funded 118 students serving in unpaid government and public interest legal internships in the summer of 2014. UR Downtown is a hub of activity for students, staff, and faculty from throughout the University, hosting 283 University- and community-sponsored events in 2013–14.

Other students will be going to a lab, professor’s office, archive, or field site somewhere for research experiences. As researchers, Richmond’s faculty have been highly productive — since 2007, 195 faculty and staff have received 485 grants totaling nearly $50 million in research funding — and students are benefitting from their productivity. The number of faculty-mentored research projects has risen from about 150 in 2007 to nearly 250 in 2014. The scale of Richmond undergraduates’ participation in significant research projects here is remarkable. At Richmond, it’s not uncommon for undergraduates to join faculty as co-authors of articles in academic journals.

“When I have just four students working with me in my laboratory, I can come in and spend all day working with them one-on-one or one-on-two to solve the really difficult problems,” said Matt Trawick, a physics professor. “I know it’s really good experience for them, and it helps me do my other job, which is figuring out what in the heck is going on with the sciencey stuff.”

Truth be told, tagging along with a student to class might take you nearly anywhere in the world. Sixty percent of undergraduates study abroad at some point before graduation, traveling everywhere from China and Spain to Bangladesh, Ghana, and the Peruvian Amazon. (International students, in turn, study at Richmond at high rates. A recent survey ranked Richmond No. 7 among the top 40 baccalaureate institutions for the total number of international students in 2013–14.)

The real world is messy. When students participate in actual events, meet real people, develop real relationships, it troubles the notion of any sort of simple solution.

Following a student to an internship or research experience is especially likely to take you off campus during the summer because of a key initiative that arose as a result of The Richmond Promise: UR Summer Fellowships. In the summer of 2014, more than 300 students pursued an unpaid internship or participated in faculty-mentored research through this program, which provides stipends of up to $4,000 to support them, while 80 more pursued faculty-mentored summer research as part of faculty grants. The number of students taking advantage of summer research or internships has nearly doubled since 2009, and they come from every corner of the University, from business and philosophy to chemistry and leadership studies. The experience can be eye-opening, even transformative. And now, as a result of the recent Campaign for Richmond, every traditional undergraduate student will be guaranteed University funding for one summer research or internship experience before graduating, beginning in summer 2015.

Sarah Lee, ’15, spent a summer as an Urban Education Fellow, focusing on child development and education inequality by working with local middle school students. “Richmond acts as a microcosm for the state of public urban education. A lot of the problems are common to cities all over America,” she said. “To that end, it really expanded my understanding of how we need to respond to poverty. There is no simple solution.”

Through thoughtful planning, student-athletes are taking fuller advantage of every kind of opportunity, from international experiences to internships, research, and community engagement. Richmond’s student-athletes take their hyphen seriously. Last year, the NCAA recognized eight Richmond teams for being in the top 10 percent in Academic Progress Rates among all Division I schools in the nation. Two programs — field hockey and women’s soccer — were the nation’s top-ranked programs for APR, and men’s basketball ranked 20th in the nation by this measure. Spider athletes have competed just as well on the gridiron, courts, and other fields of play, winning 22 conference titles since 2007, not to mention the football team lifting Richmond’s first national championship trophy in 2008 and men’s basketball making its second Sweet Sixteen run in 2011.

But let’s say this student with whom you’re walking does take you to a classroom. The learning environment will be excellent and intimate. The student-faculty ratio is now eight-to-one, the average class size is 16, and two-thirds of all classes enroll fewer than 20 students. Our undergraduates are receiving national recognition by winning highly competitive fellowships and scholarships, and they are going on to pursue graduate school at prestigious universities and take positions with sought-after companies.

These accomplishments reflect the ongoing excellence of our faculty, in whom the University has made substantial investments during Ayers’ tenure. Richmond has hired 101 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the last seven years — a third of the total faculty — including 20 new tenured and tenure-track lines. Among them, half are women, one in five is a person of color, and 15 percent are international. Staff resources have expanded as well. The University hired its first campus rabbi and expanded programming for Richmond’s Catholic and Muslim students, and it has hired an associate director for LGBTQ life, the first position of its kind in the region when it was created in 2012.

These investments have brought new ideas and creativity to an already vibrant campus and made possible the broad array of opportunities available to Richmond students today. The results are evident in the rise of our overall first-year retention rate from 91 percent to 94 percent in recent years. Those numbers are beginning to play out in even higher graduation rates, as well. The four-year graduation rate for the entering fall 2009 cohort, the latest for which data are available, is 84 percent, the highest since the University began tracking the figure in 1983.

195 faculty and staff have received 485 grants totaling nearly $50 million in research funding since 2007
195 faculty and staff have received 485 grants totaling nearly $50 million in research funding since 2007
283 University- and community-sponsored events hosted at UR Downtown in 2013–14
University- and community-sponsored events hosted at UR Downtown in 2013–14
85 community-based learning courses offered in 2013–14
community-based learning courses offered in 2013–14

Through the Commons and Beyond

Walk through Tyler Haynes Commons and you’ll hear, on the third floor, conversations focused on résumé-building, interview preparation, and internship and job outcomes in alumni and career services. The number of employer organizations visiting campus to recruit has more than doubled in the past three years, likely a reflection of the many visits Ayers made personally to speak to recruiting contacts in their offices to tell the Richmond story.

More than 1,900 students made nearly 5,000 visits to this office last year. An increasing number of the opportunities they are finding come from alumni, the result of the 2010 formal alignment of the office of alumni relations and the career development center. As one unit, this new office has built on the rich experience of alumni to not only enhance students’ opportunities but also support alumni engagement and increase opportunities for Spiders to connect with each other, an indication of just how intentional the University is about both excellence in liberal arts education and preparing students for success after graduation.

The work of this office points to the critical role alumni have always played as stewards of the institution. Spiders from all decades are engaging — or, in some cases, re-engaging — in the life of the University, offering internship and professional opportunities to students and attending regional events in record numbers. More than 2,150 alumni came back for Reunion Weekend 2014, an increase of more than 1,000 from 2005. Annual fund contributions have increased by nearly 60 percent to $6 million annually. This magazine is having a tough time fitting in its growing volume of class notes.

Ayers is the first to say that our shared accomplishments during his tenure have been possible only because we have worked with one another to till exceedingly fertile soil.

Step just outside the Commons, and you will continue to see the impact of alumni throughout the University, everywhere from the inscriptions on the many benches that line our serene walkways to the vibrancy of many of our richest traditions.

If it is autumn, you may see Westhampton students gathering for Proclamation at Cannon Memorial Chapel and promising to abide by the Honor Code, just as their predecessors did. If it is a fall Saturday, you will hear from the Forum the sounds of football at Robins Stadium after its 80-year absence from campus. The Robins Center — home to Spider men’s and women’s basketball — has recently undergone its first major renovation in 40 years, lights have been added to Crenshaw Field for Spider field hockey night games, and Pitt Field, home to the baseball team, is getting new turf. The accomplishments of alumni fill the banners lining these playing spaces and page after page in team record books, and alumni are among the strongest supporters of our athletes today.

3 dedicated staff positions to support Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim students
3 dedicated staff positions to support Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim students
First-year students receiving Federal Pell Grants
First-year students receiving Federal Pell Grants
Applications for undergraduate admission
Applications for undergraduate admission

Strength in Numbers

Signs of Richmond’s momentum during Ayers’ tenure are there to read. Applications are up from 6,653 in 2007 to 9,421 in 2014; applicants’ average SAT scores have risen 40 points in the same period. Those have helped put us on U.S. News & World Report’s list of best liberal arts colleges and helped make us a Princeton Review best value private college. Over the same period, the Richmond Law has seen its ranking rise from 77 to 51.

Equally indicative of our trajectory are some more targeted accolades. In recent years, we have been identified as having the nation’s third-best science lab facilities, sixth-best law school facilities, and sixth-best career services, and for being the nation’s seventh-happiest college. Our campus is regularly heralded as one of the nation’s most beautiful, and our facilities receive praise in ways ranging from architectural awards to LEED certifications. Our beauty is more than skin deep and, yes, the food in our dining hall, international café, and elsewhere is also delicious. We were recently ranked among the nation’s best for that, too.

Wise fiscal management has positioned the institution strongly for the long-term future. In the last seven years, the University’s endowment has increased 40 percent to $2.3 billion, among the largest in the nation, particularly on a per-student basis, and our already strong bond rating has also increased. New facilities, including the Carole Weinstein International Center, the Student Activities Complex, and others, have expanded our capacity to serve our mission, while major renovations of historic buildings, such as Boatwright Memorial Library and the business and law schools, ensure that our historic campus will continue to meet the needs of generations of students to come.

LGBT Campus Climate rating from Campus Pride
LGBT Campus Climate rating from Campus Pride
14% of the fall 2014 entering class speaks a native language other than English
of the fall 2014 entering class speaks a native language other than English
Pro bono service completed by law students in the 2013–14 academic year
Pro bono service completed by law students in the 2013–14 academic year

Reflections in Robins

How much of any of this will pass through graduates’ minds at commencement? How much will pass through Ayers’ mind as he stands before them on the commencement stage preparing to speak?

Ayers is fond of noting that there are two times in an undergraduate’s career at Richmond when his or her entire class comes together. They both happen in the Robins Center. The first is when incoming students attend the Gathering during their very first days on campus. After some talks in the Robins Center, they walk as a class to the president’s house for the picnic welcome, and their time is under way.

The next time they all gather, they will walk together along the same paths back to the Robins Center in their graduation gowns, smiling, hugging, inestimably changed.

None of them will have taken advantage of every single opportunity this campus offers. That would be impossible. They will have each made their own paths through them, combining courses of study, faculty mentorship, research and internship opportunities, study abroad experiences, leadership roles, and more as they have seen fit to make the most of four years that will shape them for the rest of their lives. No two students will have done so in the same way. In that fact is the richness and distinctiveness of this community that Spiders share.

Ayers is the first to say that our shared accomplishments during his tenure have been possible only because we — students, alumni, faculty, staff, trustees, and parents — have worked with one another to till exceedingly fertile soil. There is the tangible; we inherit decades of remarkable dedication to students, enormous generosity, and excellent stewardship that have provided Richmond the goodwill and resources to fulfill its ambitions. But there is also the intangible, our common conviction that Richmond is a place unlike any other, a place where we can make a set of bold promises to our students and our community, and then fulfill and even exceed them. In the words of The Richmond Promise, we call upon ourselves to “operate as a model institution of higher education … with the highest standards of innovation and professionalism,” and then we answer that call.

Ours is always a work in progress. But Richmond’s progress under Ayers’ leadership has been remarkable as the University has continued to throw open ever wider the doors of opportunity. And as we look forward, we have every reason to think that this will only continue.

Matthew Dewald is editor of University of Richmond Magazine. He looks forward to reading, in the not-too-distant future, the second volume of Ayers’ Civil War history, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. He also looks forward to writing about Ayers’ next venture, New American History, which will leverage social media to better connect people with history and one another.