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A Conversation with Anne Holton

On August 1, Anne Holton became the seventh president of George Mason University and Mason’s first female president. The former Virginia secretary of education had been a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government [1] and in the College of Education and Human Development [2].

Holton is serving as interim president while the university conducts a national search for a permanent replacement for Ángel Cabrera, who left after seven years to become president at his alma mater, Georgia Tech.

The Mason Spirit caught up with President Holton during the first week of the fall semester to learn more about her decision to step in as president, her priorities, and the role alumni can play in Mason’s success.

Anne Holton at New Student Convocation 2019. Photo by Ron Aira

Why did you decide to accept the role as interim president of George Mason University?

[Board of Visitors] Rector Tom Davis is a very persuasive gentleman, but the truth is I love Mason. It was a great opportunity to be of service here. Mason’s mission of access to excellence and of helping people from all kinds of backgrounds successfully get a high-quality higher education is one that I am thrilled to be part of. The opportunity to help carry the university forward in this time of transition was one I couldn’t resist.

What is the biggest challenge of serving as a president on an interim basis?

It’s a big university with so many exciting things going on, and I want to be up to speed and be able to be supportive of all of that. It’s a lot to do in a little bit of time. I knew that we had become an R1 research institution and that we had such amazing work [happening] on the research side, but I didn’t have a sense of what that meant up close and personal. Obviously, I knew some of the great work going on at Schar [School of Policy and Government] and at the [College of Education and Human Development], having worked there. But the top-notch leadership research and creative work we have going on from the arts to the technical fields—it’s been fun to learn in some depth what that means.

What are your top priorities?

Mason’s mission is a pretty clear one: Continuing this journey of access to excellence, meaning that we work hard to provide access to as many people as possible who can benefit from a Mason education and help them get successfully through. So continuing to help the university meet that mission is a top priority. We’re embarking on this major tech talent initiative. We are already the largest provider of tech talent in the commonwealth, and yet the demand from students and employers is immense even before Amazon entered the equation. It definitely is one of my priorities to help us continue ramping up our tech talent efforts to meet the needs of the commonwealth. As part of that initiative, we will be standing up this exciting new facility in Arlington that will house our School of Computing and our Institute for Digital InnovAtion and will be an opportunity to encourage innovation in collaboration with startup businesses. A big part, for me, is to make sure all that work happens successfully. This year will be a crucial year for that, both in terms of working out the details of the state support, but also beginning in earnest the philanthropic support work and the planning and building work. It’s a crucial year for that initiative, and I’m laser-focused on getting it done right.

Anne Holton at Freshman Move In 2019. Photo by Ron Aira

How will your experience as former Virginia secretary of education help you in your current role?

The funny thing about the secretary of education job is that you actually have fairly little authority and a lot of responsibility. So it’s your job to help bring [people] together and move in the direction of the governor’s education priorities. There were a lot of very independent actors. I used to joke with then-President Cabrera and his colleagues that college presidents definitely did not think I was their boss. And I was not. Equally, on the K-12 side of things, school divisions understood very clearly that their local school boards were their boss, and yet it was my job to help bring together all these disparate elements and use the tools that were available to me through the governor and through the state agencies to encourage collaboration toward common goals. A university setting is a little different. I do have a little more direct authority, and yet it’s no surprise to find that there are a lot of independent centers of authority and responsibility here. It’s not simply a matter of the president saying, “Oh, I want a new sign there,” or “I want us to establish this new offering.” It is similar to the secretary of education job in many ways and, frankly, similar to other work I’ve done in other contexts—the ability to convene people, to listen well, and to help them come to an understanding of common goals and common ways to move forward together [are] crucial skill[s]. Even though I have technically a little more authority here, that approach to management is something I bring with me.

In fact, one of the reasons I was hired as secretary of education is, when I was first lady in Virginia, I helped move forward this foster care reform where I had literally zero direct authority, but I had convening power. If I called a meeting, people would show up, and I was able to—with good partners—leverage that into some really fairly major successful reform of our foster care system. So when I was under consideration for the secretary of education position, they knew I knew how to make something from nothing in the authority and responsibility game. Here, it’s a little different—but it’s not that different.

How does Mason plan to grow the tech talent aspect of the university to meet the growing demands of employers?

Our opportunity to grow tech talent to meet the needs of the business community is frankly much broader than the Amazon-specific-funded tech talent initiative that we’re partnering with the state on. We’ve already seen a significant ramp-up of all of our technical degrees, and we’ll continue to see that. There are lots and lots of things helping converge to help make us a center of tech talent. One of them is our ADVANCE Program [3]. I love the fact that we’re partnering so closely with the community colleges even in some of the most difficult fields. [The Volgenau School of] Engineering [4] was one of the first to engage in these community college partnerships even before we had the ADVANCE pathway’s moniker on it. It’s a really important pipeline, and it’s a way that we are able to put our mission of access to excellence to work. We are producing not just tech talent, but we are producing diverse tech talent, which is what the business world wants for all the right reasons—the creativity that comes with that diversity is top among them. Also, the work we’re doing to help all of our students improve their marketability with this digital certification credential. We’re giving students from all majors the opportunity to build digital skills that will help them find meaningful and remunerative work without having a technical degree. There’s huge demand for that.

Anne Holton with the Honey Bee Coalition during Freshman Move In 2019. Photo by Ron Aira

How can alumni help?

Two clear answers. Help tell our story. My perception coming into this role is that we actually have a pretty clear mission here at Mason, and we’re doing a pretty good job of it. But there’s a wider world that doesn’t really know about this gem. I knew a community college president once who said people kept telling him his community college was the best-kept secret in his community, and he thought that was a compliment for a while. Then he figured out—wait a minute, what’s good about having my light hidden under a bushel? So help tell the Mason story, and Mason has the extra challenge in that category of, we’ve just evolved so much since our beginning 50 years ago. We are no longer—if we ever were—just a commuter school. We are absolutely a world-class research institution. We are so many things that the world doesn’t know. The wider community doesn’t understand what we have to offer. So our alumni are our ambassadors to help spread the word. Then second, we’d absolutely love to have our Mason alumni give back in a very direct way. Because we’re a young institution, we don’t have an endowment built up over centuries the way some of our sister institutions do. We’ve made huge progress on our philanthropic support for the university’s mission, but we have a long way to go, and so we encourage alumni to give in every possible way. There is no such thing as a small gift, and there’s no such thing as a gift that can’t help make a difference in a student’s life. We encourage alumni to get involved in every possible way, including giving.

You have been a visiting professor at Mason for the past two years. What attracted you to the university initially?

I did part of my growing up here in Northern Virginia. I graduated from Langley High School in 1976, and I remember doing research projects at the Fairfax City Library around the corner. But I didn’t know anything about Mason then. Despite my father’s history with the institution, I really came to know Mason as an adult primarily through my role as secretary of education. Ángel [Cabrera] was a great messenger for the university. With my life’s work being focused on equity and how…we help people from all backgrounds, Mason is just right at the heart of that. When I was starting to figure out what I was going to do next after I left the secretary of education role—I left that to join my husband [Tim Kaine] on the campaign in 2016—I thought having a higher ed opportunity would be exciting, and the first place I thought of was Mason.

Anne Holton at New Student Convocation 2019. Photo by Ron Aira

The Mason community might not know that you play the violin and clog dance—although presumably not at the same time. Has the Green Machine come calling?

It was a long time ago that I played anything on the violin other than showing off to my kids that I could still move a bow across it. I grew up playing music in public schools in Virginia and loved it. I would say the major impact on me now is that it makes me an appreciator of all kinds of music. Clogging is something that I love to do. Clogging is the traditional mountain dance style to really traditional old-time music—that’s what the practitioners thereof would call it. Some people think bluegrass music, but it’s really kind of a very specific subset—think of the Carter family. Clogging is one of the traditional kinds of dance to that music. It’s something I learned as a kid. I just love it, and I do it every chance I get. I got to play around with the Green Machine at move-in week. I snuck up on Doc Nix and tapped on his shoulder. We got to dance a little together, and then he said, “Okay, I’ve got to drop off now because I’ve got to conduct.” So he left me and started conducting, and I started imitating him, and then he handed it off to me and let me do the downbeat to end them. So I’ve not only gotten to play with them, I’ve gotten to conduct them for precisely one beat’s worth. They’re a terrific part of the Mason spirit.