Chasing diversity, George Mason weighs what it must give up

First black president pushes Virginia university to overcome its name and reputation

December 3, 2020
Gregory Washington
Source: Getty
Gregory Washington, the first black president of George Mason University

In a year marked by racial awakenings across the US, George Mason University is attempting one of the more audacious rebrands.

Mason is a public institution in the Virginia suburbs of Washington that is named after a slave-holding Founding Father and has been known in recent years for allowing racially revisionist conservative donors to shape its curriculum.

Now it has hired its first black president and embarked on a sweeping anti-racism initiative, with goals that include diversifying its heavily white faculty, making students aware of systemic discrimination, and tackling enforcement bias among campus police.

“I understand the reality of where I am,” the new president, Gregory Washington, said in an interview that stressed wide hopes and modest expectations. “I understand the reality and challenges that this brings.”

Yet however he or others might rate his chances in a state that headquartered the Confederacy and still sees Ku Klux Klan recruitment drives, Professor Washington has chosen not to go small or go slow.

Within three weeks of taking office this summer, the former dean of engineering at the University of California, Irvine began shaping more than 100 faculty, administrators and students into a task force to recommend changes across its main campus.

The initiative’s success may hinge most critically on the question of how fast Professor Washington can expand the roughly one-third share of Mason faculty who are non-white.

He gained experience with that at Irvine, leading an engineering school with no other black faculty and some departments with no women. “There were long-standing challenges there that had to be broken down,” he said. “At least here at Mason, there is a history in many places of success that I can build upon.”

Mason, though, is hardly alone in pursuing minority academic talent in the George Floyd era. Any time a quality minority scholar appears available at another institution, said James Finkelstein, a professor emeritus of public policy at Mason, “you very quickly can get into a bidding war for that person”.

Another option for boosting staff diversity, said Wendi Manuel-Scott, a professor of integrative studies and history, and the faculty co-chair of the task force, involves recruiting junior scholars and developing them. That worked in Professor Manuel-Scott’s case – Mason pounced after she earned her doctorate in history at historically black Howard University.

On this battlefield, Mason is burdened by challenges both past and present.

First is the name. The university’s eponym was a leader in shaping US independence who also kept hundreds of people in slavery and did not free them in his will. “Mason wasn’t just a slaveholder,” Professor Washington said. “He was what many would call an aggressive and brutal one.”

Yet Professor Washington is not joining the nationwide rush to remove public celebrations of such men. Instead, the university agreed before his hiring to keep its larger-than-life statue of Mason in the centre of campus and surround it with depictions and descriptions of the people he enslaved.

Hitting that kind of balance was of “critical importance” to moving the university forward, said Professor Manuel-Scott, a lead organiser of the idea. Among other things, she said, campus-wide consultations on the project helped to show that many of the university’s 38,000 students did not even realise that Mason was a slaveholder, and still had trouble recognising that gender and racial inequities persist.

“For some of them,” Professor Manuel-Scott said, “they have a really hard time understanding how that is possible, because they don’t have a full and complicated understanding of the past.”

Some faculty see their university’s outreach to minorities also hobbled by its status as the top recipient of funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. Mason has collected tens of millions of dollars in recent years from Mr Koch, whose ideology is regarded by some as perpetuating institutional racism.

Koch money at Mason bought the foundation academic influence that included choosing professors, while aiding Mason’s rise from a local appendage of the University of Virginia to the state’s largest research institution.

Much of the direct Koch control at Mason has now been stopped, largely through student activism rather than by faculty pushback. But the terms of Koch donations still allow the foundation to guide research directions and steer like-minded students to scholarships.

Professor Washington acknowledged seeing the Mason name and the Koch influence as two potential issues when considering whether to accept the presidency. But he has come around on both, and he hopes that other minority academics can, too.

As for the name, Professor Washington concluded, “I can commemorate him for the good things that he’s done, but not celebrate him for who he is.” Concerning Koch, he regards the foundation as “just a conservative group” that is part of a mix of donors at Mason.

That may reflect, said Professor Finkelstein, an expert on university leadership, that campus presidents are judged overwhelmingly on fundraising success and have a hard time turning down donations.

And more broadly, he said, Professor Washington might find that he needs more than three weeks to assess such questions and learn the campus before starting his initiative.

“It’s a bold strategy,” said Professor Finkelstein, reflecting on 20 years of watching first-time presidents nationwide jump immediately into major overhauls. “It’s actually a strategy I’ve not seen succeed anywhere.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Head fights past and present to reshape Virginia university

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Reader's comments (2)

“I can commemorate him for the good things that he’s done, but not celebrate him for who he is.” Maybe better would be “I can commemorate him for the good things that he’s done, but not celebrate him for the bad.” Recognise that nobody is perfect, that we all can do good, even great, things, but as imperfect human beings, we all get things wrong... and that's even before the comfortable hindsight of applying contemporary morals to someone living in a past age where things we disapprove of and reject today were acceptable and commonplace kicks in.
I am a Law and Economics professor at the University of Buenos Aires, School of Law, located in Third World country Argentina. I have been granted with invitations and financial assistance to attend GMU's LEC seminars several times, for which I'm for ever thankful. In such ocassions, I've shared the events with colleagues from Japan, Spain and Brazil, just to name a few. Would my story count as a token of proof for GMU's committment with "diversity"? Problem with progressives is that they are absolutely reluctant to admit that "diversity" not only applies to skin color and gender, but mostly and more importantly, to IDEAS. And they're not concerned about being incoherent: praising democracy on one hand, while aiming at uniformed and hegemonic ideas on the other. GMU is one of the last lighthouses for freedom of though and critical thinking in the US. And it bears the huge task of stopping America to become a third world country like Argentina

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