A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

He’s Just Getting Revved Up

By Michele McDonald on June 16, 2015


David Wu loves an adventure.

For nearly 30 years, he explored the winding back roads of Pennsylvania on his motorcycle while he built a career at Lehigh University.

Now as provost and executive vice president of George Mason University, Virginia’s largest public research university, he’s ready to discover new terrain. He enjoys mapping out a route and going places.

Trained as a systems engineer, Wu pays attention to the details to find out how they connect. Those connections point to a clear path. George Mason is poised to be out in front in this new economy that’s driven by innovation and entrepreneurism, he says.

Provost S. David Wu. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Provost S. David Wu. Photo by Evan Cantwell

The university will be looking at some new approaches in the coming months to support its growing role as the public research university in the region. From his years as dean of Lehigh’s P. C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, Wu knows students must be prepared for a changing and complex world. Majoring in one field is no longer enough. Engineering students would do well to add another area of expertise, such as business, for a multidisciplinary approach.

As part of that overall effort, Wu also will help the university community navigate the process of outlining Mason’s intellectual signature—our soul, in other words. It’s guaranteed to be an exciting, and enlightening, journey.

Why did you choose George Mason University?

When I first learned about Mason, I was impressed by how innovative and how full of energy it is. It struck me as a different kind of higher education institution. I’ve been in academia for 30 years and have experienced different types of people and institutions in my work. The combination of Mason’s access to a very diverse student population and, at the same time, it’s very strong intellectual strength is really attractive to me.

What’s been your impression of the university so far?

I was excited to meet so many talented people who are devoted to their work. That’s a great combination. The quality and the talent of the people here is amazing. It’s an energizing experience.

What are the top priorities for your first year?

When I think in terms of what is the role of the provost, I come to four basic roles. One is the role of defining the intellectual signature of the institution.

The second is the importance of strengthening our overall structure and resources to make the university grow and work—and we have grown tremendously in the past decades—it’s important to be organized in a way that’s compatible with our mission.

The third area is setting priorities. We can’t do everything at the same time. How do we go about making the strategic plan a reality and how do we sequence our action plans to be in line with the resources? We have to make some hard choices. Finally, and probably the most important part of my job, is to energize the campus to help people find their aspirations and their energy to move forward.

You’ve been talking about the importance of having an intellectual signature. What does that mean, and why does it matter?

For a higher education institution, the intellectual signature is the soul of the institution. When people think of Mason, what do they think this institution is known for? What do they associate with Mason intellectually? That’s just one dimension of [our signature]. Of course, like any university, we have many different strengths and talents, so it is important that we find synergy among them. We can’t be known for 200 different things. We need to harness that energy and creativity to a common end, maybe down to a few areas where we want to make a significant contribution.

The intellectual signature is really an effort to identify common grounds of interest. Let’s say we post these intellectual signatures as big banners. We ask people, “Which banner do you want to stand under?” You think about what you do and what you might have an interest in doing and how that relates to what the banner describes. This creates an opportunity for people to congregate and collaborate.

A third dimension is to rethink our intellectual contribution in the context of the society we are in. It’s more than thinking in terms of “I’m contributing as an engineer” or “I’m contributing as a humanist,” and so on. It is thinking in terms of what is the problem, what are we trying to solve? We want to change the conversation from a discipline or skill set to asking, “What can we do for society that is meaningful and will effect positive change?”

What should Mason consider when determining what its intellectual signature should be?

We have to think about where we already have strengths. At the same time, we need to be thinking about where we could be building over time. Over the next decade, demographics tell us we’re going to have a large turnover, as high as 50 percent, in terms of faculty. That creates an opportunity to shape what that core strength could be through the hiring and recruiting process.

Among the university’s top strategic goals is to deliver a transformative signature Mason learning experience. What does that look like to you?

To a large extent, it’s consistent with the intellectual signature and also societal impact. I think the most important dimension of it is the concept of motivating people to learn from what they’re trying to accomplish, as opposed to learning for the sake of learning. They need to have a motivation. This is something I believe very strongly.

One good example is Jack Andraka, a [then] 15-year-old high school student whose uncle died from pancreatic cancer. He realized there was no early screening procedure for pancreatic cancer. He did a lot of research himself and figured out a rough set of procedures that could be used. This 15-year-old was motivated to solve a problem, which is the most effective way to learn.

Books usually contain the most boring part, the outcome, but the most valuable part is the process. Give the student a reason to learn something as opposed to a “learn this, you’re going to use it later” approach. You try to answer a question that nobody answered before, or you seek an answer that you want to know yourself. That’s a very strong motivator. I think there are a lot of opportunities for Mason to tie teaching methods directly to our goals and integrate our research goals with our educational goals.

What’s your advice to students who are just starting their academic careers?

Think independently—don’t just follow what’s popular or what your peers tell you. Don’t just say things that sound good. I think it’s important to be authentic in the way you think. That will allow an individual to grow, probably in the most productive way through this period. You have to have your own reason of being here. Everybody should take away something different from Mason. We will be doing our job if we produce independent thinkers. That goes hand in hand with this being a diverse university.

Finish this sentence: Ten years from now, George Mason University will be . . .

recognized for the innovative approach that it uses to educate its students, while at the same time making the kind of intellectual contribution to society that makes a difference. I think that combination is important.

 

Fun Facts about Provost Wu

Steak and wine, or burger and beer?

Burger and beer. I’m informal person, and I enjoy a lot of outdoor activities.

Classical or hard rock?

Classical. It has something to do with my upbringing. I learned to play piano when I was four and stopped when I was 14. I can’t play respectably any more. If anything, playing piano gave me a lifetime appreciation for music and art. I enjoy a variety of music, but mentally I’m more of a classical person.

Beach or mountains?

Definitely mountains. I enjoy hiking and running.

Favorite guilty pleasure?

Riding my motorcycle. I have a race bike, a Yamaha R6. My guilty pleasure is to go fast. There are winding roads in Pennsylvania. I know there are quite a few here in Virginia.

What’s on your nightstand?

My iPad. I do read regularly, and I like to read broadly. I read the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker. I have a wide variety of books that I read and have a specific interest in neuroscience. It’s a fascinating topic for me. [American neuropsychiatrist and Nobel laureate] Eric Kandel is a favorite. He’s asking how the ego is formed—why do we have a sense of self? It’s a fascinating question, both biologically and philosophically.

Marathon runner or sprinter?

Definitely a marathon runner. I think it’s important to pace yourself to go for the distance. I’ve been running almost my whole life but I haven’t run a formal marathon. I like that running gives me some good thinking time. I’m a strong believer of body and mind. You have to keep yourself in good physical shape for your mind to work well.


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