Jackson – When Dr. Ronald Mason Jr. assumed the presidency of Jackson State University (JSU) on Feb. 1, 2000, he brought to the university a wealth of experience in higher education, community development and legal issues.
At the time of his appointment by the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, he was serving as executive director of the Tulane-Xavier National Center for the Urban Community in New Orleans. As founder and head of the center, Mason coordinated the two universities’ extensive involvement in public housing, economic development and public education from initiatives that grew from his 1996 appointment by then U. S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Henry Cisneros as executive monitor for the Housing Authority of New Orleans.
In this unique role, Mason supervised the recovery of the housing authority, including the involvement of Tulane and Xavier faculty, students and staff in developing model programs to stimulate resident self-sufficiency and to implement welfare reform and welfare-to-work programs through the Tulane-Xavier Campus Affiliates Program and the Tulane Institute for Resident Initiatives. He secured a $10-million HUD grant for the center. He also implemented 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.
Mason earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Columbia University and completed post-doctoral studies at the Harvard Institute of Educational Management. He spent 18 years at Tulane University serving in several capacities, including senior vice president and general counsel, before founding and managing the Tulane-Xavier National Center.
As JSU president, Mason serves on the boards of the West Jackson Community Development Corporation, Capital Center Inc., Jackson Medical Mall Foundation, Mississippi Technology Alliance and the Mississippi Telecommunications Conference and Training Center Commission.
The Mississippi Business Journal discussed with Mason JSU`s role as an urban university in economic development, business, technology and research, the university`s evolvement from a primarily urban state university to a global institution of higher learning and his thoughts on the Ayers settlement and progress that needs to be made to narrow the racial gap in Mississippi.
Mississippi Business Journal: In your Americorp speech last October, you discussed the “isms” that were contrary to the ideal of America and remain part of our struggle today. Can you elaborate on how the “isms” – sexism, classism and racism – affect Mississippi today?
Dr. Ron Mason: In most respects, Mississippi is no different from the rest of America. It is a fact that if you are a white male from a middle or upper-class background, you tend to have the easiest path to a comfortable life. You get the benefit of the doubt because it is usually white males who hire, make credit decisions and so forth. It is a self-perpetuating system of privilege. If you are poor, it is more difficult. If you are poor and a woman, it is even more difficult. If you are a poor black man, you are at the opposite end of the spectrum from a wealthy white male. The data is fairly clear on this.
What makes Mississippi so interesting are a couple of things. First is the large percentage of African Americans. Second, the historical fear-driven need for the socioeconomic systems in Mississippi to control such large numbers of blacks by keeping them poor and uneducated. The condition of our state is a classic example of “the foot that held them down is the same foot that held us back.”
MBJ: In a recent newsletter, you mentioned that JSU is evolving from a primarily urban state university to a global institution of higher learning. How are you accomplishing this goal?
RM: We have traditionally primarily served poor and working class Mississippians. It is a role that we do well. Over the years, we have come to serve the same role around the globe. For example, we are helping build schools of business in Russia and India, empowering women in Angola, building a technology infrastructure in Mauritius, enhancing democracy in Nigeria and rebuilding a university in Iraq. We also educate almost 300 students from Africa, Asia and Europe. In the process of serving the globe, we expand the knowledge base and global perspective of our faculty and students.
MBJ: What is the role of the state`s urban university in economic development, business, technology and research?
RM: Significant. Every major city has a university, and JSU is the only university in Mississippi`s largest metropolitan area. We bring new capital into the state economy, are one of the largest employers, train future leaders and house the talent that drives the research and knowledge base that fuels industry.
Our e-City initiative is becoming a national model for university-based community development. The linchpin is the reading based K-12 Mississippi Learning Academy that we have developed with Jackson Public Schools.
In the business arena, we not only generate business though purchases and over $100 million in construction projects, but our school of business, in its new state-of-the-art facility, will be a resource for the entire business community.
In the technology arena, most people don`t know that we have three supercomputers, a RAVE Cave and two access grids and that we were one of the first Internet II schools in the country. The opening of our school of engineering and its new facility will only enhance our technology capacity. The Mississippi e-Center @ JSU has rapidly become a one-stop technology shop with its Tier I data center; remote sensing labs; biodefense communications center; Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco Systems training centers; and the Mississippi Technology Alliance high-tech business incubator.
Finally, in the research arena, we only started seriously engaging in research about five years ago, but we are already classified a Carnegie Research Intensive University. In fact, among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), we are number one in the nation. Our research presence will grow as our schools of engineering and public health continue to develop.
MBJ: What is JSU`s role in the development of downtown Jackson?
RM: We have representatives on the boards of the chamber, the Telecommunications Conference Center Commission, Downtown Partners and the Metro Parkway Commission. The many campus improvements that we are making, as well as housing construction, should help downtown as well. Our school of urban planning is also very involved.
MBJ: You frequently reference the Bible in speeches and newsletters, which is admirable considering the present state of church not being allowed in the classroom. What message do you have to those who oppose the presence of the scripture in the classroom?
RM: I quote many books where what I believe to be the truth is found, including the Bible, Qur’an, The Prophet and others. I use quotes from the Bible more often because it is an easier frame of reference for most Americans. I do not believe that any specific religion should be in the classroom. I do believe that God, by whatever name, should be allowed in the classroom but not imposed.
MBJ: In your inaugural speech, you talked about a confluent relationship between JSU and Mississippi. What progress is being made in that relationship and what still needs to be done?
RM: My sense is that we are overcoming the wall of racial perception as far as JSU is concerned, though we still have a long way to go. The IHL Board and the Legislature have been very visionary and supportive. They “see” Jackson State more and more and what it means to Mississippi. Our foundation board chair is (Mississippi Development Authority director) Leland Speed, and the board has a great mix of black and white business people. The mix was even better before the passing of Sally Barksdale and the resignation of the governor.
till needs to be done is more opportunity to relate on the business/personal level. I plan to have an annual fundraising event at the new president`s house, once it is built, that can facilitate such an interaction. What also needs to be done is for us to develop a state flag that symbolizes the proud tradition as well as a new Mississippi and that all Mississippians can embrace. Maybe the magnolia flag.
MBJ: Are you satisfied with the Ayers settlement and where do we go from here?
RM: No one is satisfied with Ayers, but that is the nature of a settlement because no one gets everything he wants. Ayers is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it gave us new programs and facilities to help shore up our comprehensive status. On the other hand, those opportunities bring great challenges. Operating costs for the programs and buildings are more than the resources made available through Ayers.
In any event, we will take what Ayers has to offer and make the best of it. We work for the State of Mississippi, and will use whatever the state gives us to build the best university that we can.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.