By my very nature, I am an optimist. Characteristically I look for the “bright side” of issues and for me, glasses are almost always “half-full” rather than “nearly empty.” An optimistic outlook has served me well over the course of my life. I know it has served me well during this last incredibly challenging year as I have taken on the role and associated responsibilities as Provost.
If I were to ask anyone throughout the country and the world—from most any place, setting or position in life—the general consensus would be that 2020 was a difficult year. Not to mention a particularly difficult period in which no one has remained unscathed from stress, strain or worse. The challenges we have faced, and the tragedies we have endured as a consequence of COVID – combined with glaring inequity, mounting racial tensions, protests and riots, political strife, economic hardship and generationally high unemployment, have made it increasingly difficult to remain, or be, optimistic.
Why then would I choose to talk about optimism during a time when there has been such despair? The answer is both simple and complex.
First, I believe we are best positioned to overcome adversity when we are confident that it is possible. And second, is there a choice? We could choose to surrender to the challenges we face, yet that will not provide a catalyst to overcome them. I choose action over inaction. I also choose a to have a positive attitude over an attitude of defeatism. The situation has endless euphemisms such as – “there will be light at the end of the tunnel” or “the sun will come out tomorrow” or “there can be no quit in us.” I, however, do not choose rhetoric, rather I choose intentional actions.
Mason today is a shining example of optimism and confidence bathed in a deep appreciation for science and advice based not on instinct – that is not what we may think or believe – but rather on an understanding of what we know. We have remained intent on “doing the right thing” based upon scientific evidence and data. I am also pleased that our commitment to rely on evidence to do the right things has been critical to our success.
Our decisions have been based on the principle that in order to “weather the storm” we not only need to seek shelter but more importantly, learn how to adapt and adjust to changing conditions. We did not retreat, instead we sought to advance. And advance we have.
We relied both on our optimism, and realism, and have learned from our experiences. As a result, we modified our approach as we transformed our campus, as well as our programs. We built capacity for COVID testing and have prepared mass vaccination centers on our campus, a few examples of our many campus-wide modifications. We adjusted and adapted.
And now, as we look forward to the vaccination of our entire Mason community, we optimistically anticipate reinventing our university by defining our “new normal.” We will integrate both inventive learning technologies and technology-linked models that promote student, faculty and staff success as well as more efficient administrative processes
Over the last year we also focused on other enormously important issues. The university framed a major series of initiatives focused on antiracism and inclusive excellence while simultaneously managing the inherent fiscal challenges associated with the pandemic. In addition, we accelerated our planning for the Mason of the future. Not only did we adapt to the immediate issues at hand, we also relied on our optimism to prepare for the next era. Winston Churchill had been quoted as saying, “…a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” He was right, and that is what we are doing.
As we prepare for a “new normal”, we must leverage, lift and sustain in ways that will continue Mason’s transformation during a time of continuing transition.
I do not dismiss the horrors of our recent life experiences. They exist, they have been consequential, and they have had a horrific toll. The respected psychologist and father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, argued that we can cultivate positivism. He further suggested that optimism has been shown to endure during stressful times, which also leads to success when linked with perseverance and decision-making efficacy. When best-selling author Norman Vincent Peale long ago identified the “power of positive thinking”, he too was correct. This is not naïve thinking; it is a principle that has its roots in the lived experiences of successful persons and is a framework that encapsulates my own world view.
I know we will not succeed by optimism alone. I also know that we have a long road to travel before the pandemic ends and other historic societal challenges heal. Rather than sit idly by, I will remain focused on the goals we will set and the challenges we will need to confront, and I will do so with an attitude of optimism.
I am confident, and optimistic, that we together we will stay on a path forward to defining a “new normal” for Mason in fall 2021, and into the future. I invite you to join with me.