This archive contains the blog posts of Provost S. David Wu which date from May 2015 to March 2020.
My Farewell and Parting Thoughts on Upward Mobility
March 2, 2020
Since the announcement at the beginning of February of my appointment as President-designate of Baruch College of the City University of New York, I have heard from many of you with congratulations and well wishes. I thank you for your support and look forward to the next chapter in my life. I would also like to emphasize how proud I am of what we as a university have accomplished. With the selection of Greg Washington as the next president, I am confident Mason will continue to elevate the way it serves the diverse student population and impact the broader community.
This is a time of tremendous momentum in Mason’s history as we are about to celebrate the naming of two schools, while launching a new School of Computing and beginning major expansion of the Arlington and the Science and Technology campuses, and almost ready to open a state-of-the-art academic building at the center of the Fairfax campus. Diversity in all dimensions at Mason not only continues to expand, but is breaking barriers and setting the bar for other institutions across the nation. All of this has inspired me to share Mason’s innovative spirit.
One of the areas where I have been particularly proud of Mason is our ability to advance the upward mobility for thousands of students. Given the demographics of our students—which draw sharp contrast to many of our R1 peers in terms of their social and economic diversity—it is easy to see how a Mason education is having a profound impact on their social and economic advances. More importantly, their Mason experience exposes them to points of view that might be fundamentally different from their own, which not only broaden their perspectives and enrich their lives, but make them better citizens for democracy. With that in mind, it is important to remember that we as a nation are still not doing all we can to provide easy access to a quality college education—only 33 percent adults have attained a bachelor’s degree or more.
If you think back to your childhood and teenage friends and see them today, you will note that each person took a different path in life and some are wildly successful while others constantly struggle. What is the source of this great chasm? Stories of upward mobility were once a key feature of American life—with the aspiration that all children had a chance at economic success, no matter their background. However, research from Opportunity Insights shows that children’s chances of earning more than their parents have been in continued decline. While 90 percent of children born in the 1940s grew up to earn more than their parents, that number has since been cut in half. While many still believe they will attain the American Dream through hard work, the truth is inequality is increasing against those who are from low-income or first-generation backgrounds. In our emerging knowledge economy, so much more than hard work is required to provide upward social mobility.
Ironically, the widening economic gap in our society makes the American Dream even harder to reach for the bottom one-third of the population—and this has a lot to do with the attainment of education. Life is disproportionate from the beginning; those from disadvantaged backgrounds are often left behind early on. While research after research shows that children from high- and low-income families have no significant difference in intellectual abilities, high-income parents on average are able spend more on their children’s education. Research by the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution suggests that the disparity in this “enrichment expenditure” has a profound impact on the achievement and college attainment gaps later in life. In short, the difference in individual success is less likely to do with intellectual abilities and more likely to be a direct result of opportunity. “The Great Gatsby Curve”—established in the same study—shows that as a land of opportunities, we are slipping behind as a nation in providing that upward mobility.
To me, this is what connects institutions like Mason and Baruch, making them such important agents for change in American higher education. Serving as an effective agent for social mobility while achieving academic excellence at the highest level is not only possible, it is an imperative. In a time of rising inequality and declining social mobility, improving the quality of and access to higher education is something I see as a personal calling. As a first-generation immigrant who came to this country as a student, public higher education is what made it all possible—I want all those who have a desire to have that same opportunity, and they can if a high-quality college education is within reach for them as it was for me.
I am immensely grateful for my time here and will take a part of Mason with me wherever I go. Please carry on and ensure that Mason and higher education in general can help improve social mobility for the next generation and define what role we as educators should play to make the best university for the world!
On Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom
January 27, 2020
Welcome back to a new semester! For me, the start of a new year is a good time to refresh our thinking on things around us. Given that we are entering a year of presidential election, I have been reflecting on what makes our democracy work. As an immigrant, what strikes me as the most distinctive American value is the First Amendment, and I have been fascinated by its wisdom and foresight:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
-First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
The First Amendment represents basic freedoms and rights that are fiercely guarded by this country’s citizens as they embody the uniqueness of the American spirit. These protected freedoms – religion, speech, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government – provide Americans with extraordinary opportunities to live, believe, and behave in such a way that is free from fear and punishment. Of course, there are limits to these freedoms and I would like to focus on freedom of speech at public universities and how it connects with academic freedom.
The First Amendment protects speech from censorship by federal government entities and under the incorporation doctrine, also protects restrictions on speech by state and local government which includes lawmakers and elected officials, public schools and universities, courts, and police officers. It is interesting to note that this applies to public but not private universities, and restrictions on speech by public universities amount to government censorship. Over the years, legal scholars have debated the limitation of free speech on different grounds and numerous court cases have been established. The First Amendment Center of the Freedom Institute summarizes unprotected speech this way: “the First Amendment protects any speech no matter how offensive so long as it does not incite child pornography; blackmail; defamation; incitement of imminent lawless action; obscenity; perjury; plagiarism; solicitations to commit crimes; and true threats.” Concerning speech on university campuses, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offers a clear opinion: “the First Amendment does not protect behavior on campus that crosses the line into targeted harassment or threats… But merely offensive or bigoted speech does not rise to that level… Restricting such speech may be attractive to college administrators as a quick fix to address campus tensions. But real social change comes from hard work to address the underlying causes of inequality and bigotry, not from purified discourse.”
Free speech on university campuses remains a complex, and sometimes confusing, issue for students and other members of the university community. In his book Free Speech on Campus, Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Berkeley Law School, notes that today’s students are the first generation where bullying was not tolerated and are “deeply sensitized to the psychological harm associated with hateful or intolerant speech” and “ambivalent, or even hostile, to the idea of free speech on campus.” They want to make campuses inclusive for all and know that hate speech causes great harm, especially among those who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education. A March 2018 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found that nearly two-thirds of college students believe the First Amendment should not protect hate speech and favor some restrictions on free speech rights to foster an environment where diverse perspectives are respected. But response to hate speech can’t be to prohibit and punish it. As former President Barack Obama said to the United Nations General Assembly in 2012: “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry.”
Some might ask why allow such speech on campus at all. While certain speech may offend our senses or be hostile to our values, it warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible—it protects the freedom of expression in whatever form that expression takes. As an entity of the government, public universities may establish general principles of protocol in choosing the time, fashion, and manner how certain speech is conducted. However, any restrictions on the contents of speech is a violation of the Constitution. Just because the presence of controversial individuals on campus is tolerated does not imply what they say is accepted—any member of the university community can and should exercise their own right to debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted, unfactual, or offensive.
Now let’s consider academic freedom, which is distinct but closely linked to freedom of speech. Since their inception over 900 years ago, universities have been places where people voice controversial ideas, competing ideas are welcome, and ideas can be fearlessly debated, defended, and rejected. It is of fundamental importance that society acts to protect the rights of faculty members to speak out, study, research, and publish matters of public concern even when their views are controversial or unpopular. Faculty must feel confident in knowing that academic freedom gives them the right to study, profess, publish, and discuss controversial topics without fear of retribution.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) notes in its 1940 Statement that “[Academic] Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” It is important to know that U.S. courts have made clear linkages between academic freedom and the freedom of speech. While academic freedom covers the freedom to research, teach and learn, it is also central to the proper functioning and purpose of higher education institutions. These rights were enforced by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in the majority ruling of Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967) which said: “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us, and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment.” The decision went on to solidify the importance of faculty’s ability to ask difficult questions, search for answers, and share research results as Justice Brennan included a quote from a U.S. district court decision in United States v. Associated Press (1943) which said, “The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection’.” In short, academic freedom is the foundation of a pluralistic society that embraces a multitude of ideas and the confidence that truth emerges by encouraging open debate and inquiry, rather than any forms of suppression.
In many aspects, the scope of academic freedom goes beyond the First Amendment—it extends beyond the speech rights to include the right to determine the curriculum of the classroom, institutional rules and regulations, faculty recruiting decisions, and other academic decision making that protect broader concerns of academic freedom. And unlike the First Amendment, academic freedom applies to both public and private universities.
I would argue that academic freedom, like free speech, is the foundation of our democracy and it must be protected as it manifests itself in consequential ways throughout the academy. I will be leading a discussion on this same topic at the January 29 General Faculty Meeting (3:00 – 4:30 p.m. in the Johnson Center Cinema). I hope you will participate in whatever way you can so these ideas can contribute to the richness of the conversation.
The Transformative Power of Higher Education
December 17, 2019
As 2019 comes to an end, I want to celebrate and to congratulate all of you for Mason’s remarkable achievements on so many fronts—from conceiving an Arlington innovation district to stimulate regional economic development, to shaping the future in high-quality online education. Above all, Mason continues to transform the lives of our students and impact the larger community and the world. In that spirit, I’d like to share some thoughts about the transformative power of higher education.
Higher education has long been seen as a path to economic security and springboard to success. Yet today, the public has cast serious doubts around that value proposition. The decline in public funding puts upward pressure on the cost of college, which continues to rise at a rate above inflation. This leaves many to wonder if they can afford college at all, and if so, whether the return is worth their investment. Ironically, with the rapid expansion of our knowledge economy, a college education is more crucial than ever before in capturing the American Dream. Coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America, his idealized vision shared the “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. …a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” (p. 214-215).
I have experienced firsthand the transformative power of public higher education. As an immigrant coming to the United States in my twenties to complete my graduate education, I could have never imagined that some 20 years later, I would be the provost of a major research university. For a period of time during my graduate study, I left to work in the private sector as a systems engineer. While I enjoyed honing my skills, I realized that my true calling remained in academia. Not only did I love working with students and enjoy the process of knowledge creation, I also wanted to make sure that others were afforded the same opportunities that were offered to me. I returned to the university, completed my Ph.D., and started my first job as an assistant professor shortly thereafter. As they say, “the rest is history.”
Of all the freedoms the U.S. offers to those individuals who make a home here, none—in my opinion—are greater than the inclusiveness of higher education and the openness of a merit-based societal reward system. It is not the norm, nor is it a given, throughout the world for doors to open simply due to a degree credential and a desire. The U.S. has been a talent destination for decades due to the accessibility of higher education and opportunities for social mobility. That is an essential ingredient of American prosperity.
With all the talent and economic vibrancy around us, Mason has been a desirable destination with a significant number of our students who are starting their own American Dream. As education broadens the mind and provides alternative perspectives, students’ outlook and their approach to the world can become more open, tolerant, and willing to engage. When our students graduate, they are not only more employable and more financially secure, their views of the world are also profoundly changed. Done right, we equip our students to not only realize their own dreams, but to go on and better the world around them, and that is the true transformative power of higher education. With these thoughts, I wish you a wonderful holiday season. I look forward to your feedback and comments as always.
How Does Diversity Form the Foundation of Learning?
November 18, 2019
Diversity has long been a hallmark of Mason. We embrace diversity with such ferocity that we view it as a centerpiece of the educational experiences—maybe the most valuable experience—we offer students because we truly believe that our community’s mix of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, disability, military experience, socio-economic background, ideas, attitudes, beliefs, educational background, perspectives, and values create the perfect setting for learning and personal growth.
Cultivating and nurturing all dimensions of diversity is more important now than ever before. Severe political and societal polarization has affected humanity across the globe, which is stressing the fabric of our society and eroding the foundation of our democracy. Research shows that as it is easy to create echo chambers through technology, people are less patient with differing perspectives and are drawn to like thinkers. This has devastating consequences as exposure to people, religions, cultures, and ideas different than our own stimulates learning and shapes our capacity to empathize. This has particular relevance for a university as neuroscientists have learned that the pre-frontal cortex of the human brain—which is responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior—is not fully developed until age 25. The window for this brain development happens to overlap with the time a majority of our students are with us. It is our responsibility, as educators, to recognize that our students’ moral and social development can be significantly influenced by their college experiences—those who associate with a range of ideas and cultures while they are still developing are more likely to approach and interact with others who are different.
This topic caused me to reflect on my own experience when I came to the United States in my early 20’s as an international student. Before I could appreciate or understand the internal adjustments my mind was making, I faced a shock that went beyond sounds, smells, tastes, and climate. Every culture has unspoken rules which impact the way people treat each other—to correctly identify the norms of social interaction can be challenging. I still remember that cocktail receptions—which require a surprisingly demanding mastery of social cues—were completely foreign and absolutely terrifying to me. People depend on cues given by their familiar groups to define who they are and to support their self-identity. But when these cues are obscured or subject to new interpretations, I was forced to relearn social norms like a toddler. The process was both stimulating and frustrating, and it took time to learn what behavior was acceptable in order to “fit in” and to truly engage people around me. The challenge then shifted to being able to develop a deeper sense of my own identity and my natural instincts that allowed me to be my authentic self. Throughout this process, I adapted by continuing to put myself in situations where I was required to interact with people as different from me as possible. I initially gravitated toward playing sports so I could connect in a way beyond language but still forced me to step outside my comfort zone. I’m sure my experience is shared by many others.
In a reception with Mason’s international students at the beginning of the fall semester, I initiated a conversation with several students who shared their struggles with social interactions upon arrival at Mason. They often wonder what conversational topics were or were not off-limits. One noted that being on campus, surrounded by people from different cultures, helped her understand boundaries and how to talk to others about personal things. Another student said interactions with others from around the world made him more aware of his own culture while allowing him to be as objective as possible. In reflecting on my own struggles from years past, I know each of us will be placed in uncomfortable situations that test our understanding, patience, and self-worth as our campus grows more diverse. But before retreating to traditional behaviors and reactions, it’s important to remember that being challenged in this way is often a precondition for learning and personal growth.
While our student body represents the most diverse in Virginia, we still have ways to go in terms of the diversity of our faculty, staff, and administration. If you subscribe to the idea that diversity—in all dimensions—forms the foundation of learning, then it should be clear that we need to put in significant effort to expand our diversity as an institution of higher learning.
I have made the point in this blog that at the very core of our mission is to afford Access to Excellence, and that diversity and inclusion are fundamental to that mission. If we wish to ensure that our students receive a well-rounded education, a heightened sense of moral and social responsibilities, and are prepared to lead in an increasingly interconnected world, we must continue our journey to become the most diverse institution—not only in terms of our student population but in all dimensions we can imagine. I encourage you to share your ideas on how we can continue to be a thought leader in this important national dialogue.
Engaged Students Can Change the World
October 16, 2019
Nationwide there is a discussion surrounding a perceived decline in our society’s civic participation and, as a result, many higher education institutions recognize that we need to renew our mission of preparing students to be engaged citizens. In returning to its foundational purpose, a university education serves a greater purpose than preparing students for a profession—it’s also about instilling a desire to use one’s knowledge to better the world. In my view, the best way to accomplish this is through “engaged learning.”
To understand the importance of engaged learning, we must first understand why an active and experiential style of learning plays a crucial role in a student’s overall collegiate experience. When faculty help to engage students directly with real-world issues and challenges, it heightens their attention and focus, motivates them to practice judgement and critical thinking skills, and promotes a sense of purpose in their learning. Active learning allows students the opportunity to adapt their prior knowledge with new situations, thereby establishing meaning and insight for themselves. Engaged students are also more likely to leave school with the understanding that they can use the knowledge and skills obtained from their degree for a career and for the greater good.
Universities play a pivotal role in helping students connect their studies to the world. Cultivating an ethos for engaged learning requires faculty and advisors to help envision a complimentary and intentional integration across different forms of learning, to improve campus support structures, and to clearly identify desired outcomes. It is therefore imperative for universities to invest time and energy in creating environments that are conducive to engaged learning. Over the years, Mason faculty have introduced numerous creative learning opportunities for our students, and we have formalized some these efforts on our campus under the auspices of Mason Impact. This initiative aims to transform the way students approach their studies by identifying a passion and preparing them to tackle significant challenges in the context of research and creative activities, community engagement and civil learning, entrepreneurship, and global activities. Students who participate in Mason Impact experiences learn beyond the classroom—they create or join a project which requires them to examine an issue, consult with colleagues or specialists in the field, devise a plan to address the topic at hand, and move forward with the tools they have been empowered with to implement the plan. As a facet of redesigning Mason student experiences, our ultimate goal is to ensure that all undergraduate students are able to incorporate at least one Mason Impact experience before graduation.
Mason is not the first university to tackle the idea of actively engaging students outside of lecture halls. In fact, schools such as Tulane, Duke, Cornell, and Brown are known for their engaged learning platforms which encourage students to use what they’ve learned in classes to create solutions to real-world issues. Some accomplish this by leveraging relationships with professionals and outside organizations, while others design and carry out projects by deploying students around the world. Whether it’s transforming a flooded golf course into an organic farm that feeds the surrounding community, studying the reasons behind low birth weights and rapid weight gains in infants for certain ethnicities and establishing proper pre-natal care for mothers, or analyzing the impact solitary confinement has on both prisoners and guards, students are impacting not only their immediate community, but changing the world.
Mason Impact is for every student as it can be the spark that ignites the passion that inspires one’s career. This style of learning allows students to take ownership of their ideas and subsequent work and teaches skills that will be relevant throughout life such as teamwork, communications, and an appreciation for the complex and contexture nature of all real-world issues. Most importantly, students who participate in engaged learning projects quickly learn that it’s not about the hours worked but rather the joy in the engagement itself. In the end, knowing their contributions are vital in making a difference to the world make them the engaged citizens we aim to prepare.
I have often said students are our society’s most important asset as it is through them that the world is changed. It is our responsibility as faculty to ensure students are connected to their passion and have the keys they need to immerse themselves with the world. I hope you join me in growing Mason Impact and other forms of engaged learning, and encouraging our students to look around and see how they can make a difference. Should you have any ideas on how we can accomplish this together, I welcome your suggestions.
Embrace This Year of Transition
September 9, 2019
As a new academic year begins, I know you are as eager as I am to immerse yourself in the exciting work ahead. This is a wonderful time to be a Patriot—we help more students succeed, make stronger academic and scholarly impacts, and contribute more to our communities than ever before. With Anne Holton successfully settled into her role as interim president, we are entering a year of presidential transition. This will be a year of change and a critical juncture for Mason. In times like this, it is normal to feel both anxious and hopeful. No doubt many of you are wondering how the change will impact you and your work. Rather than focus on the change and the uncertainty it brings, I would like us to embrace this year of transition, and concentrate on what we value about Mason, and what we want Mason to be.
A year ago, I posted the blog “Dare to Play a Different Game” in which I challenged our community to take the long view and play an “infinite game” based on the compelling vision and values innate for Mason. Playing an infinite game also means we leave something behind that outlasts our finite presence or contributions. In Mason’s relatively short history, our community collectively built and committed to Mason’s overall mission—creating a more just, free, and prosperous world—and we have created a culture of inclusion and innovation so strong that it has continued to live and grow. What impresses me the most about Mason is that we are never afraid to “break away from the pack” and we do not engage in “finite games” with our peers for the sake of conformity. At this time of transition, I believe our best course of action is to continue, without pause, on this path we have forged together.
In the same blog post, I proposed the notion of “access to excellence,” which has resonated with many in our community. Mason is known to be an institution that provides affordable access to a diverse population of students, and we must insist on expanding our path to access even further. It is equally important for us to contemplate how excellence should be defined and realized at Mason. I started by thinking of Mason as a powerhouse for new ideas and new paradigms for research and learning that change the world. I also posted a blog, “Rethinking Academic Excellence,” to suggest that meaningful learning should happen both inside and outside the classroom. Initiatives such as Mason Impact are designed to engage our students with experiences that help them find purpose and meaning in their learning. Done well, meaningful engagement can translate into academic rigor and enlightened insights, as well as changed lives. Over the last year, our faculty have made significant strides and created more than 100 Mason Impact courses and programs. This is only one small example of reimagining and realizing excellence, the Mason way.
As we grow, we must also continue to identify more ways in which we can diversify our community and be inclusive to all those who wish to be part of us. As Professor Lauren Cattaneo said at the recent new student convocation, we must have the courage to go to the edge of our comfort zones in order to interact with and accept what is different. I believe this folds in perfectly with the broader meaning of access in that Mason has created an environment that is not only diverse and inclusive but respects and embraces differences. This environment has become a core element of excellence that we stand for and it must remain to make us stand out from the rest.
The arrival of Amazon and others signifies a shift toward a more diversified regional economy. We are offered a unique opportunity to help create an innovation ecosystem—as the ideas we generate and talents we cultivate will become the source for innovation that fuels the knowledge economy. Some of you may think this is relevant only for a few technical disciplines. I strongly disagree. A crucial standard we should hold ourselves to is the way in which we equip our students to be critical and independent thinkers—one way to measure our success is their ability to engage, frame and judiciously address the issues of our time. As expressed in my blog, “Reconceiving Liberal Arts and STEM Education,” our efforts to be responsive to societal demands need not, and should not, overshadow the intrinsic value of the arts and humanities and their relevance to career success. It is my belief that we should reframe STEM fields and the humanities as integral parts of a whole, with the ultimate goal of producing leaders who can “connect the dots” with insights from different paradigms of thinking. How does social justice shift in a changing world? How do digital interventions change our politics and society at large? No matter what walk of life our students come from, what careers they are interested in pursuing, or how much experience they have already garnered, we as educators must continue to press by asking questions and stress independent, critical thinking in everything we teach—logic reasoning, data analytics, Socratic debate, or the tools of rhetoric all help students to identify biases and mental shortcuts, and master the art of persuasion for a better world.
In this time of change, let us embrace the opportunity to examine the values that remind us who we are and what we provide—that will inform us what we want Mason to be. I do not dismiss questions and wonderment about what this year of transition will bring, but rather I would implore that we center our energy on continuing the momentum we have built. We have the energy and talent we need to be successful and do not need to change who we are, what we do, what we represent, or where we are going. Let us continue to put our students first and move forward with the full knowledge that we can only get better by holding on to our values and dare to play a different game.
As you ponder what the year will bring, I hope you will share your thoughts and feedback.
Exercise the Institutional Muscle for Innovation
May 20, 2019
As the academic year comes to a close, I’d like to take a moment to thank you for reading and reacting to my monthly blogs. When I began my first blog on “playing the infinite game,” my aim was to find a new way to share my thoughts—while engaging the Mason community—on a variety of complex and sometimes charged topics, such as liberal arts and STEM education, philanthropy and academic independence, and online learning at scale. I have benefited a great deal from the variety of perspectives you offered, sometimes through posted comments, but more often in the course of organic interactions. It is extraordinarily gratifying and a privilege for me to interact with you in this way.
I was recently visited by a few reporters from the Chronicle of Higher Education who are looking at how institutions respond to the fast changing landscape of public higher education. Some of the issues are familiar—declining government support and rising operational expenses—and some are emergent, such as changing workforce needs for knowledge acquisition or the rapid shifting value proposition for higher education.
Among other subjects, we talked about the need for journalists (and universities) to reexamine or challenge academic conventional wisdom—preconceived notions of what constitute quality education, effective teaching, or the requisite roles of faculty and students. In other words, how do we, as conscientious players in higher education, lead the change demanded by our society, in our time, rather than be changed.
Mason is viewed as an innovator in higher education, and that might be the reason the Chronicle came to us. We make a practice of challenging the conventional wisdom, we have the potential to ensure that “disruptions” enhance rather than undermine our mission, fostering new ideas and paradigms for research and learning that change the world. As with everything we do, our actions derive from our values— putting students first and upholding our commitment to academic quality. As such, this becomes more than a matter of anticipating disruptive forces and their repercussions; it is an enactment of our ethos as we continue to create and innovate—it can never stop.
As rewarding as it may be for Mason to be seen as a thought leader on the future of higher education, critical questions persist, such as: how do we go from idea to action, especially when change is exhausting and inherently destabilizing? How do we build our collective capability for innovation? If a capacity for organizational learning can be envisioned as a kind of institutional “muscle” that has to be developed, how do we create an environment conducive to exercising that muscle via institutional learning?
Here are my initial thoughts. This spring, we have had extensive campus engagement for online learning through town hall meetings, panels, roundtables, and invited speakers. These engagements help to expand our collective thinking. Our experiences to date is based upon what we have been exposed to – it’s finite and limited, and there is a tendency to take for granted what we are and what we have. In contrast, dare to go “outside the box” seeking diversity of thought not only challenges our presuppositions but provides sources of inspiration. While higher education has always generated creative ideas that disrupt society, in a world of rapid change, disruptive trends will increasingly operate in the opposite direction. Managed properly, these challenges could present exceptional opportunities for institutional growth, and no university is more up to the task.
This blog is just a preamble to the conversation I would like us to begin. Even as you turn to your summer plans, I invite you to share your thoughts, and perhaps your own questions, about how Mason can develop that innovation muscle.
I’ll close for now by wishing you a very enjoyable and productive summer.
The Most Consequential Innovation in Higher Education?
April 23, 2019
You may recall that in December I shared my thoughts about why we need to expand Mason’s online education. This spring, we have had extensive campus engagement through town hall meetings, panels, round tables, and invited speakers. In many of these sessions, we began to shift our focus from why to how Mason should develop online learning at scale, while extending our education to adult learners.
Given the trajectory of our online evolution, it seems that we have (at least) three possible paths forward. We can gradually scale our own online program in-house; we can create an online entity with investment from a partner; or we can acquire an existing online university that already serves a significant number of students.
Whatever we choose to do must reflect Mason’s commitment to the highest ethical and academic standards. As you know well, over the past decade, a segment of online education has been impacted by the predatory practices of some for-profit universities. It is understandable that some in the Mason community are concerned about the stigma attached to online learning, and the risk it may pose to Mason’s reputation.
In fact, it might be helpful for us to lay out essential characteristics for the kind of online entity we can all be proud of. The first principle should be students first enhancing students’ success must be at the core of what we do. Our mission has always been to provide access to excellence. Therefore, the use of new technology is worthwhile solely to the extent that it produces successful learning outcomes. To achieve student success would require us to operate with uncompromising academic integrity in whatever entity we create.
Quality should always be our imperative many still remain skeptical regarding whether high-quality online learning is achievable. True, universities have been struggling with online learning for decades. Nevertheless, with technological and pedagogical innovations, higher education is on the cusp of a major shift. Reputable, affordable, at-scale models offered by top-tier institutions are emerging and starting to change the landscape and perception fundamentally. It is our responsibility to take that trend seriously. Many institutions are legitimately concerned about competition from those that offer academically rigorous online learning options¾the demographic shift from traditional students to adult learners has exacerbated that concern.
Perhaps the most important characteristic is the opportunity for us to push the envelope for innovation. In one of our campus engagement sessions, Mason hosted Richard A. DeMillo, a computer science professor and director of the Center for 21st-Century Universities, to learn from Georgia Tech’s success in providing a high-quality online degree program. Importantly, Georgia Tech is leveraging artificial intelligence to create an individualized approach to serving students.
Professor DeMillo described Benjamin Bloom’s mastery learning strategy in the online context. As much a philosophy as an approach, mastery learning holds that all students can learn if provided the opportunity to set their own pace. Bloom found that tutoring, combined with regular corrective feedback, enabled students to perform two standard deviations (2 sigma) better than students taught in the traditional classroom. Using this strategy, a curriculum is taught in smaller learning units, followed by an assessment of what a student has mastered and where work should focus to achieve the learning outcomes. This way of learning is not possible in a classroom with a large number of students; a teacher is limited in the extent to which she or he can individualize the learning to students’ respective needs. The challenge that Bloom set out, and which has remained unmet, has been how to scale mastery learning in an affordable way.
With recent innovations in online learning platforms, we are starting to see potential to meaningfully respond to that challenge by applying mastery learning. It is now possible to provide high-quality instruction on a number of topics, at a lower cost, and with individualized lessons that allow students to learn at their pace. This may be combined with collaborative learning¾joint intellectual effort by groups of student to offer powerful new paradigms of learning that are not possible in traditional classroom settings.
This sort of innovation reminds me of the personalized and connected experience that is intrinsic to the rise of Netflix, Uber or Amazon. We use these services at our convenience, at the time and place we want, and in the ways that we want while connecting to the rest of the world. And while Mason is motivated by an ethos of public higher education, let us not forget that these services fundamentally reshaped their corresponding industries.
For the purpose of spurring our collective thinking and discussion, here is one example of how high-quality online learning might better serve our students. Many professional fields are increasingly accentuating competencies. The shift in focus from degrees to specialties is akin to breaking things down into a mastery learning format. Ideally, individuals would be able to curate their own online education based on their goals and interests, or improve their credentials without a near-prohibitive investment of time and money. Ultimately, we want individualized online options to inspire students to become lifelong learners who continuously gratify their intellectual curiosity.
Let me close for now by saying our dialogue on online education has surfaced the key question: can online learning open new grounds for Mason to claim a leadership role in potentially the most consequential innovation in higher education? If Mason is to do this properly, we need to focus our conversations on how we can do so in a manner that stays true to our values: to put the student first, to uphold our commitment to academic integrity, to deliver high quality and affordable online learning at-scale, and to drive innovation at a critical moment in higher education.
I hope you will share your thoughts and feedback.
March 18, 2019
One of the things that I started doing as soon as I came to Mason was to highlight the value of multidisciplinary collaboration in research and learning. I’m not the only one: since the 1960s, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity have been a frequent topic in academic discourse. Globally, the past two decades have seen significant university investment in large-scale multidisciplinary research centers and academic programs.
Multidisciplinary and disciplinary work come from slightly different intellectual motivations and origins. Disciplinary work is rooted in intellectual inquiry about a particular topic, stemming from a need to both professionalize that subject matter and specialize by going as deep as possible, think alchemy or linguistics. This is the Western tradition of how disciplines are built. Yet if you trace back to the archetype of the Renaissance man or woman, the pursuit of knowledge was more fluid, even boundless. And even further back in history, the ancient Greek and Eastern philosophers sought a synthesis of all knowledge. However, even then scholars drew upon other spheres of knowledge to advance their own.
In the context of this larger time span, much disciplinary work evolved not that long ago. Some disciplinary boundaries developed as recently as the last 50 to 100 years. At an extreme, holding those boundaries sacrosanct can be detrimental, precluding scholars from challenging well-accepted doctrines, implicit assumptions, and prevailing paradigms of thinking.
To me, multidisciplinarity is not just a buzzword or an academic bandwagon that Mason should jump on. There is intrinsic value in creating cross-fertilization throughout the disciplines of a university to sustain its intellectual vitality. Without the counterbalance, academic institutions tend to converge on a reward structure that encourages faculty to focus on research and teaching within the limited scope of their discipline. I will address that reward structure later in this blog.
Intellectual vitality aside, multidisciplinary work helps scholars to recognize the relations between, and influences of, multifaceted phenomena, especially when facing complex, real-world challenges. Take climate change as an example: if unsolved, it is increasingly likely that our geopolitical future on the planet will be shaped by resource scarcity, social and political discord, population displacement, and climate disruptions. Global change augurs broad impacts in almost every facet of our lives. It should not be hard to recognize that traditional disciplines are unable to address these changes in isolation.
Neither are there technological fixes commensurate to the magnitude of the problem. Among other dimensions, sustainability and resilience are human issues. An adequate response requires integrating analysis and applications across the natural sciences, social sciences, computational and data sciences, engineering, and humanities to bridge disciplinary gaps and discover innovations in the interstices.
Last month, Mason launched the Institute for a Sustainable Earth (ISE), which offers the university community a way to come together in facing perhaps the greatest challenge of our time to think pragmatically and collectively about the role of knowledge in service to society.
The Institute is also serving as a hub for Mason research, scholarship, and creative work to engage with external partners, social, economic, political and communities already experiencing impacts. In addition, research and scholarship will translate into the development of educational and mentorship strategies to prepare the next generation of sustainability and resilience leaders.
Like the Institute for Biohealth Innovation (IBI) and the impending Institute for Digital InnoVation (IDIA), ISE seeks to foster a culture that transcends research and education silos, supporting multidisciplinary research to produce transformative results. As I suggested in my October blog about conceiving of the STEM fields and the humanities as integral parts of a whole, these multidisciplinary institutes seek to harness the power of collaboration to create new knowledge for the multifaceted world we live in.
Rather than supplanting disciplinary work, these institutes will build upon and elevate the scholarship of Mason’s world-class specialists.
Making tangible Mason’s impact to society at large requires us to think about the knowledge creation process itself. Working across disciplines involves epistemological, methodological, and communication challenges, not to mention institutional obstacles such as the reward structure, which we are trying to address. For over a year now, my office has been working with a cross-university faculty committee and the deans’ council to develop Mason’s multidisciplinary reappointment, tenure, and promotion policy. The draft policy will soon be ready and we will be seeking broader faculty comments.
In a sense, this takes us full circle: the multidisciplinary concept harkens back to the ancient unity-of-knowledge ideal. Perhaps a better conceptualization is a spiral of research inquiry in which disciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches complement and leverage each other to advance human understanding.
So how do we proceed as a community of learners and scholars? Consider looking for people you can work with to make contributions that go beyond disciplinary boundaries to develop innovative and valuable trajectories in the production of knowledge. My office has established a number of mechanisms such as multidisciplinary research seed grants and curriculum impact grants. The multidisciplinary institutes will provide additional means for you to find collaborators. For instance, ISE will be convening idea sharing and team formation sessions on March 29 and April 2 for faculty to discuss inventive ways to collaborate with peers and students.
I hope to see you at these events, and I will enjoy hearing your ideas. But please don’t wait until then. As always, I sincerely appreciate your thoughts and feedback on this blog.
What Does It Mean to be a University Faculty?
February 19, 2019
Most of us who chose to pursue an academic career were drawn to the intellectual freedom it offers. We enjoy tremendous freedom in deciding our scholarship areas and career path. No one tells us what we should or shouldn’t teach in our classrooms. If you think about it, few other occupations in our society offer the privilege of total intellectual independence. It is a privilege I have appreciated all my life—I grew up in an academic family; my dad was a professor. I remember when I started my academic career as a junior faculty, I marveled at the fact that I was paid to do what I loved, in exactly the way I chose.
I came to a new level of appreciation for this privilege last year when I had the opportunity to attend a ceremony celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Magna Charta Universitatum. The ceremony coincided with the 800-year founding celebration of the University of Salamanca in Spain—the place Christopher Columbus went to discuss the viability of his “voyage to India” with university geographers. The Magna Charta outlines the values tracing back to the creation of universities, such as academic freedom and the concomitant responsibility to society. Motivated by the societal context where discovery and new ideas—often inconvenient—must be nurtured and protected from the powerful, like the church and state, and sometimes, common, prevailing beliefs at the time. In other words, the privilege bestowed on the faculty emanates from foundational ideas of what a university stands for.
Magna Charta organization universities pledge to stay true to that spirit, as this tension is hardly a thing of the past. Many university leaders I met at the Magna Charta event are from countries around the world where the basic notion of academic and intellectual freedom is still challenged or even repressed.
As faculty, we are accountable to this past and present, but also to the future. How do we interpret these traditions in the modern era? Without universities, now as then, many ideas would not have a chance of surviving. Further, while universities originated to protect faculty from the powerful, the privilege of being an academic also carries the responsibility to create knowledge to advance toward a society that can be. How do we live up to that expectation?
Yes, we have to be the voice of reason, of measured intellect, in the context in which we live. As a university, we accommodate many different ideologies about what a better world looks like, and we need to maintain respectful dialogue. But most broadly, our responsibility is to be thinking about how to make the world a better place regardless of where we are today. In a sense, we need to stretch our minds, and those of our students, to think ahead of our time.
In the world of competing priorities and shrinking public resources, it is easy to lose sight of the higher calling for the university and the crucial role the faculty play in it. Faculty are pulled in many directions and their time is the scarcest resource on college campuses. So, a pragmatic question is how do we sustain an intellectually enriching environment in a world of scarce resources and heightened job demands.
As a starting point, we need to better understand faculty needs and challenges regarding work-life balance and professional fulfillment. We are taking a concrete step by partnering with the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) on the in-depth analysis of wide ranging faculty concerns from research/teaching, tenure/promotion, to collaboration/mentoring and resource/support. This will help us to work together toward a comprehensive understanding of work environment—from the faculty perspective—to benchmark faculty experiences at peer academic institutions, and to foster meaningful and sustained improvements that drive university policies and operations.
Yet the faculty work-life survey is one tool for strengthening faculty well-being. Creating an enduring, vibrant academic environment will require continuous conversation, attention and resource-investment. I am committed to engaging the campus community in idea sharing and dialogue about how we can make long-term and sustained improvement for all faculty.
Although this blog post focuses on the faculty, there is much to be discussed to create the supportive, motivating, enriching environment for every member of the Mason community. How do we create that environment together? I sincerely look forward to your thoughts.
Rethinking Academic Excellence
January 23, 2019
Welcome back and best wishes for the new calendar year! For me, the start of a new semester seems like a good time to refresh our thinking on things around us. To some that might sound like a platitude, but I could not be more sincere. I have been reflecting on what “excellence” entails in our vision for “access to excellence,” which I have defined as “an institution accessible to large populations of students, while a powerhouse for new ideas and new paradigms for research and learning that change the world.”
In this blog, I would like to invite us to delve deeper into what we mean by excellence, going beyond the conventional wisdom and examining the underlying assumptions we make about what constitutes quality in higher education.
“Excellence” can be a deceptively simple term. While typically synonymous with high achievement, it tends to be ubiquitous in academic discourse and we may not bother to elucidate. Consider that until the mid-20th century, the institution of higher education has largely been tailored to serve a privileged few. Deep-rooted societal perception has been that a quality education is linked directly to how selective, and therefore prestigious, an institution is. When we think of an excellent institution, it may conjure an image of a world-renowned faculty member giving inspiring lectures to a small group of students (in a room with dark wood panels). While that’s a perfectly valid exemplar, and many of our faculty are world-renowned, that image emanates from presuppositions of quality that may no longer be relevant. It certainly is not a model that is accessible to most students. Is this the academic excellence we subconsciously are trying to reproduce? Before you respond, perhaps this deserves further examination.
Since coming to Mason, I have been most impressed with our students. Their previous training may or may not reflect their talent, and many come to Mason with significant life experience. Some are non-traditional students and many are first generation. Most importantly, thanks to the diversity of our campus, upon arrival they benefit from being challenged to entertain perspectives different from their own. Most are highly motivated and purposeful in shaping their future.
Preconceived notions of selectivity and academic quality may not work for them. In a way, this is a gift to us as a university. I think we can all agree that diversity and inclusion are a vital part of Mason’s educational excellence. But beyond that, how do we explore new paradigms for learning and chart new territory? This aspiration, too, is central to who we are.
If our students have different life experiences and learn differently, how can we leverage that and reach them in ways that are equally—if not more—valuable than the traditional “sage on the stage” model? In addition to traditional scholastic activities, meaningful learning happens outside the classroom and in social settings, some of which—like Mason Impact— are designed to engage our students with experiences that help them find purpose and meaning in their learning. This may include well-organized forms of civic participation and global engagement such as studying abroad, including scholarly discovery or entrepreneurial ventures. Done well, meaningful engagement can translate into academic rigor and enlightened insights. And changed lives.
I have no doubt that we can offer wide-ranging opportunities for scholarship and discovery while maintaining academic rigor, and achieve outcomes that are potentially better than, or complimentary to, listening to an inspiring faculty lecturer.
As we embark upon this semester, what elements constitute our definition of a high quality, meaningful academic experience? Importantly, do they resonate not only with us, but with our students? Will these ways enhance their experience of the world, and encourage and enable them to build a better one?
As always, I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts, and to learning from you.
Dare to Play a Different Game in Online Education
December 19, 2018
Here we are at the semester’s end and the close of 2018, a time that naturally spawns reflection on our accomplishments. Just a few days ago, the new Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education once again placed Mason in the top tier (or R1) of research universities in the U.S. Congratulations to all on this remarkable achievement! This is an important reaffirmation of Mason’s commitment to excellence. As we justly celebrate this community achievement, I hope it inspires us to continue to strive, in confident and imaginative ways, to positively impact the lives of our students, the larger community, and the world.
In that spirit, I’d like to share some thoughts about events to come in the context of our intention to broaden opportunities for online student learning.
Universities often claim to help students cultivate a lifelong love for learning. For us, and for me personally, that’s not rhetoric. As an example, although I studied quantum mechanics years ago as an undergraduate, I wanted to learn more. So I availed myself of an online course taught by Leonard Susskind. It was an eye-opening experience in which I received high-quality instruction from an iconic scholar on a topic that really interested me, and I learned at my own pace.
Since I took my course a few years ago, online learning has evolved tremendously in terms of sophistication and learner friendliness. Providers are now capable of offering attentive student support that in many cases is superior to face-to-face instruction, certainly ones in a large class. This is good news for a large, underserved student population, domestically and abroad.
In a disturbing trend, and despite their aspirations, many students find that work, expenses, family and other obligations inhibit their ambition to complete a degree. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2017, over 35 million Americans ages 25 and over had earned some college credit but no degree.
This is an issue of significant social consequence. In our knowledge economy, a college degree delimits career opportunities or ability to participate in the professional workforce. A lack of access to higher education has, over time, produced an underprivileged population and subsequently a devastating societal divide. As a university for the world, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to this enormous and growing social injustice. We need to think together about expanding access to higher education for this underserved population. That’s one reason why our Office of Academic Innovation and New Ventures has begun to explore developing online programs at scale.
As you may know, Mason currently partners with Wiley Education Services, putting courses online so that students who can’t attend classes on campus can participate in graduate programs. Mason focuses on course content while Wiley brings quality production and real-time student support. We are now at a point where we’re ready to consider taking this approach to this large and underserved population of adult learners at both graduate and undergraduate levels. To do this at-scale, we will need to be even more innovative, potentially breaking the mold of traditional universities. In our choice to play our own infinite game, I want us to challenge ourselves to think creatively about how we begin to tackle this issue.
The persistent vacuum in online education for adult learners has motivated numerous for-profit universities to enter into that market. Over the past decade, however, some online offerings have not only failed students but damaged the repute of online education overall. This brings additional complexity to the prospect of serving well in this role. Quite frankly, not many universities have the capacity to tackle this issue properly. But I believe Mason is one that potentially does. So while this initiative is still in a formative stage, it must be substantiated in the expertise of Mason faculty and staff, as well as our commitment to leadership in the world far beyond the campus.
Delivering online programming at scale entails more than opening up a critically important student pathway. It is a chance to respond to a pressing social problem, and to evaluate new tools and methods to realize our vision of providing access to academic excellence in an affordable way. It also is an approach that merits full involvement by the Mason community.
In the coming semester, Michelle Marks and I will host multiple conversations about how we can approach these questions. I look forward to engaging deeply with you. For now, with 2018 on the wane, please allow me to express my appreciation for your role in making our university exceptionally vibrant and vital to the larger community we serve. While continued recognition as a Tier 1 research university is an extraordinary distinction for Mason, it is my unmitigated honor to work with you every day of the year.
Philanthropy in Public Higher Education
November 16, 2018
Hard as it is to believe it’s November, I hope you’ve been enjoying the change of season. I’ve always found fall invigorating and the best time for reflection. This year, especially, this echoes my sense of events here at Mason.
First, let’s celebrate Amazon’s choice of Northern Virginia for one of its second headquarters. Amazon’s decision is yet another reflection of Mason’s leadership in advancing knowledge, driving innovation, and fostering prosperity: congratulations to all! The company’s requirement of a “highly educated labor pool” at its ideal location belies the transformative potential of Amazon’s arrival for George Mason University as a source of knowledge and a pipeline for our graduates to the innovation economy.
Not only will Mason create a School of Computing, leveraging the power of computing across a variety of fields, but we are standing up a new Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA). Now more than ever, our programs will contribute to the knowledge vanguard, stimulate the development of new products and services, and elevate innovation capacity in the region and far beyond.
As exciting as these external events are, I also would like to focus on another, important development within the Mason community and share some thoughts elicited by the experience of chairing Mason’s Internal Review Committee on gift agreements.
As you will recall, last spring, President Cabrera charged this committee to review all active donor agreements supporting Mason faculty, as well as the university’s gift acceptance policies and practices. As he has noted, trust and transparency are essential to our mission. That report now has been released and can be accessed here.
In our knowledge economy, a larger-than-ever population desires and requires access to excellent higher education and innovative research. Paradoxically, however, we have seen unprecedented reductions in public investment in higher education. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that most states have cut higher education funding so deeply that, on average, states spent 16% less per student in 2017 than in 2008.
To meet their mission, many universities struggle to make up the shortfall by raising tuition and fees, reducing academic opportunities and limiting student services. At Mason, we work hard to keep our tuition increases moderate while continuing to expand our academic and research programs.
That said, and reflecting the situation of top-tier universities across the U.S., private philanthropy has come to play a significant role in supplementing faculty, student, and programmatic support. Further, its importance will only increase: we are unlikely to see a return of public funding to earlier levels as higher education competes with other demands, such as secondary education, healthcare and entitlements.
Regardless of your perspective on this issue, I am sure we can all agree that we should pay close attention to the implications of this trend, from the identifiably actual to the possibly perceived. Philanthropy funds buildings, ideas, programs, and affords thousands of students access to higher education. But some are wondering if private funding could affect the trust and openness of public institutions. I believe we can, and must, understand and address these dilemmas. In fact, some of our own faculty are experts in the subject matter.
After carefully reviewing the policy and practices of our academic peers, one of the most profound lessons I learned is just how important it is to understand and appreciate the balance involved in upholding the core principles of our institution — academic independence and advancing the public interest – without losing sight of our responsibilities to engage and inspire donors to advance our mission. To achieve that balance, we must approach philanthropy with discernment and prudence, engendering public trust through transparency and engagement in the gift acceptance process.
The Internal Review Committee laid out a policy framework for us to navigate these challenges. But that should not be the end of the process. I am inviting the broader Mason community to engage in thoughtful, multifaceted conversations recognizing the complex and nuanced nature of these tensions, with the aim of securing a shared understanding of how to embrace philanthropy as a means to achieve our mission.
In addition to enabling us to better respond to the transformed funding landscape, how might the steps we take position Mason as a thought leader on philanthropy in public higher education?
Please allow me to open the dialogue by saying I respect all perspectives on this issue, and we should understand them fully as a community. Toward that end, as always, feel more than welcome to share your feedback and comments at the end of this blog.
Reconceiving Liberal Arts and STEM Education
October 8, 2018
I hope you’re back in the swing of the semester. Thank you for the feedback you offered in response to last month’s blog. Your input – especially when drawn from knowledge different from my own – is invaluable. I appreciate it when someone enables me to consider a topic in a completely different perspective. So, naturally, I have been reflecting on the importance of this experience for our students.
One of the values of a liberal arts education is that it grounds students in a broad variety of disciplines while affording concentrated work in one of them. It equips students with a framework of thinking to become lifelong learners, informed citizens, and live rewarding, productive lives. Pragmatically, it provides a foundation in a recognized field of knowledge that graduates need in their career or further study.
As the same time, the increasing demand for candidates qualified for high-tech jobs has compelled American institutions of higher learning to augment curriculum choices in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). While this trend continues to shape the future of economic growth and the workforce necessary to sustain it, our efforts to be responsive need not, and should not, overshadow the intrinsic value of the arts and humanities and their relevance to career success. Yet the “liberal arts vs. STEM” debate seems likely to persist.
I’d like to invite us to consider this issue in a more productive, and hopefully, inspiring way. If we re-conceive of the STEM fields and the humanities as integral parts of a whole, might we better prepare our students for when these disciplines converge in the world they will encounter? Integrating STEM education into the arts and humanities could help students expand their humanities inquires. For example, an art history major might analyze a painting using new imaging tools or dissect digital archives across time and space, opening new dimensions of knowledge. Conversely, we have large numbers of science and engineering students who could be made much better communicators and creative thinkers by learning the theoretical frameworks and analytic skills taught in humanities courses. Companies like Apple build their success on a deeper understanding of human psyche, enabled by technological advances. Employers seek competent individuals who can think critically and interact broadly.
While it’s understandable that students are concerned about securing a job upon graduation, integrating the disciplines is not just about marketability. Part of our mission as a public research university is to ensure that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds are prepared to engage with the world’s problems. For better and for worse, science and society have a reciprocal relationship. While innovation fuels our economy, its pace can yield unanticipated consequences. Biotech and artificial intelligence offer unimagined futures but come with complex moral dilemmas. Many pressing issues such as climate change are both technological and human problems. We need leaders who can “connect the dots” by making connections between different paradigms of thinking.
And then there’s life. Whatever one’s primary discipline, situating the student experience in a deeper sense of what it means to be human – and understanding that others throughout history have thought deeply about experiences we have today — is essential to a meaningful life.
If we aspire to prepare our students broadly, we must demand of ourselves the same. What I’m envisioning is the knowledge to be gained from not just studying in different specialties but learning to view each through the prism of the other. How might we create such discipline-connecting opportunities? I hope you will share your thoughts and concerns. I look forward to hearing them, and — especially – considering the question with you from a variety of different perspectives.
Dare to Play a Different Game
September 4, 2018
Welcome back! I hope you all had a wonderful summer and look forward to a great start to the new academic year.
I may have met those of you who just joined Mason at the welcome orientation. If not, I hope to meet and talk with you soon. For now, as I begin my second term as Provost, I will be sharing my thoughts through this monthly blog. In turn, I want to hear your ideas and priorities. My goal is a vibrant dialogue with the campus community and I value your ideas and perspectives.
Earlier in the summer, I attended The New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum and engaged with some of the nation’s top experts in discussions about challenges facing higher education today. A particular discussion that caught my attention was the one by best-selling author Simon Sinek, who used the metaphor of finite games and infinite games to describe challenges in organizations.
Some of you may be aware that my own research has explored the use of game theory as framing and analysis tools. Game theory is fascinating because of its diverse applications, from abstract strategies of human cooperation and conflict to questions we encounter in our daily lives. Basically, it’s the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction between rational decision-makers.
There are two types of games: finite and infinite. A finite game has known players and rules that are followed until a winner is declared, as in basketball. We all agree to the rules, and we all agree that whoever has the most points at the end of play is the winner. An infinite game welcomes new players and has rules that are changeable over time. There are no specific beginning or end points, and the game progresses indefinitely. Players may drop out when they no longer have the will or resources to continue. Sinek’s point was that successful organizations play the infinite game based on a compelling vision or set of values. Simply stated, they take the “long view.”
Competition can be fun. And to a certain extent, it’s natural to compare ourselves to others. It’s also true that finite games can support the infinite game. For example, the finite game of Mason gaining Tier 1 (R1) Research University status contributes to the infinite game of attracting talented faculty and students who forge our scholarly excellence.
We earned the R1 status owing to years of shared hard work and dedication. Yet while an important step in Mason’s strategic mission and a proud moment for the entire university, external validation for playing well by certain rules can distract from the fact that some rules should be questioned. I’ll cite the tendency to conflate exclusivity with quality in higher education: universities with the lowest acceptance rate are considered superlative.
In the world that is, elite research universities do not typically form extensive transfer partnership with community colleges. Many in our community, myself included, are wondering out loud if it is possible to maintain our R1 status while serving our diverse and rapid growing student population.
I can hear the voice of “what is” calling for pragmatic resource trade-offs, proclaiming that an institution may spend time and resources one way or the other, but not both. But if we choose to play the finite game as defined by our academic peers over the past few hundred years, we submit to a false choice about what academic institutions – and Mason, in particular — should aspire to become.
Instead, let’s ask “what if.” Audacious as it may sound, I believe we can choose to be a new player in the infinite game and work to change the rules of the game. What if we choose to define an exemplary institution as one that actively seeks out, rather than sorts out, all social and economic strata of society to educate and elevate? What if a critical mass of talented people is inspired to join us in becoming a path-breaking, exceptional source of knowledge, insight and innovation?
In my view, at some point in Mason’s history, we chose to change the rules of the game; now we need the courage, confidence, and vision to define and continue the infinite game. Mason has been developing what could be a national model for higher education, an institution accessible to large populations of students, while a powerhouse for new ideas and new paradigms for research and learning that change the world. We not only provide access, but access to excellence. If that sounds incredibly ambitious, that’s because it is, and it requires the whole community working together to make it real. In this vision, education is a means to social justice and social transformation; in our own words, “George Mason University – A university for the world … we are an innovative and inclusive academic community committed to creating a more just, free, and prosperous world.” This is a game that should never end.
What are the intrinsic values that animate our infinite game? How would we make this vision a reality in a way that is realistic and sustainable? Such questions challenge us to envision what being a part of Mason can mean for us as individuals, as a collective, and as a force for good in the world.
So, let’s examine our finite games for the values they keep in play. Let’s continue to participate in those we deem necessary in the course of the infinite game, but remind ourselves not to engage in finite games for the sake of conformity or lack of confidence.
And let’s think and talk about the steps we can take to advance our vision. For example, one might be to make space for intrinsic motivation in our students’ day-to-day educational experience. Taking a “long view” also considers higher education in a larger social context, with an eye to the consequences for the world we would like to live in.
In this inaugural blog post, I’ve presented one component of game theory — the process in which players define their own game – to open a dialogue on the important question of how we at Mason define who we want to become. You may have a far better metaphor to offer, and/or more thoughts to contribute using the infinite game metaphor. In any case, I look forward to hearing it and to engaging everyone in that conversation. Feel more than welcomed to provide your feedback and comments at the end of this blog.
Expanding the Mason-NOVA Partnership
July 24, 2018
Next week, George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) will announce a major expansion of our partnership. Governor Terry McAuliffe will join Presidents Ángel Cabrera and Scott Ralls at an event in which they will share details about the next stage of our agreement and discuss how we plan to work together to help more transfer students earn four-year degrees.
Our partnership with NOVA has been a model of success. Each year, we receive nearly 3,000 transfer students from NOVA. These students excel in the classroom and graduate at roughly the same rate as their peers in the general student population. At Commencement each year, more than 40 percent of our undergraduate degree recipients had begun their postsecondary education at NOVA. That’s a remarkable number and a point of pride for both institutions.
While the NOVA to Mason transfer program remains one of the most successful in Virginia, there is more work to be done. Nearly 80 percent of students nationally who enroll at a two-year college say they want to earn a four-year degree. Yet 14 percent actually achieve this goal within six years. While NOVA and Mason have done a little better by graduating 20 percent, we all agree that we can improve this rate by removing many of the obstacles that deter students along the way. Misaligned curricula requirements, admissions standards, and financial aid policies are among some of the factors that stand between transfer students and the achievement of their goals. We can do better, and we will.
Our renewed partnership with NOVA will focus on the creation of a more seamless student experience. It starts with:
- One system of enrollment and financial aid support;
- Student services that help community college students prepare for a Mason experience earlier in their educational careers;
- Guided program pathways in high-demand disciplines and dedicated advisors who support students from NOVA admission to Mason graduation.
In fact, we already have some experience with this style of coordination. The Volgenau School of Engineering has developed the Mason-NOVA Dual Admissions Compact program, which will allow NOVA students to dual-enroll in Mason’s mechanical engineering program.
The Northern Virginia region increasingly demands an educated workforce. Increasing the number of four-year-degree completers in the commonwealth benefits the region, our institutions, and most importantly, our students.
On Friday, we’d like to invite faculty and staff members to a special meeting with Michelle Marks, Vice President for Academic Innovation and New Ventures, Office of the Provost, where you can learn more about the evolution of our partnership and how you can get involved. Please join us at 11:30 a.m. in Merten Hall, Room 1202.
We look forward to everyone’s help in making this partnership a national model for success.
Provost and Executive Vice President
Looking Back on a Remarkable Year
May 30, 2018
As the academic year winds down, and after sending off more than 9,000 graduates, it is a good time to reflect on our accomplishments and challenges. By any measure, it’s been a remarkable year together.
Looking Back on a Remarkable Year
Mason continues to be one of the most innovative and inclusive public research universities in the nation. For each of the past four years, Mason welcomed a larger, more diverse and academically stronger undergraduate class. Thanks to programmatic innovation and online partnerships, we have seen a robust rebound in graduate enrollment as well. At the same time, Mason competed favorably among the most distinguished group of tier-one research universities in the United States. We have experienced significant growth in multidisciplinary scholarship, as well as extramural research support, thanks to our ability to leverage our diverse range of expertise from the humanities, social sciences and public policy, to health, natural science, and cyber/data sciences. I am most proud of our efforts to provide high-quality education for all while creating world-class research to fuel innovation and social change. These efforts are culminating in our attainment of the vision set out in Mason’s Strategic Plan.
For our students, we have created an incredibly rich repertoire of innovative learning programs. We have seen 14 successful curriculum impact proposals just this year, advancing our goal to differentiate Mason educational offerings. Supporting our rapid growth in enrollment, the Student Experience Redesign and Mason Impact initiatives have engaged hundreds of faculty and staff to envision an exceptional academic experience while immersing students in challenges outside the classroom and beyond the campus. Our Smart Growth plan creates a resource and financial framework in support of our commitment to nourish and strengthen Mason’s faculty core. We are dedicating resources toward new faculty hires, providing an inclusive campus climate for tenure-track/tenured, term and adjunct faculty, recognizing faculty excellence, enhancing new and mid-career faculty professional development opportunities, improving transparency in tenure and promotion processes, cultivating academic leadership, and implementing policies and practices that support continued faculty growth.
While we deservedly celebrate these successes, we must remain mindful that our growth invites new challenges. How we navigate those challenges serve as a measure of the Mason community.
Moving Forward from our Recent Challenges
One of the more significant challenges we faced this Spring was the discovery of gift agreements that raised concerns about academic independence at Mason. This is an obviously very serious concern and as President Cabrera clearly articulated, we need to determine whether any other gift agreements failed to meet the standards we expect. Toward that end, he asked me to chair a comprehensive review of all active gift agreements supporting faculty appointments and to also oversee a review and possible revision of university gift acceptance policies and procedures.
I recognize that these events have called into question the trust placed in the university by faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the public. The President and I are committed to bringing this matter to a full and transparent resolution.
I see this as an opportunity for the university and the beginning of many conversations about our commitment to academic freedom and independence. As I stated at Faculty Senate, I am troubled by the idea that we might apply some sort of ideological litmus test to determine who may or may not donate to the university or support our faculty. Doing so would run counter to the fundamental tenets of academic freedom. As academics, we welcome different points of view and seek opportunities for open dialogue and rigorous intellectual debate.
Among our colleagues are the world’s best economists, legal scholars, and social scientists, many of whom come from diverse schools of thought based on different theoretic constructs. Instead of applying superficial political labels to these ideas, let’s bring them to the forefront for debate and discussion. After all, many of these constructs are founded on ideas worthy of Nobel Prizes and recognized by seminal publications at premier academic journals. Specifically, my plan is for the Provost office to foster such engagement by hosting a series of academic panels and debates, highlighting and leveraging the world-class talents we have at Mason.
How we work through challenges — in ways that build our partnership — is key to who we are, and by extension what, the university can become. I believe a campus-wide conversation about academic freedom will strengthen the university community now and in the future. It will require endurance, diligence, and intellectual honesty, but we will grow through the challenge. I am committed to doing the hard work with you, convinced that our efforts can magnify Mason’s standing as a truly unique educational and research institution. I am confident we will emerge a stronger institution.
Enhancing Engagement and Communication
In the same spirit of transparency, I also committed to improving our communication overall. I will continue my effort to visit faculty in all academic departments and divisions, and hold various open forums for direct dialogue with the campus community. Starting in the new academic year this fall, I will be sharing my thoughts and experiences with you through a monthly blog. This is one more channel for ongoing communications, and I anticipate discussing specific topics of interest, addressing emerging issues, and focusing on priorities that you raise as well. And we will start a Provost Office Newsletter to share ongoing initiatives and new ideas for development. I welcome suggestions from the Mason community.
Until then, thank you for another successful academic year and for the opportunity to serve with you at one of the most dynamic public universities in the nation.
Provost and Executive Vice President
Highlight of Accomplishments, Disappointments and Vision for the Future
April 6, 2018
When I arrived at Mason almost four years ago, I was thrilled by the opportunity to serve one of the most dynamic public universities in the nation. I was inspired by Mason’s Strategic Plan, which describes an innovative, diverse, entrepreneurial, and accessible institution of higher education that values collaboration, learning, and social engagement. Most of all, I was invigorated by the extraordinary opportunity awaiting Mason: the opportunity to embrace a holistic and high-impact approach toward learning, to take on socially relevant scholarly challenges, and to partner with Northern Virginia’s vibrant network of public and private sector organizations. I felt that Mason is offered a canvas of innovation at a scale and intensity that few institutions in the U.S. can rival.
As I prepare to renew my commitment as Provost and Executive Vice President, my enthusiasm for Mason has only grown. I am privileged to interact and engage with some of the most talented and dedicated educators, scholars and professionals I have ever encountered in my 32 years in academia. Despite the climate of challenging financial and resource constraints, the enthusiastic pursuit of becoming the best university for the world did not abate; it only grew stronger.
Under President Cabrera’s leadership, Mason continues to be one of the most innovative and inclusive public research universities in the nation. For each of the past four years, Mason welcomed a larger, more diverse and academically stronger undergraduate class. Reversing a five-year decline, we have seen robust graduate enrollment growth over the past two years as well. At the same time, Mason joined the most distinguished group of tier-one research universities in the U.S., and we are experiencing significant growth in multidisciplinary research and extramural research support. I am excited about our ambitious vision of providing high-quality education for all while creating world-class research to fuel innovation and social change.
HIGHLIGHT OF ACHIEVEMENTS 2014-18
I started my first year as Provost getting acquainted with the Mason community, hosting over 50 faculty/staff town hall meetings and campus events with alumni, students, and university supporters, while making over 50 personal visits with community groups and business leaders. These engagements grounded me in understanding the challenges and aspirations of our community as well as the expectations from our stakeholders. During this time, the university was facing severe, consecutive year, budget cuts from the Commonwealth; I started a major administrative initiative to consolidate the Office of the Provost into four functional teams with a streamlined organization. The two-year reorganization set the foundation for a budget reduction that resulted in over $9 million savings annually, shielding academic units from more severe budget reductions while generating the resources needed for major reforms. These included revamping the enrollment management processes, restructuring research administration, creating incentive-based academic budget systems, investing in academic core/faculty support resources, launching multidisciplinary research and curricular initiatives, and rebuilding an energetic and collaborative senior leadership team.
Working in concert with the president, we set annual goals aligning with the Strategic Plan to position Mason’s future as a comprehensive research university with a commitment to educational innovation and access. My senior team and I collaborated with faculty leadership, academic deans, and the Board of Visitors to achieve these goals. Over the past few years, I have focused my efforts on four main areas: (1) fostering academic excellence and student success, (2) elevating multidisciplinary research and scholarship, (3) championing faculty success and professional development, and (4) strengthening academic resources and administration. A highlight of our accomplishments in these areas is summarized as follows.
Foster Academic Excellence and Student Success
The Provost’s role, first and foremost, is to promote and elevate quality academic programs. Mason’s push to expand access and increase academic excellence makes us unique among our peers. Mason faculty have created an incredibly rich repertoire of innovative learning programs, from undergraduate research to myriad forms of civic engagement. Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have focused on developing a robust framework for curricular innovation while making its outcome easily accessible. Ongoing initiatives like Mason Impact and Student Experience Redesign focus on creating purposeful learning experiences while aligning support services to afford all students the opportunity to enrich their education. Our goal is to ensure, in the process of Mason’s remarkable growth, we continue to deliver the highest quality academic programs and experiences for our students.
In the rapidly changing world of higher education, Mason is both responding to workforce demands and shaping educational innovation for the future. To this end, my senior team and I have been active in formulating educational alliances for community college guided pathways, online graduate programs, and state-wide network for adult degree completion.
We were able to make significant progress in the following areas:
Promoting Curricular Innovation
- Charged a university-wide faculty committee to design the conceptual and functional frameworks that stimulate and reward multidisciplinary, experiential and integrative learning in all programs through research, field work, internships and service learning. This work laid the curricula foundation for the Mason Impact
- Developed Mason Impact initiative focusing on high-impact learning experiences, based on Mason’s rich collection of innovative learning platforms: Research and Discovery, Global Education, Entrepreneurship and Civic Engagement. A common thread across the four themes reflects Mason’s collective commitment: to make real impact for the world.
- Commenced the Curriculum Impact Workshop and funded 16 multidisciplinary faculty teams with the first Curriculum Impact Grants. The annual faculty-organized workshop and seed grant program will continue to support curricular and co-curricular innovation.
Launching Student Experience Redesign
- Launched university-wide initiative to re-envision support and services for Mason’s diverse student population. The initiative has sparked broad conversations across the university about what the ideal Mason student experience should include. Surveys, interviews, and data analysis helped shape the initial dialogue, which evolved into collaborative action plans.
- Formulated six task forces: 24/7 Student Access, Culture of Service, Data-Driven Relationship Management, First-Year Student Care Network, Student Voice and Student Initiation Experience. The teams have been working to build goals and form action plans. Each progressive year will include analysis, evaluation, and adjustment according to feedback from students about the quality of their experience.
- Success will be defined as generating a long-lasting sense of belonging and pride among our students as well as improving core enrollment metrics, such as retention and graduation rates.
Building Educational Alliances
- Initiated multifaceted partnership with Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) constituting comprehensive collaborations. This led to the ADVANCE initiative, an innovative new transfer model that provides streamlined pathways to programs and degrees, specifically designed to eliminate curricular and administrative obstacles between the institutions.
- Developed and implemented a comprehensive plan for online graduate programs. After significant engagement via my senior team, deans and faculty representatives, a third-party partner, Wiley Education Services, was selected. The partnership keeps Mason focused on its education mission while partnering with Wiley on nonacademic support services. Under the agreement, Mason provides the programs, courses, faculty and academic support. Wiley supports these programs, courses and faculty through marketing research and materials, student recruitment and technological support.
Strengthening Student Enrollment and Retention Outcomes
- Reengineered the enrollment management, admissions and financial aid processes. Since the Fall of 2014, the university has grown by 7.4%, from 33,791 to 36,297 (+2,506.) There have been large gains in the number of undergraduate students driving this growth, a 13.3% increase (2,984).
- Started to grow graduate enrollment over the past two years, after five consecutive years of decline. However, the number of graduate students is still3% below the 2014 level. In Spring 2018, Mason launched its first cohort of online (Wiley) graduate programs, which are expected to further reverse this trend. Enrollment goals were exceeded for these new programs in their first semester and a new slate of graduate programs are already lined up for future terms. Mason occupies a stronger position in the marketplace now than it did three years ago, and the number of new students (undergraduate and graduate) that Mason welcomes each year has grown to 10,543, an increase of 8%.
- The number of non-resident students pursuing their education at Mason has grown by 15.7% since 2014, growing from 6,234 to 7,213 (+979). Included in those numbers are large gains in the number of international students, growing from 2,357 in Fall 2014 to 3,525 in Fall 2017 (+49.6%). New partnerships, technology and tuition strategies have been implemented to drive non-resident enrollment in the coming years.
- Persistence and graduation rates continue to improve over this same period as well. Freshmen to Sophomore retention has improved from 87.2% in 2014 to 87.8% in the Fall of 2017. The six-year graduation rate improved from 67.2% for the class entering in 2008 to 70.8% for the class entering in 2011. Importantly, there continues to be little or no disparity between Pell recipients, African- and Hispanic-American students, and Mason’s majority students within these metrics.
Elevate Multidisciplinary Research and Scholarship
Mason’s mission goes far beyond the dissemination of knowledge to the creation and appropriation of new knowledge. While academic traditions have taken a path of growing specialization and fragmentation, multidisciplinary collaboration is more likely to produce research that fuels innovation and social change. Through collaboration, faculty teams are compelled to integrate their perspectives, concepts and methods to advance fundamental understanding and to solve complex, multi-faceted problems. As Provost, my senior team and I have been working to strengthen and enrich Mason’s culture for scholarly collaboration; we realigned and restructured research organization, built/enhanced vital research infrastructure and facilities, and enhanced research and learning experiences for a diverse, growing and high-quality graduate student community. In addition, we expanded research support at individual, team and center-scale levels, while building critical alliances and partnerships with external organizations to take Mason’s research impact to a new level.
In 2016, Mason achieved the highest Carnegie research classification; this highlights the importance of building both internal and external alliances that leverage the university’s diverse research expertise while taking its research productivity to a new level. We were able to make significant progress in the following areas:
Restructuring Leadership and Organization
- Recruited Vice President for Research; worked with faculty committee and academic leadership to renew Mason’s research vision, realigned the organizational and functional support structure for long-term growth in research
- Launched the Provost’s Multidisciplinary Research Initiative: hosted annual research symposia on topics of multidisciplinary interest (e.g., health, security, data analytics, opioid epidemic), implemented multidisciplinary seed grants along with an open peer-review process. The program is already bearing fruit: early successes include a 10-year Center of Excellence grant from the Department of Homeland Security, for which faculty from six academic areas collaborate on thwarting transnational crime.
- Worked with a faculty-led team to develop the concept and structure for the Institute for Biohealth Innovation (IBI). The multidisciplinary institute has since received continuing Commonwealth appropriation, provided a service and facility umbrella for several research centers, and served as a conduit for research/clinical partnership with the Inova and UVA Health Systems.
Strengthening Community/Research Alliances
- Supported research and innovation programs across the university that make direct impact on our community. For instance, the Mason Community Arts Academy brought university-quality arts instruction to the community through innovative classes in music, theater, visual art, dance and creative technology, as well as special events and programs for teacher education and enrichment. In 2017, Mason faculty created a new Mason and Partners (MAP) inter-professional clinic serving the uninsured, immigrant, and refugee communities in Prince William and Fairfax Counties. Staffed by students from various disciplines, the new clinic joins other MAP clinics to provide free health care, school physicals, screenings and mental health services for vulnerable populations in low income and medically underserved areas.
- Strengthened partnerships with IT and cybersecurity industries in Washington, such as Northrop Grumman, MITRE, BAE Systems, etc. to support cybersecurity education and research programs. Mason received major state funding to establish a veterans’ pathway program in cybersecurity.
- Facilitated a comprehensive partnership with Inova Health System and the University of Virginia to jointly create the Global Genomics and Bioinformatics Research Institute (GGBRI). Supported by the commonwealth, the mission of the Institute focused on: (1) research generating fundamental knowledge and integrating disciplines such as genomics, functional biology, bioengineering, bioinformatics and clinician scientists; (2) dissemination of discoveries for the public benefit; and (3) enabling scientific collaborations that have potential for commercialization and/or licensing.
Creating Innovation/Entrepreneurship Platforms
- Engaged regional partners in entrepreneurship and economic development in Arlington, Prince William, and Fairfax Counties.
- Recruited Associate Vice President for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; created Entrepreneurship@Mason, a university-wide platform including physical space, leadership, and programs. Consolidated and restructured key campus functions in technology transfer, Mason Enterprise Center and entrepreneurship education/research.
- Launched Mason Innovation Exchange (MIX), a collaborative space for students to experiment with creativity, learning and entrepreneurial skill development. Completed planning and implementation for a large-scale 20,000 sq. ft. MIX space in 2017 to support cross-disciplinary entrepreneurial activity for students, faculty and alumni.
Champion Faculty Success and Professional Development
Faculty are at the intellectual core of the university; dramatic changes in how we disseminate and create new knowledge challenge us to reimagine ways faculty may enhance student learning while advancing research and service missions of the university. As Provost, my commitment has been to nourish and strengthen Mason’s faculty core, dedicating effort toward providing an inclusive campus climate for tenure-track/tenured, term and adjunct faculty, recognizing faculty excellence, enhancing professional development opportunities, improving academic and research productivity, cultivating academic leadership, and implementing policies and practices that support faculty growth. At the same time, we designed and implemented a new financial framework to help academic units to fortify their intellectual and academic core.
Creating Institutional Focus on Faculty Success
- Created the Office of Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs and Development to support faculty across all career stages and types of appointment: tenure-track/tenured, term, adjunct; drive consistency and transparency in renewal, tenure, and promotion processes; clarify faculty roles and incentives through college/school faculty workload guidelines; identify dedicated resources supporting teaching and learning as well as faculty research; strengthen faculty support and retention, particularly for faculty of underrepresented minority; and, celebrate and recognize noteworthy academic achievements.
Charging the Adjunct Faculty Task Force
- Engaged the adjunct faculty community to identify faculty needs and make recommendations for improving critically important areas supporting adjunct faculty success, and deliver comprehensive annual report on progress towards stated goals;
- Task force conducted extensive survey in 2015-16, analyzed the results and recommended key actions to the provost. Subsequently, the Office of the Provost implemented a series of policies in support of the recommendations and formed a standing Adjunct Faculty Committee to address ongoing issues. The standing committee is co-chaired by an academic dean and an elected adjunct faculty member, who provide reports and recommendations to the provost.
Charging the Term Faculty Task Force
- Appointed, in collaboration with the Faculty Senate, a Term Faculty Task Force to examine issues affecting term faculty at Mason. The task force was charged to identify challenges and advancement opportunities for term faculty, as well as generate recommendations to address those challenges and opportunities.
- Task force interviewed department heads within local academic units and researched promising practices from other institutions nationally to inform their recommendations.
- In 2018, task force invited term faculty to complete a survey to inform further recommendations. Response data has been analyzed and will be shared at a town hall for feedback.
Enhancing Faculty Engagement and Shared Governance
- Initiated a formalized process for direct faculty and department chair engagement: established a Chairs Executive Committee and restructured regular meetings with all chairs to focus on dialogues and idea exchange; created several new forms of engagement with the faculty, including 40+ faculty breakfasts with the provost, attended college/school faculty meetings, and spoke regularly at student events and programs. In 2018, started the process of visiting 65+ academic departments and divisions.
- Developed and implemented a 360 Deans and Senior Staff Reappointment Evaluation Process to reinforce the culture of collaboration and accountability. The process provides transparency and guidelines for the annual review and reappointment, while offering faculty and staff a robust channel to provide feedback and critical evaluation.
- Developed college/school performance metrics in synchronization with Strategic Plan The metrics, focusing on academic performance and quality, are incorporated into dean’s annual and reappointment review processes.
- Hosted retreats for the development of College/School Faculty Workload Guidelines in collaboration with all academic Deans, which provide consistency and transparency for faculty workload and professional development.
- Hosted open town halls, faculty/chairs/deans councils, and one-on-one meetings to engage and address questions/concerns of the faculty, the department chairs, and the deans regarding the new budget model implementation process (some in collaboration with SVP).
Strengthen Academic Resources and Administration
The pace and scale of Mason’s growth can seem overwhelming at times as it puts greater demands on our faculty, staff, and infrastructure. But as we grow in size, it is important that
we are also rising to the challenge of meeting those demands by aligning our resources and administration with our strategic goals: to transform and innovate through teaching and learning, and to leverage our advances in research, discovery, and creative activities. As Provost, my priorities have been to introduce an incentive budget system, to build a committed academic leadership team, and to promote a collaborative institutional structure and culture. The incentive budget system moves central resources closer to local academic units, fortifying their intellectual and academic core. The leadership team cultivates the environment that promotes teaching and scholarship excellence, and a collaborative culture helps diverse members of our community thrive.
Developing and Implementing an Incentive Budget System
- Formulated the conceptual framework, in partnership with the SVP in Finance and Administration, for an incentive-aligned financial model. The model rewards academic innovation; resources are managed closer to local academic units so that they are poised to respond to student demands, while creating flexibility in faculty roles and rewards to support strategic plan initiatives.
- Completed stage-one implementation of the incentive budget model. Worked closely with academic deans to communicate and gain buy-in for the model; hosted multiple retreats and town hall meetings to address issues and answer questions. Stage two implementation will include a multidisciplinary program model and a research indirect (F&A) return model.
Building Collaborative Senior Leadership: Mason’s future success relies on the ability of its academic leadership to foster collaboration and to align with institutional strategy and priorities. Over a two-year period, I embarked on a process of organizational consolidation and streamlining, then rebuilt a senior leadership team through internal, national and international searches. Almost all senior leadership positions were filled through restructuring or replacement.
- Vice President for Research
- Vice President for Enrollment Management
- Vice President for Academic Innovation and New Ventures
- Associate Vice President for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
- Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education
- Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs and Development
- Associate Provost for Finance and Administration
- Associate Provost for Institutional Research & Assessment
- Dean, Antonin Scalia Law School (School named in 2016)
- Dean, Schar School of Policy and Government (School named in 2016)
- Dean, College of Visual and Performing Arts
- Dean, School of Business
- Dean, College of Health and Human Services
- Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences (ongoing)
- Executive Director for Mason Learning Solutions
- Executive Director for Academic Innovation
- Director for Global Education Office
- Director for International Enrollment Partnerships
- Director for Office of Digital Learning
- George Mason University Korea
- Dean of Academic Affairs
- Dean of Administration
- Executive Director for Admissions & Enrollment
- Chief Financial Officer and Controller
Promoting a Collaborative Culture: The main focus has been to streamline the Provost’s operations to eliminate redundancy and organizational silos to create mission-focused cross-functional teams that are effective, synergistic, and collaborative. Establishing a new cultural norm required constant and active team engagement with several hundred staff members, as well as active communication with faculty, department chairs and deans. For example, I restructured the Global Strategy Office by eliminating the VP position while integrating its key functions into existing operational units: Global Education Office (GEO), International Enrollment, and International Programs and Services.
Transitions in a large number of senior leadership positions coupled with consecutive years of budget cuts, stagnant compensation, with simultaneous growth in institutional scope and scale, created stress and pressure across our campus communities. I have received extensive feedback stressing the need to address faculty morale and increase transparency in decision making. Although I recognized and devoted serious attention to faculty and staff communication and engagement, I have yet to overcome the communications challenges inherent to an institution of our size and complexity. This is an area to which I am committing significant effort and attention. I have a few initial ideas in mind, and I am open to suggestions from the Mason community:
- I believe interactions and exchanges in a small group settings is the most effective. I have started the process of visiting faculty in all academic departments and divisions, and I will continue these engagements for the foreseeable future. These visits provide opportunities for open and direct dialogue.
- Ideas can be sharpened and improved when clearly expressed and debated. I intend to initiate multiple forums of direct communication with the campus community focusing on specific topics of interest. These may take the form of a monthly blog followed by solicited comments and feedbacks, a provost-facilitated panel discussion with faculty holding different perspectives on an issue, or hosting other similar forms of communications and dialogues.
- Critical institutional decisions require greater faculty participation. I intend to formulate additional advisory councils with strong faculty representation. Similar to what we have formulated in the adjunct and term faculty task forces, and the recently formed Advisory Council for Academic Innovation and New Ventures, these advisory councils draw on perspectives from faculty, staff and senior administrators to inform better decision making and shared governance.
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
This is an extraordinary time at Mason as we emerge to be a comprehensive research university engaging in the challenges and opportunities facing our nation and our world. Together, our faculty, staff and students are creating a unique institutional culture that is innovative, diverse, entrepreneurial and accessible.
I view my role as Provost to be primarily that of an educator. My passion is to nurture students into multi-dimensional thinkers and leaders with keen judgment, humility and a confidence to think outside of the box. I believe in shaping and creating an educational community with those constructs that allow young adults to grow into innovators and inspiring leaders with the ability to make a meaningful contribution to the organizations and systems that impact our lives. To cultivate true innovators and inspiring leaders, I believe we must enrich our students with multiple paradigms of thinking from diverse fields of study, building upon deep-rooted disciplinary competencies while providing them with the necessary educational community to support and enrich their endeavors.
Moving forward, I am committed to cultivating a diverse, stimulating and intellectually collaborative environment for students, faculty and staff. It is this stimulating environment and the aura of creativity that attracts the most talented people to work and to flourish. It is the creative and energized people that garner support from the alumni, friends and society at large, ultimately advancing the mission of the institution.
Over the past few years, Mason’s growth has put great demands on our faculty, staff, and infrastructure. Working closely with senior academic leaders, the SVP and the finance, administration and facilities team, we are putting together a Smart Growth plan, rising to the challenge of meeting future demands by growing our capacity and aligning our resources and administration with our strategic goals. We are at an early stage of this endeavor and it started with a campus-wide engagement process. The town hall meetings in the fall and early spring yielded significant feedback and suggestions from the faculty and staff, and the process of engagement will expand to include advisory councils and other forums.
With Mason’s significant enrollment growth and expanding diversity, our students are challenging us more than ever to create an accessible, innovative and inclusive learning environment where all members of the university community are welcomed, valued and supported. With that in mind, our priority is to reinforce Mason’s academic core to create enriching and transformative learning experiences for our students, and cultivate vibrant new environments for higher learning by leveraging our capacity as a Carnegie tier-one research university and aligning our intellectual core for high-impact research and scholarship.
Building and Expanding the Academic Core
We must continue to strengthen our academic core as Mason continues to grow. The university now serves 36,000 students, and over the next few years we are likely to grow even larger, more diverse and academically stronger. Our incentive budget model and the Smart Growth plan will create a resource and financial framework that fortifies our intellectual and academic core. Along with the growth in enrollment, we are expected to add 500 or more new full-time faculty members whose areas of expertise will complement and build on the remarkable talents in our faculty core. As we grow in size, we must also rise to the challenge of meeting those demands by differentiating our educational experience, strengthening our research and innovation enterprise, and continuing to cultivate a diverse and inclusive learning environment.
Differentiate and Improve Educational Experience
Our fundamental goal is to provide students a transformative educational experience that helps them make a real impact in the world. Mason Impact will shape our students’ development as engaged citizens and well-rounded scholars who are prepared to act through innovations in global education, civic engagement, research and entrepreneurship. Integrated with Student Experience Redesign, we are scaling our systems and infrastructure to provide students better and more personalized guidance to curricular and co-curricular opportunities. We will reaffirm our commitment to supporting faculty excellence in teaching and educational innovation by providing integrated and state-of-the-art instructional design as well as facilitating active collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.
Strengthen Research and Scholarly Inquiry
Beyond knowledge dissemination, a critical element of our mission is knowledge creation. We will continue to invest in initiatives that enhance Mason’s research presence in national and global contexts. We are committed to sustaining our growth as a research-intensive institution, examining the mechanisms we use to recruit, retain and recognize world-class faculty as well as to enhance the research and learning experiences we provide to a graduate student community that continues to grow in size, quality, and diversity. Building upon investments made and lessons learned from years past, we will continue to work on the development of multidisciplinary projects that engage the expertise of faculty and colleagues in all of our academic disciplines. The 2018 launch of our multidisciplinary effort to combat the opioid epidemic serves as an example; the effort will involve disciplines as diverse as public health, data analytics, psychology, sociology, education, workforce development, public policy, criminal justice, trafficking, law enforcement and regional collaboration.
A Diverse and Inclusive Learning Environment
With Mason’s mission as our guide – an inclusive community committed to creating a more just, free and prosperous world – it is critical we remain a model of civil and informed discourse, a space where people of all backgrounds, perspectives and convictions can thrive and be free to express themselves without fear. By supporting faculty and professional staff in facilitating difficult dialogues and discussions, we are ensuring our increasingly diverse student body has the support to succeed both in and out of the classroom.
I am deeply honored to serve the Mason community, share in your successes, and celebrate your dedication to cultivating and creating the best university for the world.
Provost and Executive Vice President
Creating the Best University for the World
September 26, 2018
As the new academic year gets underway, I want to take this opportunity to share with you my excitement for the year ahead.
With Mason’s significant enrollment growth and expanding diversity, our students are challenging us more than ever to create an accessible, innovative and inclusive learning environment where all members of the university community are welcomed, valued and supported.
With that in mind, our priority is to reinforce Mason’s academic core. We will create enriching and transformative learning experiences for our students while cultivating vibrant new environments for higher learning by leveraging our capacity as a Carnegie Tier 1 research university and aligning our intellectual core for high-impact research and scholarship.
Our focus must remain sharp as Mason continues to grow. The university now serves 36,000 students, and this year’s incoming class is the largest, most diverse and strongest academically in our history. Our new budget model is helping us to create a financial framework that will fortify our intellectual and academic core. Along with the incoming class of students, we are thrilled to welcome over 170 new full-time faculty members whose diverse areas of expertise build on the remarkable talents in our faculty core. The pace and scale of growth can seem overwhelming at times as it puts greater demands on our faculty, staff and infrastructure. But as we grow in size, we are also rising to the challenge of meeting those demands by differentiating our educational experience, strengthening our research and innovation enterprise, and continuing to cultivate a diverse and inclusive learning environment.
Differentiate and Improve Educational Experience
Our first goal is to provide students a transformative educational experience that will help them make a real impact in the world. Mason Impact shapes our students’ development as engaged citizens and well-rounded scholars who are prepared to act through innovations in global education, civic engagement, research, and entrepreneurship. Integrated with the Student Experience Redesign, we are scaling our systems and infrastructure to provide students better and more personalized guidance to curricular and co-curricular opportunities.
The new Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning highlights our commitment to supporting faculty excellence in teaching and educational innovation by providing integrated and state-of-the-art instructional design, as well as active collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.
Strengthen Research and Innovation Enterprise
Our mission, though, goes far beyond the dissemination of knowledge to the creation and appropriation of new knowledge. Over the past year our research community has identified several areas for multidisciplinary research and education that will engage faculty across the university. These areas include Health and Wellbeing, Cyber and Data Analytics, and Resilient Human, Built, and Environmental Systems. Our investments in multidisciplinary research are bearing fruit; early successes include a 10-year Center of Excellence grant from the Department of Homeland Security in which faculty from six academic areas will collaborate on thwarting transnational crime. A Commonwealth appropriation for the Institute for Biohealth Innovation (IBI) will help establish our research/clinical partnerships with Inova and the UVA Health System.
A Diverse and Inclusive Learning Environment
With Mason’s mission as our guide – an inclusive community committed to creating a more just, free and prosperous world – it is critical we remain a model of civil and informed discourse, a space where people of all backgrounds, perspectives and convictions can thrive and be free to express themselves without fear. By supporting faculty and professional staff in facilitating difficult dialogues and discussions, we are ensuring our increasingly diverse student body has the support to succeed both in and out of the classroom.
This is an extraordinary time at Mason as we engage the challenges and opportunities facing our nation and our world. I am deeply honored to share in your successes and to celebrate your dedication to cultivating and creating the best university for the world.
Provost and Executive Vice President
Office of Academic Innovation and New Ventures
September 26, 2016
Mason is committed to innovation, growth and financial stewardship as we strive to expand student access and increase academic excellence. I am pleased to announce some adjustments to the administrative structure in the Provost’s office to better align with the University’s strategic goals.
To formalize the process of exploring, launching and sustaining new educational ventures, we will form a dedicated office of Academic Innovation and New Ventures. Michelle Marks will lead this unit as Vice President, and her current position, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, will be eliminated. The Associate Provosts for Undergraduate and Graduate Education, currently reporting to the Vice Provost, will report directly to me. Professor Janette Muir will take on an expanded role within the new unit and an internal search will start shortly to replace the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education. Professor Cody Edwards will remain in his role as the Associate Provost for Graduate Education, reporting to me but in close collaboration with Vice President of Research Deb Crawford to further leverage the synergy between graduate education and research programs.
Professor Marks has served in the Provost’s office for seven years, the last four as the Vice Provost of Academic Affairs. She chaired the committee that led Mason in the development of our institutional strategic plan, and launched and advanced academic initiatives such as the new partnership with Wiley Educational Services for online graduate education, a new comprehensive partnership with Northern Virginia Community College, and a Commonwealth initiative to create a statewide degree completion network. Her new role will allow her to combine the development of new ventures and alliances with thoughtful integration into our existing programs.
Innovative ideas and new ventures must be built on broad faculty and community engagement and develop with well-organized implementation and support. As such, integral to this new unit will be a program management team responsible for the identification, review and launch of new educational opportunities. We are seeking an Executive Director of Academic Ventures to lead the team that will streamline and guide our implementation processes.
New venture implementation must be complemented by careful integration with existing academic practices and systems. As such, Janette Muir will join the unit as the Associate Provost for Academic Initiatives and Services. Professor Muir will focus on the development and integration of academic areas that ensure programmatic success and the integrity of Mason degrees. She will assume oversight of the Office of the Registrar, the Office of Academic Accreditation and Compliance and other intercampus affairs, including academic programs at GMU Korea.
Academic Innovation and New Ventures will be charged to advance Mason’s digital learning and innovation agenda. Dr. Steve Nodine will join the unit as the director of the Office of Digital Learning, formerly the Office of Distance Education and Instructional Design. His office will continue to enhance the digital learning experience of Mason students through the use of digital tools, platforms and resources.
The new unit will incorporate the capabilities within Mason Learning Solutions under the leadership of Executive Director Brad Dawson. Mr. Dawson and his team will continue to leverage Mason’s vast intellectual core to provide integrated and professional learning solutions for the vibrant commercial and federal government communities.
Part of the mission for the new unit is to expand student access. It will incorporate the Advising, Retention and Transitions function under the continued leadership of Dean Jeannie Brown Leonard. Dr. Brown Leonard will contribute to this new unit and shape campus wide student success efforts.
Mason is known for its tradition to innovate and to lead new paradigms. Academic Innovation and New Ventures will invest in initiatives that engage and build upon the expertise of faculty and colleagues in all our academic units, and to enhance our ability to expand access and increase academic excellence.
I look forward to our continuing collaboration on these new initiatives and changes, and am optimistic about what we will accomplish together for Mason.
Provost and Executive Vice President
Reflections on the First Year
May 19, 2015
As we wrap up the academic year, I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to our exceptional faculty and staff for your hard work, dedication, and great achievements for another outstanding year.
I would also like to reflect on my first year at the university and our progress toward reinforcing and strengthening Mason’s academic enterprise. Our plans and actions aim to position Mason to meet our strategic goals as the premier public research university for the National Capital Region.
First and foremost, we made great strides together defining and refining Mason’s Intellectual Signatures, the specific programs that will highlight our true excellence and intellectual distinction. During the spring semester, we formed a faculty task force to outline the concept and structure for a Platform for Educational Innovation, a university-wide academic platform that will incubate new multidisciplinary and cross-college programming. This will facilitate broad collaboration among faculty, staff, students and community partners.
The Platform will serve as a “sandbox” of ideas that can respond to rapidly evolving demands and focus on complex problems that matter. The Platform concept will be first piloted in the former New Century College, which was recently re-launched as the School of Social Impact and Innovation.
Second, we held an inaugural Multidisciplinary Research Symposium in late April, an event that helped further clarify our Intellectual Signatures. This event attracted some 250 members of the university community to engage in a conversation about important research questions in health and healthcare and to form collaborative teams and clusters. Program officers from major funding agencies also attended the symposium to present research trends as well as funding opportunities.
As a next step, my office has issued a campus-wide request for proposals that will award seed grant funding to support initiatives put forward by multidisciplinary teams of investigators across academic units. Our plan is to have similar multidisciplinary gatherings at least once a semester, with varying broad topics as focal points.
We aspire to be the innovation engine for the region. A tangible first step toward that goal was the April announcement of the university’s Institute for Advanced Biomedical Research on our Science and Technology Campus in Prince William County. This institute will bring together Mason experts in science, education, engineering and health disciplines, while leveraging local and regional access to hospital networks and industries such as biotechnology, information technology and device manufacturers.
Mason has grown tremendously over the past decades. We must continue to improve our structure and organization to meet the scope and complexity of who we are today, and who we aspire to become. Specifically, we’ve taken a critical look at the Provost’s Office operations and determined that we need to be better focused around our mission and have a greater ability to work across teams. That will allow us to integrate and coordinate our services for the Mason community. As such, the Provost’s Office will be organized into four key functional areas:
- Academic and Student Affairs will help entrench us at the forefront of educational innovation.
- Teaching, Learning and Technology will bolster a greater platform-rich, technologically savvy learning environment.
- Campus Strategy and Leadership will further engage and partner with regional and global communities.
- Research and Entrepreneurship will amplify and leverage our Intellectual Signatures, while reinforcing our position as the leading innovation engine for the region.
Reorganizing our operations will make us leaner and allow us to work more collaboratively across the university. It will also help us more effectively manage our resources amid shrinking public funding. In collaboration with the Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration, the Provost’s Office has achieved $6.5 million in permanent savings for fiscal year 2016 and beyond, freeing up resources to invest in faculty positions ($1.4 million) and to fund university-wide initiatives such as admissions/enrollment and the Honors College ($2.6 million).
I believe that we’ve grown stronger and more focused on our core mission. But we will need to continue to find ways to work even more effectively.
It’s an exciting time to be at Mason. We have so much to be proud of, and I am honored to work with such dedicated and talented professionals.
S. David Wu
Provost and Executive Vice President