In This Story
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Rector Hazel, members of the Board of Visitors, fellow university presidents, George Mason University students, staff, and faculty, honored guests, community members, and my family – thank you for your warm welcome.
I stand here on the shoulders of others who came before me, two of whom are represented here today. Thank you for honoring us with your presence Dr. Angel Cabrera, and Eric Merten, who is representing his late father, Dr. Alan Merten. And we owe a debt of gratitude to Anne Holton for her exemplary leadership as interim president.
It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be invested as the eighth president of George Mason University. Even after I arrived in the summer of 2020, it has been a long walk to this day.
On February 24, 2020, when I accepted the offer of a lifetime to become President of Mason, I did so in a world that no longer exists. On that day, the top story in The Washington Post was about the coronavirus – but it was in South Korea and Italy, far away from us. US unemployment was at 3.5 percent. And George Floyd was still alive.
By July 1, my first day in office, all that had changed. COVID-19 had driven us into lockdown, unemployment reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, and the recent murder of George Floyd forced the beginning of a fiery reckoning for racial injustices that communities of color have endured for centuries.
The very first question I received from a reporter was not about the pandemic, or our calamitous budget crisis. No, my first media question was whether I would change the name of George Mason University. Welcome to the new job!
So, we had many more questions than answers:
Could we keep students on track for graduation and post-college success?
Could we hold them financially harmless while many of them experienced their own financial crises?
Could we pivot from a familiar, traditional approach to instruction, to an online or hybrid model, without sacrificing quality – and flip the entire university overnight?
There were no easy answers. To borrow from Winston Churchill, we were forced to choose the worst possible solutions … except for all the others.
And yet, we have shown that the answer to all those questions was YES.
Yes – we graduated our largest, most diverse class ever. We grew enrollment 2.1%. Our students performed. Please give them a round of applause.
Yes – we transformed the campus to accommodate either fully remote, in-person, or hybrid formats for more than 10,000 course sections. Research grew by 8%. Our faculty performed. Please give them a round of applause.
Yes – we went from a $109 million deficit to a modest fund balance at the end of FY 21. We gave faculty and staff an average 5% raise. And we did it all without raising undergraduate tuition.
Yes – our staff implemented best-in-class COVID protocols that included our own, faculty and staff-created, rapid-return, large-scale COVID testing system. We opened our Fairfax and Manassas campuses to host mass-vaccination centers, while deploying our College of Health and Human Services mobile clinics into vulnerable communities to offer vaccinations. Most of this was accomplished with Mason staff and faculty volunteers.
We administered more than 110,000 vaccines to the public, and we took compassionate care of our students who were with us in quarantine and isolation. Our staff truly performed. Please give them a round of applause.
There’s an old saying in the South: “If you see a frog at the top of a flagpole, you know he didn’t get there by himself.”
I would be remiss if I did not thank our federal and state leaders, who offered bipartisan support to keep students in school, and faculty and staff in jobs, through emergency relief funding to support operations and offer financial aid.
Our alumni and supporters also deserve our gratitude for helping us to our 3rd-best fundraising year on record. Our Board of Visitors and Board of Trustees helped lead us into the future.
Students, Virginia’s leaders care about you. Please give our alumni leaders, donors, and government leaders a round of applause.
And I, too, have had plenty of help. It started with the greatest example of hard work, tenacity, and steadfastness that I have ever experienced – in my mother. She had me at a very young age, but she continued to work hard raising us and making sure we had what we needed for success, sometimes working as many three jobs – and no less than two – even when she was in school.
That’s right, she went back to school, and she received her first degree in the same year I received my last! She is why I understand the full power of education.
And last but not least, I continue to have the best support system that anyone can have starting with my wife, Nicole. She has been at the core of every major decision that I have ever made. She has been a friend, a confidant, and my true partner.
The support I get from Nicole is bolstered by my sons, Joshua and Kaleb, my extended family, my church family, and my Pastor. They are all here today. I would not be here without all of you. THANK YOU!
As a community, we have made our way through the darkness and the uncertainty, and in doing so we discovered who we are and what we are capable of. We discovered that we are indeed Patriots in every positive sense of the word.
We understand better what it NOW means to be a Patriot. But this is not new for Mason.
Of all the four-year institutions in our state, it was not expected that we would be in this position of strength. But in our relatively short lifespan, we became America’s youngest-ever R1 university. We currently manage the nation’s fastest-growing public research portfolio. We are Virginia’s largest public university, its most diverse, and its most innovative.
And we did all of this with none of the advantages offered to institutions of our size and stature.
We have never received as many state dollars per student as our older, smaller sister institutions. We have no medical school to accelerate our research portfolio. And we have no billion-dollar-plus endowment to draw from. Believe me, I’ve looked, and continue to look…
We are not here because we insisted on being HIGHLY SELECTIVE in who we enroll. We are here because we are HIGHLY INCLUSIVE.
We are here because we did things that no one thought we could do, but didn’t bother to tell us. So, we just did them.
And we are here because we dream big and ACT ON our dreams.
We are passionate.
And drawn to causes larger than ourselves.
We are Patriots.
And now what lies ahead?
Virginia is not just the cradle of America’s democracy. It is the cradle of the nation’s higher education, as well. The Commonwealth has always been known for great higher education institutions. It started in 1683 with the founding of the College of William and Mary.
Dr. Katherine Rowe, President of William and Mary, is here with us today. Thank you for being here.
William and Mary formed the basis of higher education in this country, and out of that great institution came Old Dominion University, Christopher Newport University, and Richard Bland College.
The next great institution in the state was the University of Virginia. The original governing Board of Visitors included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.
Monroe was the sitting President of the United States at the time of its founding, and earlier presidents Jefferson and Madison were the first two rectors. Out of this great institution came the University of Mary Washington.
Dr. Troy Paino, President of Mary Washington, is here with us today. Thank you for being here.
Most recently, the other great university to spring from UVA was, of course, George Mason University. Along the way, other great institutions were founded in Virginia, as well.
Why the history lesson? Because throughout our history great institutions have flourished because they were positioned for success by the right people at the right time and their curricula and offerings met critical needs for the state and nation.
I contend to you that NOW IS MASON’S TIME.
No other institution in our state is better positioned to address the three great challenges that lie before the nation:
The first great challenge is the transition to a fully multicultural America. And with that I mean, our nation will be without an ethnic majority by mid-century. Mason already has no ethnic group comprising more than 50%.
Who will be better prepared to lead?
An institution with diversity integrated to its core?
Or one that predominantly serves one ethnic group?
One that already looks like America’s future?
Or one that looks more like its past?
It’s Mason’s time.
The second great challenge is the massive economic transformation now underway. Technology brought on this sea change, and the pandemic has greatly accelerated it.
Automation and machine learning are now predicted to render drivers, bankers, accountants, paralegals, translators, even newspaper reporters and air traffic controllers – some 47% of the current US job market – vulnerable to extinction within 10 years.
On the other hand, healthcare workers, data analysts, software developers, and cybersecurity experts are going to be in high demand.
Today, for every 5 million unemployed people in the job market, there are 6 million unfilled jobs. And the situation is getting worse.
Virginia and the nation require institutions that can rapidly realign our emerging workforce with the evolving needs the economy.
Mason is the most innovative institution in our state. In recent years, we have created more new academic programs, than all the other Virginia institutions combined. And we have the discipline to close programs when it is necessary to move on.
It’s Mason’s time.
The final challenge we must prepare for is to tackle multiple simultaneous grand challenges, starting with the climate crisis and its relationship to all other threats.
Today’s students have a task before them that is as daunting as the challenges of another generation, a century ago. They endured the Great Depression, only to fight World War II, then Korea, then the Cold War. They won them all, and literally saved the world. For that, we call them The Greatest Generation.
Today’s college students are the NEXT Greatest Generation, because like their great-grandparents, they will confront interlocking existential threats. Only, this time they face:
The climate emergency.
Unprecedented public health challenges of a crowded planet.
The chaotically shifting economy.
Increasing wealth inequality.
And ongoing threats to democracy – not just globally, but here in the US.
Mason is the nation’s Number 1 university under 50 years old and the country’s fastest growing public research university. Our youth and speed make us well-positioned to respond to the changing needs because we are still changing.
In the next 10 years more than 40% of our faculty and staff will be new, due to retirements and growth. We are primed to take on these challenges with new talent and seasoned faculty, alike. Its Mason’s time.
Each of these challenges is daunting. But taken together, they can seem overwhelming. Thankfully, if all else fails, we have our students. Mason has always prided itself on putting students first. And they have shown us what they are made of.
After all, most of our students hail from historically disenfranchised communities. Three in 10 are first generation. Thousands of them are past traditional college age.
They have a vision for a better life, for themselves, their families, and their communities. And they are not strangers to adversity, occasional rejection, and hard work.
Yes, more is already demanded of this generation than any before them, and they have no choice but to face these demands head on. And so, WE have no choice but to prepare them and those who follow for a task that is nothing short of saving the world. And this forms the basis of who we are becoming, and what we stand for.
The United Nations has summarized its vision for meeting our existential threats with 17 Sustainable Development Goals to assure our planet’s future. But no one is likely to remember all 17 goals, so it helps to render them into four core beliefs that I am basing my presidency on.
They sum up what WE stand for, and what we aim to champion, as we prepare our students to save the world.
First, we stand for a healthy planet.
Mason has many unheralded qualities, not the least among them being our leadership in climate research and advocacy. From our Institute for a Sustainable Earth to the Center for Climate Change Communication and far too many other worthy endeavors to list by name, our scholars lead the way in developing new insights and translating them, both to our students and to the public at large.
We must also walk the talk, however, and we plan to do this with our campus master plan. The Mason campuses of the future will be pacesetters of environmental sustainability, with a defined greenbelt running through Fairfax and best-in-class energy standards and practices to reduce our carbon footprint. And we will be carbon neutral by 2040.
A flagship project is about to rise in Arlington that will remake that campus into a place we will call Mason Square, and bring scholars, students, and industry together. Digital innovation will occur in a LEED-Platinum building, which will be net-zero ready.
Second, we stand for healthy people.
Climate change and world population increases are combining to create unprecedented health threats to humanity. They now threaten the health of all ecosystems with environmental degradation and extinction the likes of which modern humanity has never seen. The impacts on human health are profound, and already underway.
For Virginia, this means the Commonwealth must keep pace with growing healthcare needs and a growing population. The Robert Graham Center estimates that just to keep pace with existing need, Virginia will require a 29 percent increase in practicing physicians by 2030.
This is not a spigot that can simply be turned on and off – building infrastructure to increase medical education capacity can be a lengthy, expensive, and tedious exercise.
I say to you today: It is time for Virginia to commit itself to establishing its next public medical school designed and optimized for the 21st century, that can be stood up relatively quickly and economically, with a focus on clinical training. And the university that should lead this effort is George Mason University.
As we look to protect the health of the Virginia public, we must also look inward to ensure the students who come to Mason are in the best possible environment in which to study, work, and live.
After all, we are preparing them to save the world — and so their well-being is of vital importance to us all. That means we must establish ourselves as the most diverse and inclusive campus in the country where equity and equality are not just slogans but a way of life. Mason was a founding institution in the campus wellbeing movement, having established one of the first centers for the advancement of wellbeing in the nation.
As a result, Mason is more competitive in attracting talent and more successful in retaining our diverse students, staff, and faculty by cultivating a welcoming, caring, and collaborative culture.
Third, we stand for healthy economies.
We will be a central catalyst of economic development for Virginia and beyond. This starts with talent, and an inclusive talent pool begins with the Mason Virginia Promise. The MVP is a pathway toward a bachelor’s degree or your own business for EVERY VIRGINIAN who wants it. We are the only institution in the state that can possibly pull this off.
We currently admit about 90% of the students who apply, and historically that was frowned upon because it typically led to high dropout rates. But our approach to student success means we consistently graduate more than 70% of those who begin with us – that’s above the national average – and we do it for all ethnic and racial groups.
Our African American, Latin American, Asian American and Caucasian students all graduate at about the same rates. You would be hard pressed to find five other large institutions in the country with this performance record.
If you don’t want a college degree, that’s okay. MVP will also help you establish your own business through the 29 Small Business Development Centers operating throughout the Commonwealth, all managed by George Mason University. If you just need a few courses to get you to a better opportunity, we are going to be there for you through programs like our Mason Talent Exchange.
We are not just in the knowledge and degree business. We are in the SUCCESS business. We will become the ultimate “Point B” institution. No matter where your “Point A” is, we will get you to your “Point B.”
And finally, we stand for healthy societies.
What we want is enshrined in the final words of this nation’s pledge of allegiance. We stand for liberty and justice – for all.
For the majority of 400 years, America looked one way and we are now moving towards America’s first fully multicultural society, where there will be no racial majority.
Change, especially in this area, does not come easily or without resistance. “We, the people” have a choice on how to approach this transition. We can be reactive, or we can be proactive. We can use this moment to bury our past mistakes and deny they ever existed or we can look at them with minds and hearts intent upon learning . . . reconciling . . . healing . . . and growing into our inevitable future.
When I came to Mason last year, I was so impressed and moved by how we approached the national reckoning with George Floyd, and the attention his murder focused on structural biases that persist from bygone eras. Many observers fully expected us to take down George Mason’s statue and take his name off the university.
We chose another path. It spoke volumes about the character of this institution. We have kept the name and the statue. But we have put them to work, as educational tools to open a wider discussion and understanding of the full duality of George Mason’s nature.
He was the author of some of the most radically progressive ideals in modern human history, which he embodied in the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
He was also a slaveholder who could not live up to his own ideals, nor even follow the example of other leaders of his time by at least emancipating those he had held in enslavement upon his death.
As the Enslaved People of George Mason Memorial so powerfully illustrates, our namesake is the very embodiment of the duality of America, whose ideals have served as a beacon to humanity for centuries, but whose actual example has at times fallen far short of those ideals.
In that spirit, we are pressing ahead with the Task Force on Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence, which is rooting out legacies of biased structures and practices wherever they may exist at Mason and replacing them with more inclusive approaches.
If we are to become a national exemplar of anti-racism and inclusive excellence, we must speak honestly about our past, present, and future. And we must take affirmative steps to establish and maintain a university atmosphere of inclusion, equity, and acceptance that our students require.
Rescuing our future to ensure a healthy planet, healthy people, healthy economies, and healthy societies will be the central organizing cause of the rest of our lives. It is our job to conduct research to find solutions to our overlapping grand challenges – and to educate students to solve them.
Finally, I want to speak to the students of Mason. I have described you today as serious-minded masters of adversity, with the weight of the world on your shoulders.
I want you to know that I see you.
I honor you.
And I dedicate my presidency to you.
In my own youth, I was one of you. I have lived, grown, and ultimately worked my way to this podium facing many of the same obstacles you have.
I know your journey because I am your journey.
As I stand here, I am a living testament to the places your journey can take you.
So, keep walking.
We will walk with you.
I will walk with you.
Patriots, as we leave this splendid ceremony, let’s gather around a common vision of a verdant planet, healthy people, vibrant economies, and free and inclusive societies.
That is a cause worthy of our passions. Bigger than all of us. And stretching beyond most of our lifetimes.
It is a cause we can’t help but throw our whole hearts and minds into.
And THAT is what it means to be a Patriot. Let’s get to work.