Mason’s eighth president talks about leading the university during a pandemic and a national crisis.
Gregory Washington accepted the position as the university’s eighth president in February—before the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, and before the national racial reckoning that has swept the country.
Since joining the university July 1, Washington has adapted his vision to address these simultaneous crises. First, he led a Safe Return to Campus planning process that resulted in Mason students returning this fall for a modified reopening. He launched the university-wide Task Force on Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence to identify and correct inequities in university policies and practices. And he is determining how Mason can have the greatest impact in the post-COVID era, not only for new students, but to serve a displaced workforce.
“This state—mind you, the country—needs a Mason, needs this institution probably more than it’s ever needed it,” says Washington, the former engineering dean at the University of California, Irvine. “My vision now is to position us to take on the responsibility that’s associated with that need.”
Mason Spirit caught up with Washington to learn more about his “locally oriented, globally focused” vision for the university, including the opportunities for research and experiential learning and the necessity of alumni advocacy on behalf of the university.
You’ve been on the job now for a few months. What’s your impression of Mason?
It’s a great place with lots of good people. You find out a lot about people when you’re in crisis, right? Overall, I’m pretty happy with the staff that’s here. There are some world-class faculty here, and they’re doing outstanding things. I just need to figure out how I can put the right mechanisms in place to support them.
I knew it was a good student body, but seeing the level of commitment to change, seeing the level of commitment to their overall well-being, and seeing a level of maturity in terms of understanding the issues around them wasn’t what I actually expected, wasn’t what I had seen in other students of similar age. Students here have been educated [in] and subjected to hardship, and they have internalized that, turned it into fuel, and are using it to really promote the direction the campus should move in.
For example, it’s easy for a group of students to say, “There’s Mason’s statue. He owned slaves. Tear it down.” But you see a level of maturity in the students who say, you know, he had issues, and we’re not going to celebrate that. We’re going to commemorate him for what he’s done, but we’re also going to recognize those who helped and supported him. We’re going to figure out a way to tell the complete story.
To me, that’s Mason. The fact that you can have the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution and the Antonin Scalia Law School [next door]—try that at some of our more prestigious campuses in the country. Try to have those entities coexist. It just wouldn’t happen. This is the true definition of a “big tent.”
This is a difficult time for all university presidents, but especially for those just getting started. What has it been like for you?
In the short time that I’ve been here, I can see the impact that Mason is having, not just on the state, but on the country, in terms of what we’re doing. And so that’s been really cool to see, really cool to experience that you can actually have a global impact from here. A significant one.
What is the most important thing the university has done in response to COVID-19?
There is no one important thing. There is no silver bullet to deal with [in preventing the spread of the coronavirus]. If you look across the state, when it comes to large institutions, we are doing better than every institution by far. There is no close competitor to us in terms of how we’ve managed this crisis. And that’s a testament to our faculty, that’s a testament to our administration, our leadership team who’ve put in place, not a silver bullet, but what I would call silver buckshot. It’s a lot of different things that we’re doing.
I ask myself the question: Are we just lucky? Why are we doing so much better? And so I told my staff, go out, talk to these other institutions who were having some challenges, ask them what they were doing and what do they see as the reasons why they’re in the positions they’re in? And when we did that, the information that I got back was they didn’t pre-test or they didn’t manage the situation with their student parties well. Or they don’t have robotic delivery. It was always one key piece that we had that they didn’t. There was nobody who had something that we didn’t.
In the end, the reality is we’re here because we’ve made a different set of decisions than our peers have made. From pre-testing to surveillance testing, to diagnostic testing, to robotic delivery, to public-private partnerships with our local bars and restaurants, to partnerships with our public safety [and] with the Fairfax County Police, all of these entities added up to providing an environment where we’ve been able to manage.
How are Mason’s faculty also contributing to try to solve this challenge, and what are you seeing from research universities nationally on this issue?
We’re a good research university. You become a great research university by solving and engaging in the grand-challenge problems of our time. This is indeed one of them. And here is what I know: We’ve had faculty stand up laboratories to help us with testing. We’ve had faculty develop new testing protocols, new ways of managing and dealing with the virus, new health care practices. And that’s what you expect to see at a great research university. It’s happening here. And so, if you haven’t heard those stories, you need to get ’em and put ’em in the magazine because it’s not just a heartwarming story. For our students, it’s experiential learning in action. They are tackling the problem as the problem is tackling them. It’s just an amazing thing to witness and experience.
You’ve also found time to launch other initiatives. Your third week on the job, you announced the Task Force on Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence that now includes 100 members of the university community. Why?
There wasn’t a mechanism where I could have ignored it. If you drive up and your house is on fire, your first notion is either I need to put it out, or I need to get somebody here who can put out that fire. And that’s what we’re looking at with COVID-19. With the racial inequity issues, another part of the house is on fire. There really was no other choice. We were going to have to deal with this in a very, very significant way. The first question I was asked by a reporter was not “How are you managing the COVID crisis?”—it was “What do you think about changing the name of the university?”
I couldn’t sweep it under the rug or delay it. You think we have challenges? We would have had significant challenges had we not put in place the mechanism. Now all of those people who would have been up in arms at us [about racial injustice] are now working toward a great solution for our campus.
You’re an engineer. How does that inform your leadership and approach to challenges and opportunities?
The training that you get as an engineer is focused squarely on problem-solving. You take a big problem, and you divide it into smaller problems. You solve the smaller problems. And then you hope that when you sum it all up, you’ve actually made a dent in the bigger problem. That’s how we’re managing COVID.
Part of the reason we are doing so many different things is because the problem dictates that we have absolutely no idea on what one thing worked. And the only way to manage a problem like that is you attack it from many fronts. People told me as we were going through the process—and we were getting all these criticisms from some groups of faculty—they would say, you’re building a plane as you fly it. I know what it’s like to build a plane. We’re actually not building the plane as we fly it. You’re going to crash that plane if you’re trying to do that. But we are trying things aggressively. We’re being innovative in our approaches. It’s an innovative group of people who are trying lots of different things. If something doesn’t work, we pivot. If it does, we double down.
What is your vision for Mason?
It’s changing, and I think it will continue to evolve, because [the pandemic] is like World War II. This is like 9/11. The country will be a different country on the backside of this. We’re not going to be the same place. If I had taken that vision that I had coming in the door and dusted that vision off and said this is the vision for Mason, I think it would’ve been a mistake.
You’re seeing it happen right in front of our face. In Fairfax County, there are 31,000 unfilled jobs. In Northern Virginia, that number is closer to 100,000. Yet we have significant unemployment in this area. So, what does that mean? That means there are lots of people who are unemployed and unemployable, and lots of companies that need people to work and can’t find the talent they need. And who fills that gap? That gap is filled by institutions of higher learning that upskill, reskill, and retrain. That’s what we do.
The difference between this and 9/11 is that 9/11 was happening to [only] us. [The pandemic] is happening to everybody on the planet at the same time. Everybody is going to be changed because of this. That means that we can develop solutions here that can impact somebody in Ghana. That can impact someone in Europe. That can impact someone in the Middle East. It provides a tremendous opportunity for us. This is the time you make strides to become that global solution-oriented institution. This is not the time to retrench. This is the time to expand.
We are going to focus on aspects of experiential learning, meaning that the problems that are in front of us don’t just provide opportunities for our students to learn, they provide opportunities for our students to learn and solve at the same time. That experience is one that we can’t replicate in a classroom. And I am going to work really hard to reposition and refocus us where the problems are to provide experiential learning opportunities for our students and research opportunities for our faculty. And that means you must be focused on the grand challenges of your day.
This state—mind you, the country—needs a Mason, needs this institution probably more than it’s ever needed it. So my vision now is to position us to take on the responsibility that’s associated with that need.
You met with alumni your first day on the job. How important are alumni to the university’s mission? What would you like to see from them?
Advocacy. The reality of the situation is this: Mason is near the bottom of public institutions in this state in terms of the amount of support it receives per student. That’s an advocacy issue. The institution has not been advocated for by individuals who represent it like it should have been. We have to advocate for ourselves better, but our alumni have to get out and advocate for us, too. The people who have benefited from a Mason education and see the value in it have to go to individuals and say, “You have to support this institution.”
We’re not asking to be differentially supported. Just support us like everybody else. Just get us in the average. If you make us average in terms of your support, we will make you above average in terms of our outcomes. I tell our alums all the time: I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the value of their Mason degree has never been worth more than it is today. And my job is to make sure that five years from now the value of that degree is worth more than it is right now.
That has held true because the prestige of this institution continues to rise. Its star is going up astronomically. It’s an amazing thing to see, and I’m really excited to be a part of it.