Remarks at the inauguration of Edward Ayers

University of Richmond

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, faculty, students, staff, distinguished guests, and friends:

Perfect unions are rare. And so it is a rare pleasure to stand before you on this inaugural day introducing Edward Ayers as the ninth president of the University of Richmond. It is a day that makes such unions seem possible. It would be fair to say about a match this promising, that if Edward Ayers did not exist, the University of Richmond would have wanted to invent him – for a happier confluence of qualities you could not have found: a scholar of the first order, with inspiring collegiality and a visionary mind. A teacher, mentor, and administrator of national renown – talents he refined during 27 years at the University of Virginia, and as of last July has made evident here at Richmond. A son of the South who knows how to honor the past by facing it squarely. A leader who can hone the future by imagining it from every perspective.

The road that led Edward Ayers here may have seemed last summer like the 68 miles from Charlottesville, so important was that place in his life. But his road here is a longer one, a road that wound from North Carolina and Tennessee, north to New Haven, Connecticut, and back south again to Virginia, with sojourns to archives and backroads all over the South, to classrooms across the United States and abroad, to the frontiers of the Internet, and to that foreign country called the past, with its saw mills and coal mines, railroad cars and revival tents, juke joints and general stores. He has taken us there with him.

His 10 books of history have remade our view of the American South. In a published review, I called the first one “complex and compelling,” which turned out to be an understatement for what would become a string of works remarkable in their thematic consistency and topical variety. They are consistent, too, in their careful consideration of the moral complexities and ambiguities at the heart of Southern history, challenges that make writing about the South inevitably an ethical project. The prizes Ayers’s book have won outnumber their titles: from the best book in American legal history to the best book on the history of U.S. race relations, from the best book on Southern history to the best digital project on the American Civil War era, to name a few.

Edward Ayers’s effectiveness as a scholar is inseparable from his brilliance in the classroom. He is often described as “ebullient.” His teaching is exemplary. Open, expansive, exacting, disruptive, he uproots conventional wisdom, lays bare the unasked question, demands notice of the things others may have abandoned on the side of the road. He once noted that he loves teaching because it combines the fast talking of his father and the conscientious nature of his mother. In 2003, when he was chosen National Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation, a doctoral student described the Ayers classroom experience as “quite unsettling, which, it seems, is exactly what he wants.” As a teacher of history, he has been eager to introduce students to what he calls the “messy complexity of the past.”

Perhaps this willingness is what has made him equally eager to take on the messy complexity of the present, as an outstanding administrator first as Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, and now in his role as president of this university.

For some of us, including me, our feelings for Edward Ayers’s journey here are intensely personal. If Southern history is a kind of road trip, my generation of scholars cannot imagine having taken it without Edward Ayers. I encountered the Ayers way of traveling early on, as I said, when I reviewed his first book, Vengeance and Justice, a fresh and provocative portrait of crime and punishment in the 19th-century American South. It was 1985. A new generation of scholars was bent on rewriting the American past, and we set out with a post-Civil Rights sensibility and a new bottom-up vision of social history. Ayers, who had once dreamed of being Tom Wolfe, had taken to the road with his wife Abby, visiting archives across the South. The boy long fascinated with cars suddenly realized that his road adventure as a young scholar, as he put it, “had turned me into a Southern historian.”

When I opened what he had found, and examined his work, I was readily impressed with the promise of the Ayers South. In style and substance, it bore all of the now familiar Ayers hallmarks: geographic diversity, literary sources, the palpable experience of everyday life, the patterns that numbers reveal. Like a kind of new-model historical carburetor, here was a historian who could mix quantification and community studies with complex detail and lively narrative and ignite them into a larger explanatory force, a series of small explosions that had the power to move us forward on a journey that we all felt was making a new Southern history. But curiously, the one thing missing from Ayers’s South in the early years, I noted in my review in 1985, was the Civil War. “I … resisted the Civil War for as long as I could,” he confessed 20 years later. But he eventually took my advice. His four most recent books, all on the Civil War, have added the Bancroft Prize and more to his long list of accolades.

So we know that he can make even the most well-traveled road seem new. But just as important is that whenever Edward Ayers runs out of road, he finds a way to make a new one. When he showed up on the Yale campus for the first time, fresh from the University of Tennessee and a summer of living in his car loading rides with a traveling carnival, he was hoping to talk to the head of the American Studies program about going there. A couple of students told him he might want to clean up first, that he looked like Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, he has kept that “light-out-for-the-territories” spirit in everything he does. In the early 1990s, when he found himself alone in his interest in computer techniques and driven by his usual “longing for connection across fields,” he helped create the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at UVA. With the right help, he built a pathbreaking online archive of two Civil War communities, one Northern and one Southern, called “The Valley of the Shadow,” allowing anyone with a computer easy access to the primary sources that, before then, only a few researchers would ever see. It was typical Ayers – always listening to everyone, bringing as many people as he could inside the tent. As he put it, he “became an unwitting pioneer in what we came to call ‘digital history.’” In both form and substance, as both scholar and innovator, he took us into the Valley and raised us onto a higher ground.

Finally, Edward Ayers’s road here has shaped the landscape of his mind, the contours of his character, and the generosity of his heart. A landscape, as he has written of the South, that bears the signs of the preceding years -- expansive and clear from the long miles of looking back at where you have been and from looking ahead to where you are going. “There is no essence to be denied, no central theme to violate, no role in the national drama to be betrayed,” he has written of his central academic subject, for “the South is continually coming into being, continually being remade, continually struggling with its pasts.” For leading a university, I can think of no better sensibility – to understand continuity and change; to hold sacred our special obligations to both the traditions we inherit and to the possibilities we create; to draw on the best from the past in order to build the best for the future.

University of Richmond, it is my great pleasure to introduce your new president, Edward Ayers.

- Drew Gilpin Faust