Fourth Estate/Vijay Iyer

Mason’s president speaks about anti-racism, COVID-19 and the revival of the Renaissance


Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Could you give us a summary of your long and short term goals at Mason?

So I’m about 90 days into the job, right — well, coming up on 90 days into the job. And what I wanted to do coming here was to take that first 90 days, talk to as many people as I could talk to, get as much feedback from the community as I possibly could, and then use that to kind of congeal a vision or strategy for this campus that was all-encompassing. 

I’ve been able to do a small portion of that because literally the first day — it was amazing — it was probably five or six major decisions that I had to take on, including whether we were going to go to a fully online framework or not. I mean, literally, that was kind of my opening decision, and there were many sub decisions that I had to make in order to answer that primary question. We had to look at the finances of the campus, we had to look at what effect that would have on students, we had to look at what effect that would have on marketing. We would have to say — if we went fully online — how many people would lose their jobs and all of those kinds of things went into that decision making process. It was very difficult. 

So suffice to say, I have a vision. So it’s an evolving vision, and the basic tenets of it, I’m pretty comfortable with right now. Let me highlight to you what they are: I am firmly behind access to educational attainment for every Virginian who wants it. I believe that Mason has to be a prime component of supplying that to the people of our state — and our region, to be honest with you — but definitely for every Virginian. You know, the Virginia Plan, if you haven’t looked at it, you should look at the plan for Virginia. It’s a long-term plan, it spans multiple administrations and one of the goals in that plan is that Virginia, from an educational attainment perspective, will be the number one state in the country. That is a stated goal for this state. You know, we’re in the top 15 or so now. So it’s an attainable goal. And Virginia’s largest, most comprehensive and diverse institution should have something to say about that goal. We actually have to. We have to be an integral part of it. If we’re not a part of helping the state attain that goal, that goal doesn’t happen.

That is just the reality of the situation. More than 60 percent of the growth over the last five years or so of all new student enrollment in higher ed has come from this campus. And so if we’re not a big part of that discussion going forward, that goal for the state fails. It just doesn’t happen. 

And to me, it also fits the mold of where I come from. So, educational attainment for every Virginian who wants it, and that includes people who are non-traditional. So that includes veterans, that includes continuing students, and that includes students who we currently don’t accept into Mason, meaning that their grade point average and their test scores aren’t good enough for them to get in. And so how would we do that is really where I’m working. 

In order to do that we know we need to grow. And so there will be some growth. I don’t know the exact numbers of growth, but, conceivably, we could easily be [in] excess of 45,000 students over the next five years or so. 

Now, we’ve already promised that growth … through the tech talent initiative. So we’ve already told the state, we’re going to grow by a significant amount in order to meet the needs of those companies that are coming here like Amazon and the like — and that was done before I stepped on the campus. But there really hasn’t been a real discussion on how we get there. One way of getting there is to say, well, we don’t grow at all. We stay the same. Well, that means you’re going to decimate some units on our campus, and I don’t think there are any units on campus that need to be decimated. And so if you don’t decimate units, then you kind of have to grow. 

We’re a young campus, but we’re now starting to age. So there are a significant number of our buildings that are in desperate need of repair. And we’re going to have to make investments in the physical land in order to do that. And then we’re going to have to grow our faculty, right? If we grow by another 8,000 to 10,000 students, or anywhere from [6,000] to 10,000 students, we’re gonna have to grow our faculty by upwards of 300 to 400 faculty. And, again, if we do that, we’ve got to ask the question, ‘Well, where do you put all of those people?’

And so my thought process is that not all of that growth will not be on our physical campus. A substantial portion of that growth will come from our community college partners. We have, probably, one of the top five pathway programs in the country, without question. And the advanced program, where students can start at a community college, they can matriculate into Mason with no loss in time in terms of degree, and they can pick up an associate’s degree along the way. And so the idea is that we’re going to expand those partnerships, and we’re going to have those partnerships with other community colleges in addition to NOVA. So a big proportion of our growth will come from that. A big portion will come from online. 

The cat is out of the bag, relative to online engagement, now. I contend to you, we’ve only gone to first base with virtual education. We took our current classes and moved them to online. But we need to have better pedagogy, we need to have better use of better use of pedagogy, we need to have better use of the technology itself. And we need to have better-trained faculty in terms of how to use that technology so that it’s a better experience for our students. And so we’re going to have more partnerships in that space. And we’re going to look to expand that.

And, and so that’s the core component, right? The core component of the vision of this campus is we’re going to serve students better, and we’re going to serve many more of them, and we’re going to provide an opportunity to some who don’t currently have an opportunity. That is the linchpin. 

Let me highlight to you some smaller items that are related to that. We got to prepare our students in a post-pandemic economy. Right, and what does that mean? That means that we have to give them the proper tools in order to be successful in the future that is coming. We are sending both of you into the most difficult job market for students in the last 50 years. At no point in time — at no point in time over the last 50 years — was the unemployment rate for students above 5.5 percent, meaning once you’ve graduated and you’re looking for a job right now, it’s at 7.9 percent. It is substantially higher than it’s ever been. And that’s the economy that we’re sending you into. We have to prepare you for that and we have to work with our companies in order to accommodate and support you in that way. 

My mantra in all of this is partner or perish. We want to support the rebuilding of our communities towards an inclusive recovery. And in order to do that, we’re going to have to upskill, reskill and retrain people with the help of industry. But we’re also going to have to prepare those students that are coming out with the proper skills that they need in order to be successful. And that is students of every single major. And we’re working on programs and initiatives to do that specifically. 

And then the final piece is we have to reimagine our research relationships and our research partnerships with the community, with the region and with the world. And what does that mean? Our research in our educational efforts around those research components will focus on what we call grand challenge problems. So that’s where I’m converging. If you want to get an idea of what the grand challenge issues are, go to the United Nations sustainability goals. If you type in UN SDG, you will get a list of about 17 major grand challenges that are facing the world.

Are you in the process of working on an individual plan to address the decreased income faced by all universities due to the pandemic? And can you talk a little bit about the financial situation that you inherited?

If I were to tell you I spent a significant amount of my time on the pandemic, the second portion of that time was spent figuring out how we’re going to continue to manage and operate and survive in the economic climate in which we exist. Look, I can tell you that we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of [a] $109 million gap between what we expected to have to operate this university and what we’re currently seeing. It’s a $109 million hole that I have to figure out how to fill. And we actually have a plan to do that. The plan involves utilization of some of our reserves, that involves some reductions. We’re not going to cut people … one of the tenants that I put forward is that we should be able to do as much as we can without any job loss. And so we’re trying to do that. We’ve been able to, in most cases, do it. We’re not hiring and growing lots of new people, but we’re not doing mass layoffs, either. You know, some of our university peers are doing that. They’ve cut hundreds of jobs. And I don’t want to do that in a time where the economy is in such difficult straits … behind every one of those cuts is a human, is a family. And you’re sending those individuals out into an economy that is in shambles right now. And with very little prospect for employment. It’s just not a good thing. And so, we’re gonna try to hold on to as many people as we possibly can, but we’re gonna freeze our growth in terms of hiring new staff and new individuals. 

And then we are making reductions in auxiliary enterprises. You know, we’re not ordering equipment that we would have normally ordered, you’re not doing some of the maintenance that we would have normally done. We’ve put things on hold, in order to get us through this year. And then next year, we’ll have to go through the process all over. So that’s kind of how we’re managing it. We currently have a plan to manage [a] $109 million hole that I think is reasonable. I will tell you that if the situation comes to be worse than that, we’re gonna have to go back to the drawing board and figure it out all over again.

Yesterday, I read an article about Ralph Northam’s refinancing plan for public universities in Virginia. Can you talk about that a little bit?

What the refinancing plan does, in a nutshell, in very simple terms, it allows us to take debt that we currently pay to the state for our buildings, for our infrastructure and the like, and allows us to take that debt and not make payments on it for a few years. All our buildings are state buildings, but we actually generate revenue from tuition, and from all kinds of auxiliary experiences and programs that we have in place, and then we take that money, and we send it to the state to cover the state’s cost for these buildings and the like. So what they said is that we’ll give you a break on that for a couple of years. We’re going to refinance, and then two years from now, you guys can start making your payments. And that gives you that money that you were normally going to give us that you can now use for other things, right? That’s kind of in a nutshell what it is. 

It doesn’t — this is the key — we still have to pay the money back. Right? We’re paying it back over 15 years. Well, now we pay it back over 17 years. We just don’t have to pay money in these next two years. So the state didn’t give us any money. You get what I’m saying? There’s no new money here. We’re gonna have to pay the piper at some point in time. We just pay it down the road. And so it’s helpful in that we need resources now. Long term, we still have to pay the money back … This is probably the best thing they can do next to forgiving the debt. Because they could have just said, you don’t have to pay us. Now, that would have been an announcement. But that’s not what they said. They basically said, you can pay us on Wednesday for a hamburger that you’re eating today. Or you could pay us on Saturday for a hamburger you’re eating on Wednesday.

If you had to isolate some specifics, what’s been the biggest challenge related to COVID-19 that you’re facing, or that you anticipate facing? And stepping away from the COVID-19 perspective, what do you think is the biggest challenge outside of the pandemic?

So the biggest challenge we have relative to COVID? It’s just, you know, we’re doing very well. Right? We are managing COVID better than any large institution in our state. And that’s any large institution, public institution or private institution. We’re doing better. That’s clear. All right. So let’s set that aside.

So we had challenges to get to that point. That didn’t happen by accident, it is not happening by luck. It’s happening because of our planning, because of all of the things that we’ve done, and because our students have bought in. All of you have bought in and you are doing your part. My biggest challenge remains: Can we keep it up? 

The only difference between some of the challenges you’ve seen in other universities — which I will not name — the only difference you see between them and us is that A: you all have bought in better. And we have executed better on the things that we said that we would do … If one of those two things goes away, if the students don’t remain to be bought in, or if we don’t execute as well at my level, guess what happens? We will look like all of those other institutions. 

The virus is unforgiving. It doesn’t care who you are, It doesn’t care what clothes you wear, it doesn’t care what you say. Its job is to propagate. And if we let off the gas one inch, it will propagate. And that is the biggest challenge we have is that we have to keep on what we’re doing if we’re going to be successful. So in the non-COVID sense, I want to take it off the table, let’s say there were no COVID. Right, our biggest challenge will be cultural. Let me explain to you what I mean by that. Our campus is going through a tremendous change. It continues to go through tremendous change. We live in the most dynamic — we’re probably in one of the top five most dynamic regions in the whole country, let alone the state. 70 percent of all new job creation in the DMV is happening in Northern Virginia. It’s happening, this is where the game is. And we’re [in] one of the fastest growing, most dynamic parts of our whole country. We’re the only institution located in the midst of all of that. And so if we’re going to help support and fuel that growth, we can’t do that if we remain the same … There’s just no other way around it. There is no other option. We don’t have the option of remaining like we are. I think one of the jobs of a president is to maintain, to support, to uphold the mission in vision of the unit. I can tell you that it puts a stress on everybody in order for us to do this. And that’s the cultural shift that has to happen. We have to continue to be innovative, we have to continue to find new ways, we have to continue to be inclusive. Right, we have to continue to do that. And that is hard work for a lot of people. We have a significant number of people on our campus who don’t want to do that. And that cultural change is critical if we’re gonna need permission and goals that many have prescribed to us. So that would be on myself.

Could you talk a little bit about your philosophy behind Mason’s Anti-Racism Task Force? And can you give us your definition of anti-racism, and some places that you’re pulling your theoretical framework for that from?

So, look. I see anti-racism as a form of action against systemic racism in the oppression of marginalized groups. That’s, in a nutshell, kind of how I see it. It’s an action against those entities. And so what I see in our anti-racism initiative is to not just establish a task force and committees and groups to talk about the issue, but to have recommendations, initiatives and outcomes that meet the spirit of the action part of anti-racism. 

So, anti-racism is not about talking, per se, it’s about doing. It’s about what kinds of initiatives and programs you put in place to stem the tide of systemic racism, to help balance the playing field so that people from all walks of life have a fair shot, have the same shot. And being able to partake in the American dream. That’s really what it’s all about. 

And it’s not about taking away from one group and giving to another group. It’s about doing what we can to make sure all groups have access and have opportunity. And the data shows that that is simply not the case right now. Even with me sitting in this seat, right? You know — and I don’t want to say this in a negative light — but why am I the first? This university has been here 50 years. It is the most diverse institution in the state and has been as such for some time, right? Why am I the first African American to sit in this seat? And if you knew the crucible that I had to come through to get here, you know how unlikely it is that I’m sitting in this very seat talking to you today … We have some real challenges in the country that we have to overcome. And this initiative is about George Mason doing its part to help the country move forward in this direction.

Can you talk a little bit about how COVID has kind of changed that?

I just want you to think about this. I’m not going to go through a lot of detail and explain it. I’m going to throw this out there as a challenge to my two journalists that I’m talking to. But here’s the deal: An unequal society cannot respond to a pandemic. I’ll repeat it. An unequal society cannot respond to a pandemic … Some folks will be attended to and supported, and some will not. And because the virus is unrelenting, because it doesn’t care who you are, it will be the judge of how well and how equal your society is, right?

We should have known that the coronavirus was going to affect brown and black people negatively. We should have known that the coronavirus is going to affect old people negatively. It should have been obvious to us based on how those individuals are treated in our society. Look at what we do to our elderly in this country, you get what I’m saying? An unequal society cannot respond to a pandemic. The data is truth, in this regard. I’m making a statement. Some people will come back and say, “But we are responding.” And the data is saying, “Yeah, there’s a response. But that response is unequal.”

I was in California when the pandemic hit. And in California [at the University of California Irvine], I was a dean of the engineering program there. And I had a significant number of wealthy donors, people who supported us, people who were really engaged with my academic programs there at the University of California. And in the early days of the virus, you couldn’t find tests, right? Remember how hard it was? The big discussion in the press and nationally was people can’t, you know — everybody [couldn’t] get tested who wanted it. People who needed to get access to tests were not getting tested. We were never doing enough tests. And in many cases, that’s still the case now, right? So you remember all of that? And I needed to get tested. I figured I was in the public, I’m working at a major university. Our university at that time was not doing testing, and I needed to get tested. Do you know, I just called a few of our wealthy alums, our wealthy donors and I said, “Hey, I need a test.” I got a test in less than 24 hours, I got shown exactly where to go, “You go right here and you can get a test,” such and such … You get what I’m saying? There’s an unequalness in our society, and that unequalness is real. And the virus is showing this in very stark terms. We should know that the poor were going to be worse off than the rich. We should know these things. An unequal society cannot respond to a pandemic. Man, I’m giving you some nuggets here.

A big issue at Mason among some students and faculty has been donor transparency and undue donor influence. How do you plan to address that? 

I want to address it two-fold. It’s not an issue of who donates, because people are free to donate to whoever they want to donate to. And I’m going to push back on any faculty member who tells me that you can’t take money from this person, but you can from that one. I think that it absolutely makes no sense and it strikes that academic freedom. So if a person is a conservative, and a staunch one at that, you can’t take money from [them], but you can take money from the person over here who’s progressive. Okay, well, I’ve got probably about 30-35 percent of my faculty who are conservative. So — do I just cut all of those people out? I tell them that people who would donate and give to them cannot give to them. So that part of it — I’m not going to change that portion of it. Whether you’re conservative, liberal or progressive, if you want to invest in our campus and help it move in a positive direction, we need to be open to that as a campus. Okay, so that’s one aspect. 

Here’s the part where it gets insidious: When individuals, no matter who they are, give to a campus and there is a quid pro quo. There is an expectation for an outcome. And that outcome is hidden from the rest of us. That’s when I have a problem with it. You have to be transparent. And you have to be transparent in what is the net result of the gap. You have to be transparent in that, but I don’t have a problem with any entity giving to us. I have to represent all of my faculty. And academic freedom, by the way, protects that. You don’t have academic freedom against the people who you agree with. Academic freedom protects the people who you despise, it protects the people who have an understanding and a view of the world that’s exactly the opposite of yours. That’s who academic freedom protects. Okay, and I am a staunch believer in support of academic freedom. I think it’s better for all of us, if I know where you’re coming from, if I know how you think about a topic because I’m better able to deal with you if I know up front who you are when you walk in the room. Doesn’t necessarily say I have to agree with you. But you know, if people say “Well, that ruins the reputation of our institution, for us to have to take money from or to engage [with] this person.” I disagree with that. 

When individuals cross the line of legality, and even when they cross the line of some aspects of morality then I have a problem with it. We won’t take money from David Duke — you get what I’m saying. But a person who’s a conservative — I don’t have a problem with it as long as they don’t cross certain lines. If they do cross certain lines, then we have to manage it accordingly because we can’t be associated with certain outcomes that are antithetical to the principles in which we believe. But if it’s not, and it’s just that you view the world differently than I do, and it’s just that you are a staunch believer in X and I’m a staunch believer [in] Y, and X and Y are opposite — it’s fair game. And I get that that’s not going to be popular with everyone. But what I hope people will see is that that protects the progressive and the conservative. Because you don’t want to have a conservative president, who comes in here and then says to folk on the progressive end, “We can’t take money from progressive people.” As long as people pass the bar from a legality perspective — and from, like I say, in certain aspects of morality — as long as they pass the bar relative to those I’m all for it. I support it. Even when I don’t agree with them. I want to make sure that’s clear. It doesn’t mean I agree, it just means that I don’t feel it rises to the level of something that I should disallow. 

So I watched a TEDx lecture that you did about the revival of the Renaissance. Can you talk a little bit about how you’re going to project that idea onto our curriculum or Mason and the image of the university?

Yes. So here’s what I will tell you about that. And I’m glad to bring this up. Because it relates directly to where we’re going to [expand] and in the directions in which I want to take the students. I’m a believer in the new Renaissance student. I think that we need to be thinking in that context. We have to prepare and position our students for the post-pandemic economy. Part of that preparing and positioning means that we have to educate students who actually have an understanding of their discipline, but also an understanding of the world around them. And so what it means is that engineers must know how to write and communicate extraordinarily well. And humanists must have an understanding of technology and how it works. It bothers me to no end that an average student coming from Mason can’t answer a fundamental question that says, “What happens when I turn on that light switch? What? How does the light come on?” It’s a fundamental question. It’s something that we deal with and engage [with]. It’s as much a part of our physical environment as a tree growing. People will learn at an early age what an amoeba is: “Oh, it’s a one-celled animal.” Everybody knows that, right? But they can’t explain what happens when you flip a light switch. We live in the built environment. And so new Renaissance students will have an understanding of that and they can appreciate and have an understanding of the classics look. 

My first love was English. My second love was history. My third love was math. That’s kind of how it flowed for me. I can sit here even to this day and quote “The Canterbury Tales” to you, picture and verse. These things are an integral part of things that I love. But I understand a built environment too. I understand how those things are inextricably bound and connected, and what they mean towards being truly educated in our society. That’s what we want to get to. By golly, I want Mason students to be a different kind of student. A more Renaissance student. And it’s my hope that I can get enough of my faculty colleagues in agreement with me, that this is a great direction for people — that we will be part of a movement to help bring that forward. Mason has been extraordinarily good in giving students choice. The Mason Core is the right kind of thing for us to do leading to that. But we need to go deeper in the current core in order to take us where I’m getting — where I’d like to take us to.