Edward L. Ayers: His first year as president of U of Richmond (profile)





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” … Ayers pauses to stir his shake … “maybe they’ll play something” … abandons the straw and goes at the cup directly … “a little less” … furrows brows … “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....



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