Uber dean: Ayers an academic of all trades

The image people have of a college dean is John Houseman-like: distinguished, formal, a bit stern.

That is so not Ed Ayers.

"I always wanted to look distinguished," muses UVA's youthful and animated dean of the college of arts and sciences, who's in charge of three-quarters of the university's student population and faculty. Certainly, there's plenty for him to look serious about, presiding over UVA's worst budgetary crisis ever.

And yet, this has been a pretty good fall for Ayers. He's been named "national professor of the year" and he has a new book out.

"I think they gave [the award] to me because I still teach," he says, apparently a rarity in the world of deans.

So how does one handle teaching and writing, and still head the largest slice of the UVA pie? "I build in teaching from the outset," explains Ayers.

His schedule includes 50 fundraising trips a year, and he's titled this part of his life, with its myriad cocktail parties and dinners, "Living on Hors d'oeuvres."

Ayers still sees himself foremost as a teacher. "I took the deanship out of gratitude to this place," he says. After he accepted the five-year stint, he says, a friend kidded, "Congratulations. You just traded the best job in the world for the worst."

Because Ayers took the job in 2001 just before the stock market plunged, "I had three good weeks," he says.

Despite hiring and salary freezes, Ayers has a mission as dean: "I want to show that public institutions can be as good as private ones and compete with the Yales and the Harvards."

Renowned as a historian– The Promise of the New South was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1992– Ayers didn't get into history until grad school at Yale. "I thought it was all about presidents," he says. "I discovered the history of common people."

That's the focus of his new book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which traces the Civil War through the eyes– and letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts– of ordinary folk in two communities in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The story is told in journalistic fashion, and journalism was a career Ayers considered before falling in love with history and the academic life. Being able to squeeze in writing on top of his duties as an administrator– er, leader– and teacher is an exercise in getting up early and making good use of time spent on planes.

"It's a question of how long I can keep all these balls in the air," he acknowledges. As for five years down the road, the only thing he'll predict is, "I'll be in Charlottesville at the university."

Age: 50

What brought you here? UVA's history department, to be an assistant professor of Southern history in 1980

What's worst about living here? Not enough jet flights for the many trips I have to make these days

Favorite hangout? Airport newsstands (see above)

Most overrated virtue? Certainty

What would people be surprised to know about you? I lived in a car for a summer while I worked for a carnival, running the double Ferris wheel.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd grant myself at least a shred of musical ability.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? The students I've taught

What do people find most annoying about you? I'm guessing my talkative nature, though I've seldom been quiet long enough to ask them.

Whom do you admire? William James, an American philosopher who flourished about a hundred years ago, who embodies for me the ideal of the open-minded and engaged scholar.

Favorite book? William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!– predictably enough for a historian of the South

What subject causes you to rant? People's refusal to accept the fact that there's such a thing as a public good, especially education, that government can help make better even if it requiresgasp– taxes.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The possibilities of digital media to bring new kinds of understanding in every field of endeavor

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? Political conflict fueled by religion

What do you drive? An Audi A4

What's in your car CD player right now? Radiohead, Hail to the Thief

 What's your next journey? Not counting many work-related trips, Spain, I hope.

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I decided to add authenticity to a fire drill in middle school and so crawled out a window to avoid the imaginary flames and smoke, waiting for the rest of my class on the sidewalk after they marched out in conventional style. The principal was not amused, and my parents had to come in to discuss matters. The behavior was seen as symptomatic of my never-ending quest for attention rather than as a pragmatic response to hypothetical danger.

What do you regret? That I didn't follow through with any music lessons for more than three weeks

Favorite comfort food? A tie: plain Cheerios out of the box (at home); peanut M&Ms (at work and on the road, for the protein)

What's always in your refrigerator? High-fat ice cream

Must-see TV? 24, for its interwoven narratives– my favorite art form.

Favorite cartoon? King of the Hill, which offers some of the best social commentary in any medium

Describe a perfect day. Write from 8 to 11, play basketball with my friends, work outside, and have dinner and a movie with my family.

Walter Mitty fantasy? Either of the following would be excellent: playing as any member of the Who in the years around 1970, or playing guard like Allen Iverson on any night of his professional career.

Who'd play you in the movie? Tom Hanks (when he gets a little older and a little craggier)

Most embarrassing moment? Accidentally sending a "confidential" email about the funding of all the graduate students in my program to all the graduate students in my program

Best advice you ever got? The day I left graduate school for UVA, the eminent historian of slavery, John Blassingame, told me: "Do your teaching, writing, and administrative work ,and leave the lunch-time politics to those who have time to kill. Gossip never got any work done."

Favorite bumper sticker? "Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia"



Read more on: Ed Ayers