Tom Davis strides into his classroom in Planetary Hall, sets his well-worn briefcase on the desk, and takes his place in front of about 25 undergraduates.
Davis takes off his suit jacket and loosens his tie. He has just come from his day job in Washington, D.C., as an executive for Deloitte, to teach one of the last classes of the semester in his Political Parties and Campaigns course, a curriculum he designed with his longtime friend and fellow congressman, Jim Moran, who often shares the lectern with Davis.
Davis, an adjunct at George Mason University since 2010, addresses the students at a rapid clip, slowing down occasionally to let the previous information sink in or answer a question from a student.
Part of this evening is given to preparing the students for the final exam, so the questions are plentiful as he reminds them of their previous lessons on gerrymandering and campaign finance—things Davis knows by heart. He spent seven terms on Capitol Hill as a congressman from Northern Virginia, capping his career as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Davis is also the university’s rector and gets insight into the classroom that the other members of George Mason’s Board of Visitors do not. In fact, Davis has served as rector since August 2013, which means he chairs the 16-member, governor-appointed board that guides the university’s future.
Davis says the roles of rector and instructor inform each other.
“[Teaching] gives me a different perspective because it gets me in the classroom with kids. It gives me some exposure to the people we’re here to serve. I can measure the depth and quality and range of the students.
“I get a lot of energy from the students,” says Davis.
Access to Davis also affords students a direct line to the board, even if that results in some surprises, such as when Davis asked for commencement speaker suggestions and took the ideas to the board for consideration.
“They wanted a lot of things we realistically couldn’t get,” he says.
Davis comes to Mason’s leadership at a time when the school is striving to reach the next level of achievement as Virginia’s largest public research university. His focus, he says, is on fund raising to keep tuition down and increase the endowment.
“We’ve got to be successful at that, and if we want it done, we have to do it ourselves. We can’t count on the state to pick us up.”
He also would like to capitalize further on Mason’s proximity to the nation’s capital, with more on- and off-campus involvement by policy makers and influential alumni who work on and around the Hill.
“And we’re working to make that happen,” he says.
Meanwhile, there’s an exam to prepare for. The students seem comfortable in the company of the former-congressman-turned-rector, and if they’re overwhelmed by the fast flow of information coming their way, they don’t show it.
The fact that Davis is the rector doesn’t really play into his teaching, says senior Rich Mitchell, a public administration major with public policy aspirations. “Except to demonstrate his desire to ensure we get educated. The insight he provides from personal experience is invaluable as a learning tool.”
Davis might say the same about what he gets from the students.