Today George Mason University enjoys the reputation for being one of the more ethnically and culturally-diverse universities in the nation. By most counts, the non-white student population at Mason is about 57%*. The university places a high priority on being accessible to those who aspire to a college education from all segments of society in Virginia, and beyond. This achievement has come as a result of steady progress over the last half-century, beginning with the work of some enlightened Virginia officials, an early university president, the faculty and the students themselves. But was Mason always this diverse an institution?
George Mason College (the name it went by while a part of the University of Virginia) began operation in the fall of 1957 at Bailey’s Crossroads under the name University College of the University of Virginia. This was during the same time period that the powerful Virginia senator, Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. and dozens of other southern politicians were actively fighting the implementation of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 that segregation in the schools was unconstitutional. Byrd and his associates declared that the ruling was a violation of each state’s right to operate its public schools and other public accommodations according to traditional southern mores and sensibilities and pledged “massive resistance” to fight it. While the branch college at Bailey’s Crossroads was conceived and birthed by Northern Virginians (Northern Virginia was seen as one of the more progressive parts of the Commonwealth), it was administered by the University and its very conservative Board of Visitors at Charlottesville.
While George Mason College never operated under a policy of segregation, it did not actively recruit students of color during the early days of operation. In 1963 George Mason College Director, John Norville Gibson Finley chided an official from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights when he wrote Finley for confirmation as to whether or not George Mason was segregated. Finley replied that Mason was not, and while it was true that it had “never had a Negro student…no Negro ha[d] ever applied for admission.” Admittedly, according to Finley, George Mason did not “exert the same effort to recruit Negro high school seniors that we exert in the recruitment of white students.” But Finley assured him that “no qualified Negro applicant will be denied admission to George Mason College.” By the end of the 1960s a small handful of African American and international students had attended Mason. Though there exists no statistical data, their numbers doubtfully approached one percent.
During the summer of 1971 the Virginia State Advisory Committee (VSAC) to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released the findings of a report compiled the previous spring detailing the current state of racial integration at George Mason College. The report concluded that Mason had been delinquent in its duty to attract and welcome minority students and faculty. During the 1970-71 academic year VSAC conducted a study finding that were sixteen black students out of a total of 2,456. Of 164 total faculty members, only two were black. VASC recommended the appointment of an African American to George Mason College’s Advisory Board, the establishment of performance standards geared toward African American students, and the hiring of a staff member whose full-time job was to assist minority students attending George Mason.
Once George Mason College gained independence from the University of Virginia, an effort to bring more minorities into the campus community began. One concrete example was the appointment of two African Americans from the area, Lutrelle F. Parker and Elias K. Blake, to the to the university’s first Board of Visitors by Governor A. Linwood Holton, Jr. in 1972. Parker was a lawyer and official in the U.S. Patent Office, while Blake was an educational consultant and later president of Atlanta’s Clark College. Holton, the first republican governor of Virginia since Reconstruction, was the final nail in the coffin of the Byrd Political Machine in Virginia, and helped to usher in a new era of forward thinking policy in the Commonwealth. Toward the end of 1972 students, faculty and staff also challenged status quo at Mason. The student-run Broadside ran an editorial in September 1972 complaining that officials in the Office of Admissions lacked the necessary experience to work in an integrated campus. A letter to the editor in a November 1972 edition of the Broadside urged the Student Government, along with the administration, to create a task force to advance minority enrollment and help ease tensions related to minority affairs within the university. In December of 1972, an ad hoc committee comprised of faculty and staff moved to further examine problems regarding race and suggest solutions.
Perhaps the most important contributions toward diversity at George Mason can be attributed to President Vergil H. Dykstra. Dr. Dykstra, a midwesterner who was previously President of the State University of New York at Binghamton, became Mason’s second president. Dykstra spent much of his previous career in northern university settings and was a strong advocate of integration and Affirmative Action. One of Dr. Dykstra’s first priorities as president was to increase the number of minority students applying to, accepted by, and enrolling at George Mason. In order to achieve this goal, Dykstra created the first Office of Minority Recruitment (OMR) at Mason. Its charge was to increase the admission rate for minority applicants. The OMR challenged the Office of Admissions to become both more aware and accepting of minority students.
But the new administration did not stop there. Dr. Dykstra made changes in the staff of the Office of Admissions itself, appointing personnel with experience working in an integrated academic institution. In March of 1974 the Office of Admissions, at Dykstra’s urging, hired Andrew (Andy) Evans, the University’s first-ever African American admissions officer. Evans was tasked with recruiting minority applicants. During Evans’ first year, enrollment of African American students to George Mason University doubled. Other changes included adjusting academic standards for minority applicants, which was met at first with some criticism. The criticism would recede as students proved that they were up to the task of college-level work. That fall, religion Professor Darius Swann was appointed Special Assistant to the President for Minority Affairs and was the first Mason faculty member whose sole job revolved around assisting existing minority students.
George Mason University has not become the diverse institution it is now organically or by the stroke of a pen. Rather, it benefited from strong leaders who encouraged it to move forward and be on the right side of history.
*”George Mason University Diversity: How Diverse is it, Really?” College Factual. https://www.collegefactual.com/colleges/george-mason-university/student-life/diversity/. Acessed 20 February 2018.