September 9, 2019

Embrace This Year of Transition

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.

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