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‘They Are Starting To Pay Attention’

‘They Are Starting To Pay Attention’
President Ronald Mason talks about how Jackson State University is raising its profile.

Ronald Mason Jr. may be the only college president in the United States who’s had the experience of running a major city’s public housing authority. While serving as general counsel at Tulane University in the late 1990s, Mason was charged with the task of overseeing the Housing Authority of New Orleans after city officials sought to avert a takeover by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Federal officials accepted a compromise when Tulane University partnered with the city of New Orleans and appointed Mason to revitalize the troubled housing authority.

Mason says the housing authority experience has served him well as president of Jackson State. He talks to Diverse senior writer Ronald Roach about the impact it had on him and the challenges of running a university.

DI: What did you see early on as challenges?

RM: The biggest challenge for this institution, like most HBCUs, is resources. [Jackson State] has been historically underfunded. Still, because of the state we’re in and the economy we’re in, we’re stretched thin because we’ve always been given the task of educating public servants — primarily teachers, social workers and so forth. And because of the history of segregation in America, there’s not a lot of wealth among the alumni. [They’re] hardworking people and good people, they just don’t have millions and billions of disposable income.

DI: Given that the school has carved out a thriving niche as an urban-based research institution, do you see Jackson State having to further negotiate the role it plays in Mississippi and its relationship with the state? 

RM:  It’s an interesting situation to be in when you are the only university in the largest metropolitan area and capital city in a state that flies a Confederate flag as its state flag, and you’re a historically Black institution. You try to put that together, and in some people’s minds it doesn’t compute.

I used to think that [the Mississippi political and business establishment] didn’t like Jackson State, but I found out that it wasn’t that they didn’t like it — it was they didn’t see it at all. As far as the business community was concerned, [Jackson State] wasn’t part of their Mississippi.

But the truth is that they are starting to pay attention. They understand that one of the biggest mistakes they made as a business community was to underinvest in the university that serves their capital city and the entire center of the state. A lot of them haven’t quite figured out how to make it right without making it White, but we’re working on it. I think they’re starting to get it.

DI: Did you see Jackson State as a place that could use the skills you developed as director of the New Orleans public housing authority?

RM:  The truth is that when you look at my history with the cooperative movement work I did, Tulane and public housing — it all kind of perfectly trained me to be president of Jackson State. It’s hard to separate Jackson State from the community that it serves. It’s always been the largest institution in and for the African-American community in Jackson. Every pastor has either worked here or has a brother that works here.
We came in knowing that part of building a great university had to involve building a great community along with it. That was part of the attraction for me because I like working in universities. My opinion has always been that universities need to be more involved in building communities for two reasons. One is because the community needs it. But second is the opportunity to build great leaders out of your graduates.

The more they do while they learn in classes, the better they understand the real world and better leaders they will be.

DI: How would you describe the accomplishments of your presidency?

RM:  Let me just start with the construction. If you walk from one end of the campus to the other, the things that are new [include] the track field, the student recreation center, and the college of business. The new campus union is going up now, as is new student housing and an engineering building. Some of that was [using] state money, but we figured out and borrowed money ourselves and … accelerated construction by using a little imagination and creativity to really transform the campus.

That’s the outside. But on the inside, we went from eight schools to six colleges and combined a lot of disciplines. We put in a new first-year experience where we actually assess every freshman that comes here not only for learning-skill weaknesses, but also for their strengths. And then we try to design an individualized learning program for that student to facilitate their ability to be successful at Jackson State.

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