Sunday, June 7, 2009

Interview with Dr. Ronald Mason, Jr. (President of Jackson State University)

Over about a year, Planet Weekly was doing a series of interviews with the presidents of the local colleges and universities: Belhaven College, Millsaps College, Hines County Community College, Tougaloo College, and Jackson State University. Each school was done by a different writer (which turned out well), and I was assigned Dr. Mason of JSU. It is my belief that he has the most dangerous intellect I've ever seen. He is brilliant and knows exactly what he's saying and doing. I still remain in awe of his brain.

Dr. Ronald Mason, Jr. became the President of Jackson State University on February 1, 2000. In his five years, he has led the school into a period of growth, economic development, and heightened reputation and respect. In this time, Jackson State has reorganized many of its schools and colleges, reached into the community to create a Jackson State-based technology cluster, and begun sweeping programs to increase economic and community development. The student body continues to grow and more and more alumni of this historic institution are making names for themselves in the world of business, public service, and the arts.

Dr. Mason’s inaugural address was “Rivers of History, Rivers of Hope,” in which he spoke of two rivers that came together in Mississippi, one of white history, one of black history. He compared the conflicts and meshing of two vastly different societies as a confluence of rivers that could drown a people or could lead them to a broader, unified river. The confluence was Jackson State University and the state of Mississippi and the one river – our future together. It was a clarion call to all that he was a man with ideas to implement, and that he believed Jackson State was more than just a place; it had a purpose, one that it must achieve.

Before coming to Jackson State, Mason worked and studied extensively in the fields of higher education, community development, and law. He earned his B.A. and J.D. degrees from Columbia and was a graduate of the Harvard Institute of Educational Management. He worked for 18 years at Tulane University, as Vice President of Finance and Operations, and as Senior Vice President and General Counsel. During his time at Tulane, he established the Tulane-Xavier-Loyola-Dillard universities Martin Luther King Week for Peace and brought the school the Amistad Research Center – one of the largest collections of original documents and artwork on the minority experience in the U.S.

In 1996, Mason created the Tulane-Xavier National Center for Urban Community. The center took over New Orleans’ housing authority and the students, staff, and faculty developed model programs to assist the residents through several means, including a Ford Foundation public school reform planning initiative, an Annie E. Casey neighborhood development and family strengthening initiative, and a welfare-to-work initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Planet Weekly met with Dr. Mason at his office, high atop the Administration Tower on the JSU campus, to talk about his five years in office and future plans for the university. Mason proved to be dynamic, passionate, and forthright, with a deadpan delivery and sense of humor.

Planet Weekly: When you first came on five years ago, you spoke about a five-year strategic plan for Jackson State. Has that come to fruition?

Dr. Ronald Mason, Jr.: We did a strategic plan in 2002. It was called “Beyond Survival: the Millennium Agenda for Jackson State University.” It had five broad strategies: Remodel the Learning System, Fully Integrate Technology, Enhance Management and Resources, Tell the Jackson State Story, and Create a Model Living and Learning Environment. We took those strategies, broke them into 24 programs, and broke those up into about 200 action steps. That’s how we’ve been moving forward; we follow the plan.

PW: Are you setting your sights for another strategic plan?

RM: We’re actually in the process of updating the strategic plan now. About every two or three years you have to reexamine one. As far as implementing our plan, I’d give us a good solid “B.”

PW: Will these updates stay the current course or expand in new directions?”

RM: I think the plan did anticipate what needed to be done at Jackson State to transform it into a model urban university, which is what the task was. I think we’ve narrowed the problem down to one now – money. I tell folks we don’t have any problems that money wouldn’t solve. The key for us is to be able to do something never done before at Jackson State, and that’s to raise private funds. The trick for us is that we’ve always been given the job to educate, basically, poor people and public servants and most of those poor people are African-Americans. There’s just not a lot of wealth among our alumni, so I have a tricky task: I have to raise money for Jackson State from people who graduated from Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

PW: We know this has been problematic, but are you seeing any increases in funding?

RM: We are and we aren’t. The biggest capital campaign Jackson State had was about $10 million several years ago. Allstate abandoned a processing center on Raymond Road. It’s a 200,000-square foot facility on 30 acres of land. It was worth almost $21 million and we got them to sell it to us for $3 million, which made it about a $17 million dollar donation. This, plus the other cash we’ve raised – we’ve raised about $25 million since we started. We’ve had some successes and what we’ve been selling is the truth: there’s only one university in the largest metropolitan area and capital city in the state of Mississippi – and that’s Jackson State University. Central Mississippi isn’t going to go anywhere until Jackson State rises to the occasion to be what it needs to be for this area. That’s in everyone’s interest, whether you’re white, black, from Mississippi State, Ole Miss, or wherever else.

PW: And what does Jackson State need to be?

RM: We need to be what everyone says they want it to be. The theme of the strategic planning process was “Clarity and Consensus.” Everybody said they wanted Jackson State to be the premiere urban university or Mississippi’s urban university. What that means is that we have to be a bona fide, high-quality institute of higher learning for central Mississippi. For us, it’s a sort of special balancing act we have to play: we’re a historically black institution that needs to serve a mostly-white business community in this area. When I first got here, I thought the disconnect between the business community and Jackson State was that they didn’t like Jackson State. But after while I realized that it wasn’t that they didn’t like it, it’s that they didn’t see it at all. It wasn’t a part of their Mississippi. So part of our job has been to help them see Jackson State, and when you see it, there’s a lot to be said for what is going on here.

PW: So part of the problem is that JSU is a sort of invisible university?

RM: It has been that. The other challenge we’ve had is that they’re not quite sure how to make Jackson State right without making it white. It’s not in their realm of reality that an urban university for Mississippi would also be a historically black institution. But I think we’ve made some progress. I was at a speech the governor made. He said we have two goals for Jackson State. One was to make it the number one historically black college or university in America and the seconds was to make it the premiere urban university – and there is no contradiction between the two. So at least intellectually we’re making progress.

We have some very, very bright students here. They can go to school anywhere. Many of them come from large urban areas; Jackson is probably the smallest. If you go up the railroad tracks to Detroit, through Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago – that’s where our kids come from. They come from these broken K-12 systems and we’ve had to take them where they are and give them what they need to be successful. That’s the mission we embrace and will always stay true to. We don’t judge by who comes in the door as much as by who walks out.

PW: You have expressed some concerns about Jackson’s K-12 system. Do you feel that the problems are in the curriculum, faculty, administration, student body, or is it pandemic?

RM: Even with the challenges that Jackson Public Schools has, it’s nothing close to what I saw in New Orleans. I did a lot of work in the public school system there. We had kids taking classes in bathrooms; that’s how bad it was.

It’s what you said and more. It has a lot to do with money and the tax base, and the fact that in 1954, all the white folks started these private academies and a lot of their kids aren’t in the system now. That ends up being a challenge for us. What we did was put together our own K-12 academy. We partnered with JPS and created the Mississippi Learning Academy, which is two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school, all within about half a mile of here. We got some money from the federal government and we got some private money. To attract some bright students to the College of Education, we give them a free ride in exchange for teaching in the Mississippi Learning Academy when they graduate. We rolled it out last year in the elementary schools. We started with 114 kids on the at-risk list and ended up with 7. They raised their test scores by about 25 points on average.

PW: And this goes along with Jackson State’s e-City. What is the e-City?

RM: It’s basically our neighborhood; a five square mile area around Jackson State we call the e-City – the Electronic City. We’ve got some money to do a master plan for it. The short name for the school system we’re putting together is e-City Schools. Our thought is that if you fix the schools, the rest will take care of itself – the housing, the business development. Everybody wants to send their kids to good schools.

RM: Is part of that creating a technology cluster in the area?

PW: We already did it. The e-Center – the abandoned Allstate facility – is the western anchor. If you go out there now, what was an abandoned building is now full of all sorts of high-tech stuff. We have research labs, a digital television station. We have the only tier one commercial data center in Mississippi renting space out there. We’ve got the Mississippi Technology Alliance, a high-tech business incubator. There are 18 businesses incubating out there. On the east is the new TelComm Center and Convention Center. We’re planning a single-family subdivision to our northeast, between here and downtown. Going west, the hope is we’ll incubate the businesses in the e-Center, and they’ll start to locate permanently along Lynch Street. What was once a viable community can become a new viable community, a university neighborhood. We have plans for Lynch Street with restaurants, new student apartments. We just finished one over here. This sounded crazy five years ago, but it’s actually happening as we speak.

PW: Does this give Jackson State an identity as a research and technical school?

RM: Absolutely. There were a lot of surprises I found at Jackson State, and they were all pleasant surprises. I knew the problems before I got here. One thing I saw here was a twist of history. Because of the lack of funding by Mississippi over the years, [JSU] had to go out and get a lot of federal money to build the place. When I got here and saw the stuff funded by the state, like the Public Relations office, it had one person in it. Which is why people never knew anything about Jackson State. But they had all these neat federal centers, all well funded. Among the seven research-intensive historically black institutions in the country – that’s the second level of research universities; the first is research-extensive – for federally funded grants and contracts, Jackson State is number one. We’re not far behind Howard University, which is the only research-extensive school. We’re the fastest growing producer of African-American Ph.D.’s, number two overall behind Howard in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and number seven nationally, of all white and black schools.

PW: JSU isn’t just a technical school, though. Can you get a good liberal arts education here?

RM: Yes. Two years ago, we opened up the new School of Liberal Arts; we reorganized. Now we have a College of Liberal Arts with a School of Performing Arts and a School of Life and Natural Sciences. That’s our biggest school. But when you talk about research and federal dollars, most of that comes out of the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology. We just opened our School of Engineering three years ago. Now it’s got almost 300 students.

PW: What is your opinion of No Child Left Behind?

RM: If you talk to educators – and remember, the Secretary of Education who just resigned was a Jackson State graduate, which is how we were able to get funding to get this thing started over here – in concept it’s hard to argue with. There is more accountability, competency-based training for teachers. The problem really is the funds for implementation. We were able to pull it off in the schools we’re working in, because we had the money. We had money to train teachers, to redevelop curriculum, and to buy handheld computerized assessment tools, but everyone doesn’t have that. That’s really the complaint from the education community. I don’t think they mind the concept, the accountability, or the subject-based competency for teachers. The problem is how you do it. How do you get every math teacher with a specialty in math and every English teacher with a specialty in English when you’re trying desperately just to find teachers, period. If you’re a teacher from a School of Education, how could you possibly agree with someone who gets a Bachelor’s and a six-week certification course and goes straight into the classroom, when you’ve spent three years just learning how to teach? And you have to learn how to teach; that’s what separates the good teachers from the bad ones. The devil is in the details. As a broad concept it’s hard to argue with, but in the classroom, struggling to find paper and pencils, to also have to stretch to meet these other requirements, so your school doesn’t end up as Level 3 or Level 2, it’s a real challenge. Whether the system will adjust to meet the realities of the situation, it’s hard to say.

PW: What about merit-based pay?

RM: It’s kind of like merit-based hiring. What’s merit, and are the people deciding qualified enough to determine if someone is meritorious enough in the first place? It’s a tough one. Politicians can throw out words that sound great, but it’s the people doing the work every day who have to live the reality of those words, and sometimes there’s a disconnect between the two – like No New Taxes.

PW: What is the current status of Historically Black Colleges and Universities?

RM: As an industry, we’re stronger than we’ve ever been. The leadership across the board is as strong as it has ever been. On the other hand, we have some that have fallen by the wayside, and I think we may see some more, especially among the private schools. It’s very difficult for the privates to survive, just because of the lack of wealth among our alumni. But I think there’s a growing recognition, especially since 9/11, that people we produce for America is a vast, untapped resource. People are struggling to find Americans just to get the work of America done. Out of necessity, they’ll have to look at us. We enroll something like 13 percent of all African-American students, but we graduate something like 30-40 percent. We get them ready to work and that’s what America is looking for right now – workers at all levels. We won’t all make it, but I think the ones that will, will be strong.

PW: Does the fact that JSU is a historically black university keep white students away?

RM: I don’t think that in and of itself. We have these white-only scholarships that come out of the Ayers desegregation case and we can’t keep them away. They line up as long as we give them the scholarships. Apparently it’s not theological why they don’t want to come. What the facilities are like because of underfunding, the quality of life because of underfunding, the availability of scholarships because of underfunding; the more we fix those things, the less and less people will want to drive three hours to go to school when they have the convenience right here.

PW: Why do think JSU is seeing a boom in the nontraditional students?

RM: It’s place-based. Most of them are losing a job, lost a job, or are in transition from one job to another. Our fastest-growing school is our College of Lifelong Learning, which is nontraditional – online courses, certificates instead of degrees, non-credit training courses, those kinds of things. We have a facility off Ridgewood Road. A lot of the white students go there and don’t actually ever see the campus. My sons have two friends, white twins who are at the house all the time. They all like to play basketball. We wanted to come here and play basketball, but they wouldn’t drive here. They assumed if they parked their car here it would get stolen. A lot of people think that; they’ve never been to the campus. They come out here and are shocked. The more people who come here, the less think their car will be stolen, but it’ll take some time. I think we’ve gone from 1.5 to 3 percent white. With other races, we have about 9 percent. Every year, there’ll be more and more. That’s pretty clear.

PW: What is JSU’s enrollment this year?

RM: 8300 total. We jumped 500 this year.

PW: Growth here has been consistent, correct?

RM: Part of it is just demographics; part of it is that we’re just kind of hot.

PW: You’re staying ahead of population growth.

RM: Even with tuition going up. About a third of our tuition goes back into scholarships.

PW: What is tuition currently?

RM: Tuition is $3612 per year. Out of state students pay $4000 [extra]. The dormitory is $2700 and the meal plan is $2000. It’s a good value.

PW: During the past year, we’ve talked to numerous people in the city about development and redevelopment in Jackson. One thing everyone talks about is work at Jackson State. But it’s generally mentioned as ‘work to be done’ or ‘work we hope to see done.’ What doesn’t get mentioned as often is ‘work that is happening.’ Is the work actually happening?

RM: If you don’t see the work, you’re missing it. Right here, we had this old cottonseed oil factory that had been there for 50 years or so – two big, ugly, white storage tanks. We set out a goal of getting rid of the tanks and ended up with a new apartment complex. This was the first new construction in Washington addition in years. West Jackson CDC is building houses along Pearl as we speak. They’ve just announced a new 400-unit single-family subdivision on Raymond Road. We’re putting up a new student apartment facility on campus, with one, two, and three bedrooms. We’re about to build a new campus union right here on the corner of Lynch and Dalton. It’ll have a really great bookstore, convenience store, food court, and bowling alley. A lot of these empty lots around here are ours and we’ll be filling them in as we go. Given the fact that nothing was built here over the last three decades, this is a construction boom. When they finish the parkway from downtown, that’ll take you straight from the central business district right into campus.

Whether I would have done it that way if I had been there back then is another question, but the answer then to urban blight was to buy it up and tear it down – move the people out. Philosophically, I probably would have been against it, but fortunately the question was answered before I got here.

PW: Why aren’t these developments better known? Is it because Jackson State is often seen only from the outside, and the projects are seen as individual ones only?

RM: Certainly if you see it, and you add up all the news stories that have trickled out, the campus has changed dramatically; there’s no question about that. Clearly the part of the city between the campus and the railroad tracks has changed dramatically; there’s nothing there anymore – it’s open land. People would see that if they’d bother to cross the railroad tracks. I think the parkway will take care of some of that. I think as word gets out, which it is, that’ll take care of some of it. Our goal is to make Jackson State a destination, and Jackson needs destinations. By the time we’re done, when Farish Street is there, when the Convention Center is there, when the Civil Rights Corridor or Freedom Corridor – whatever they’re going to call it – from Terry into the campus is there, and there is a new campus union, a pedestrian mall, and we stretch from the campus to the e-Center on Lynch Street, I think Jackson will have exactly what it has asked for: a premiere urban university that is a destination that attracts people to Jackson; not a teachers’ college, not an underfunded challenge that makes successes out of America’s failures. I think we will be the urban university for Mississippi that happens to be black. We can pull that off.

In my inaugural speech, I said this is where the two rivers meet. We’re not going to come out of the confluence of rivers unless we all get together and make it happen. If it happens, it’ll be because we all made it happen.

PW: And you believe it can happen?

RM: I think it’s happening now. Though I’m not sure I believed it when I said it.

PW: So you pleasantly surprised yourself?

RM: I did. In some cases I shocked myself. Some of it is just timing, some of it is initiative, and some of it is hard work. If we just do what I know will in fact happen, we’ll go a long way toward getting us where we need to go. It won’t lock it down; we still have to raise some money. If we can’t do that, all this is a waste of time.

PW: Why did you leave the Tulane-Xavier Center to come to Jackson State?

RM: I’ll give you the short version. I was at Tulane for 18 years. I was Senior Vice President and General Counsel. By 1996, I had run out of things to do three times. I had been there too long.

PW: You were bored?

RM: Yes. I had even asked for Affirmative Action to report to me. I wanted to do something. We came up with this idea of doing some work in the neighborhood. In a conversation with the Secretary of HUD [Henry Cisneros], we ended up actually taking over the Housing Authority in New Orleans. Tulane got $10 million over five years to do university-based programs in the public housing projects. Half of me went to public housing for that. I was basically working two full time jobs for four years. It was out of that project that the center started – the Tulane-Xavier National Center for Urban Community. Candidly, a lot the things we’re doing at Jackson State we tried to do through that center in New Orleans.

PW: You tried?

RM: We tried. The difference is that I wasn’t the president of Tulane; I don’t have anybody to argue with here. It’s still hard work, but there we were institutionally constrained. We’re less constrained here, partly because of who the president is, partly because it’s just a different kind of institution. We are more community-oriented, and we are more part of what goes on around us. Everybody that lives around us went to, or works at, Jackson State.

PW: Is it easier or more difficult working at Jackson State than it was in New Orleans?

RM: It’s more manageable. People in Jackson think they have a lot of problems. We had 750 blighted houses when I got here. In New Orleans, we were dealing with 37,000. It’s a different scale of challenge.

PW: There is a sort of ‘sky is falling’ attitude about Jackson.

RM: And a lot of badmouthing about the city from people who want to make money off of selling property in the suburbs. I think Jackson can be a quality small city. I don’t think I’d like it to be anything else. I go to New Orleans now; it’s crowded, dirty, and traffic-infested. I can’t wait to get back to Jackson.

PW: How did you get to Jackson State?

RM: I was running the center. I had my life set up like I wanted; I was going to work in polo shirts and we had bought a little house and were running the center out of that house. It was good. The new president of Tulane came to me – Scott Cowen; we’re good friends. He called me to his office and said, “Ron, you have to choose. You have to be either the Senior Vice President and General Counsel or the Executive Director of the center.” I said I really wanted to run the center. He said, “I really want you to be the Senior Vice President and General Counsel.” Just about that time, somebody called me about this job. I wasn’t even thinking about [taking a new job]. In fact, I had just turned down a presidency six months before at Chicago State. The weather was a problem.

PW: Did you have any worries about taking the position here?

RM: Not really. I studied it pretty thoroughly; I knew what I was getting into. I was really surprised by the potential this school had that no one knew about – pleasantly surprised. It’s good work here. It’s a labor of love, but it’s a labor. I’ve never worked as hard in my life, but I whistle when I come to work every morning.

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