How one man’s vision created an academic powerhouse.
When people think of Clarence J. Robinson and his legacy at George Mason University, they often think of his $5 million bequest to the university on his death in 1983, the largest gift the young university had ever received, and the things the university was able to do with that money. But Robinson’s true legacy goes far beyond a monetary contribution and hinges on a conversation and a single piece of advice: “If you get the people first, the bricks and mortar will follow.”
George Johnson, Mason president from 1978 to 1996, took that conversation to heart and used those words to build not only the well-regarded Robinson Professors program, but also a university of national stature.
“He was adamant that if you concentrated on just building, you would end up with empty halls,” says Johnson of the late Northern Virginia businessman. “He felt it was more important to get quality people first.”
And Johnson set out to do just that. With the help of the late David King, then vice president for academic affairs, he began searching for the best of the best for Mason’s innovative new program. They were seeking senior faculty from prestigious universities, such as Harvard and Princeton, who were broadly focused in their academic research and interested in working exclusively with undergraduates.
And the carrot that Johnson dangled before them was freedom.
“I offered them a clean blackboard and told them to write their own program,” says Johnson. “I found the way you treat your best faculty is to give them free rein.”
It was King’s idea to take them out of their academic departments and treat them as a separate entity, so their work and interactions could cross disciplines.
“That was the magic,” Johnson says.
While some on campus were opposed to such a radical move—everybody wanted the star faculty members in their own department—the Robinson Professors became a reality in fall 1985, moving into their own space on the Fairfax Campus in 1987.
“We had a kind of handshake deal that they were never to abandon undergraduate instruction and they were to do their best to build the university,” Johnson says. “The only complaint I ever got from them was they wanted to do more.”
Assembling a Cadre of Elite Educators
The first two Robinson Professors to join the faculty were Thelma Lavine, the Elton Professor of Philosophy at the George Washington University, and Shaul Bakhash, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
They were soon followed by Roberto Marquez, Paul D’Andrea, John Paden, Mary Catherine Bateson, James Trefil, Hugh Heclo, Robert Hazen, Roger Wilkins, the late Egon Verheyen, Jean-Paul Dumont, and Harold Morowitz, along with several visiting Robinsons who stayed for an academic year or semester at a time. For more than a decade, they were a solid group of 14.
The program coordinator was Iris Knell, who retired in 2008 after 22 years of service to Mason and the Robinson Professors. When talking with Knell about those early days, it is clear she was devoted to serving this special group of scholars.
Instead of thinking of herself as an office manager, Knell says she felt more like a concierge.
“They all traveled so much and were involved in so many things, I really saw my role as one of communication, making sure they knew what was going on and what each other was doing,” says Knell.
Collaboration is key with this group, as well as the opportunity and encouragement to step outside one discipline of study.
“I came to Mason because I liked the idea of working across disciplinary boundaries,” says Paden, Robinson Professor of International Studies. “That disciplinary trespassing extends to building bridges—not just across disciplines, but across cultures as well. That interested me.”
Over the years, a number of the professors have developed long-lasting partnerships. When Hazen, Robinson Professor of Earth Sciences, arrived at Mason, he joined Trefil, Robinson Professor of Physics, in developing a course on science literacy for undergraduate nonscience majors. The resulting class, now called UNIV 301 Great Ideas in Science, is taught in two sections, with Trefil leading one and Hazen, the other.
The course spun quickly into a best-selling book, Science Matters: Achieving Science Literacy, with approximately 300,000 copies in print, and a textbook, The Sciences: An Integrated Approach, now going into its sixth edition.
The Robinson Seminars, courses designed for groups of 18 first-year students, were offered before the university had established an honors program. Students were invited based on their high school academic achievement. The idea behind the seminars was to provide freshmen with a whole new perspective on education—and it did. For many students, the course was a life-changing experience, and the professors had fans, students they mentored for their remaining time at Mason.
An Idea Incubator
By the early 1990s, the campus was beginning to explode, and the Robinson Professors helped drive that growth. During Johnson’s tenure, enrollment grew from 9,600 to more than 23,000.
Some say Johnson used the Robinson Professors as a “kitchen cabinet.” The former president chuckles at the idea but admits he did listen to them and he did want their ideas. “They didn’t always agree with each other,” he says. “But their insights were valuable.”
The Robinson Professors are credited with a number of innovations, including the development of what came to be New Century College. Called Gunston College and the Zero-Based Curriculum in its early stages, the project was an attempt to re-envision the undergraduate educational experience from scratch.
Morowitz, Robinson Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy, was the leading influence behind the creation of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study; Paden helped plan the University Learning Center, which was eventually named for Johnson; D’Andrea, Robinson Professor of Theater and English, played a role in the development of the Institute of the Arts, precursor to the College of Visual and Performing Arts, and helped establish the Theater of the First Amendment (TFA), Mason’s resident theater company, in 1990.
D’Andrea has continued his work with TFA. In the spring, the company performed his play, A Two-Bit Taj Mahal, as part of the first Mason Festival of the Arts.
“Johnson was a visionary,” D’Andrea says. “He supported the idea of having the arts as a central element of the university, not a pendant or ancillary. He offered me what I saw as a unique opportunity to help build an institution with my work concentrating in the arts.”
Academic Engagement and Experiments
“The best undergraduates at Mason could measure up to the best undergraduate students at Harvard,” says Heclo, Robinson Professor of Public Affairs. “I told my students that, but I’m not sure they believed me. They may not have had the same preparation, but the sheer talent here measures up.”
“[The program] surpassed my expectations in some ways,” says Heclo, who came to Mason from Harvard to join the Robinsons in 1985. “I hadn’t counted on how valuable having senior professors from a wide variety of disciplines with the same commitment to undergraduate teaching is to the program. Scientists, historians, artists—people with whom I would not have interacted if it were not for this program. Unexpected colleagues. Support from administration to have the freedom to really teach and collaborate in the way we thought was best. [The opportunity to] experiment and try things not defined by our specialties.”
Experiment was also the word used by Wilkins, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Robinson Professor of History and American Culture. Wilkins has been often quoted in admissions materials throughout the years: “The exciting part of George Mason is that you can come and think your best thoughts and do the most extraordinary intellectual experiments.”
Over the past few years, a number of Robinson Professors have retired or passed away. As a result, the university is welcoming a new crop of scholars and educators. The two newest appointees are Spencer Crew, Robinson Professor of Humanities, and Carma Hinton, Robinson Professor of Visual Culture and Chinese Studies. They were drawn to the program for some of the same reasons as their predecessors.
“I never thought I could uproot myself from the Boston area—until the Robinson opportunity came up,” Hinton says. “I had never heard of such a program in another place. And when I visited the campus…just the idea of being around these great people, the other Robinson Professors—that people from these different fields are sharing something and looking to this great teaching experience and looking to enrich and enhance the overall curriculum and the intellectual life of the university—I thought that was very attractive.”
Robin Herron, Jim Greif, and Laura Jeffery contributed to this story.