Dear Mason Patriot,
One of the first things I experienced when I became president of George Mason University was hearing people talk about the extraordinary diversity that exists on our campus. I was struck by the consistency of that message no matter whom I spoke with—students, faculty, staff, alumni, community leaders.
When I arrived on campus, I could immediately see what people meant. I was impressed by the diversity of our student body, our commitment to freedom of expression of a multitude of points of view, our campus cultural celebrations, and our shared desire to create a campus community where everyone could thrive.
As I worked with our community to develop the strategic priorities for Mason for the next 10 years, it became clear that deconstructing our diversity message was critically important. For example, we had to recognize that the immense diversity of our students was not only a question of racial/ethnic identity but also of socioeconomic status, religious preference, and sexual orientation, and that the same level of diversity was not represented in our faculty and staff.
As we put forth our institutional values, defining diversity and inclusion as a core strength was a given. But it also seemed evident that we needed to elaborate on just what we mean and how as a university community we should live out those values even more emphatically.
DETAILING OUR COMMITMENT
This academic year in particular I have spent significant time on these issues and have focused the attention of the administration on better defining our goals and plans. We recruited a new Vice President for Compliance, Diversity and Ethics, Julian Williams, to further strengthen the expertise on our executive team in diversity and inclusion issues. I appointed Prof. Elavie Ndura as Presidential Fellow to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses and to provide ideas for improvement. And I am spending significant time working with our Vice President of University Life, Rose Pascarell, listening to and understanding students’ concerns.
I charged Julian Williams with producing a plan to increase recruitment and retention of faculty of color. That plan is forthcoming. I have asked Provost S. David Wu to engage all deans in this discussion as we work to achieve a community of faculty that more accurately reflects the diversity of our students. This will not be easy to accomplish. Resources, pipeline issues, and the reality that our faculty of color are recruited by other institutions all stand as hurdles in achieving our goal. But our commitment is unwavering.
We also have more work to do as we create the most productive learning environments for all of our students—environments where our students can do their best to succeed. While it is true that Mason’s graduation rates are virtually the same for majority students and historically underrepresented students — this is highly unusual when compared to national averages — there still appears to be a troubling disconnect between this achievement and some of our students’ experience on our campus. To better assess the experience of all of our students, I have asked Rose Pascarell to conduct a campus-wide climate survey in the Fall 2016 semester.
STUDENTS ENGAGED IN POSITIVE CHANGE
In recent months, students across the nation have come together to demand that their universities pay much more attention to campus climate, curricular offerings, the cultural sensitivity and understanding of faculty members and administrators, the impact of rising student debt on low-income students, relationships with university police and safety officers, and resources allocated to achieving true inclusive excellence. Incidents of racial violence nationally, and experiences of religious intolerance associated with global conflict and terrorism, are felt very personally by students across the country, including at Mason.
I have met with student groups at Mason whose members are concerned about many of the same issues. They are speaking out and are eager to see their university do better. That our students are part of these national movements is an encouraging sign. It means that they care about the kind of university they want Mason to be and the kind of society they will help build. It means that they are becoming the type of engaged citizens we are committed to educating. But it is also a clear call to action, an affirmation that the status quo is not good enough.
Our work in this area must not be seen as just a response to current events. Our focus on inclusive excellence is part of who we are as a university. National demographics suggest that our campuses will become even more diverse over the next several years, as the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of high school graduates continue to increase.
As one of the most diverse universities in Virginia and the nation, we owe it to our students, ourselves, and to our community that we serve to be a model of an inclusive academic community. We have a responsibility to lead this effort.
At the same time, diversity and inclusion should not be pitched as counterpoints to freedom of expression. We care about diversity precisely because it enriches the ideas and perspectives we are exposed to and helps create a more fertile learning environment for all. Without freedom of expression, diversity would add little value to learning. But for diversity to be of any value, it must occur within an environment where no one feels excluded, where no one feels afraid to express themselves. Our university motto, “Freedom and Learning,” captures this idea well.
THE PATH FORWARD
In addition to the development of a faculty recruitment plan and a campus-wide climate survey, there is much more to be done. In the short-term, I have asked Julian Williams and Rose Pascarell to focus on these initiatives:
Facilitate Executive Council’s participation in a workshop focused on building an inclusive work environment.
Require all employees to complete search committee training before they are allowed to serve on a search committee, including understanding and managing unconscious bias.
Increase oversight of search processes to ensure that we are considering diverse candidates in our selection pools.
Invite everyone to participate the afternoon of April 5 in the program “Doing What Matters: Pathways to Inclusive Excellence.” This first-of-a-series event is intended to increase awareness about inclusive excellence and to encourage our community to begin a deeper level of dialogue about the needs and experiences of our student body.
Create programs for Mason faculty, staff, and students to develop and increase cultural competencies.
Strengthen the university’s process for reporting incidents of bias by tracking and monitoring potential patterns to continually gauge the campus climate.
I recently established a Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council, co-chaired by Julian and Rose. The council is charged with recommending and promoting policies, programs, and other initiatives that will attract and retain a diverse mix of faculty, staff, and students. It will also identify potential barriers to success and recommend solutions.
These actions will help us fulfill our responsibility as one of the most diverse universities in the nation. All of us will benefit from this collective effort.
I look forward to working with you in making Mason a model for inclusion.