When Gregory Washington accepted the offer to become the eighth president of George Mason University in February 2020, he immediately started doing what he knows best: building.
Washington is a trained engineer, after all, having earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University before becoming interim dean of engineering at Ohio State University and then the University of California, Irvine. In 2023, Washington was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest engineering honor in the nation.
As George Mason’s first African American president and a first-generation college graduate, Washington’s skills and experience distinctly positioned him to not only oversee the building of a physically bigger and more advanced university, but to also construct pathways that make earning a four-year degree accessible for every Virginian.
George Mason is the largest, most diverse public research university in Virginia; the university emphasized such in its All Together Different branding campaign that started in 2022. In fall 2023, it celebrated the largest freshman class in school history and a state-record total student enrollment exceeding 40,000.
“We are not here because we insisted on being highly selective,” Washington says. “We are here because we insisted on being highly inclusive.” Many of the university’s students hail from historically disenfranchised communities. A large percentage are first-generation college students or past traditional college age.
“The world is changing,” Washington told attendees at his October 21, 2021, investiture address at EagleBank Arena. “Virginia and the nation require institutions that can rapidly realign our emerging workforce with the evolving needs of the economy … more is already demanded of this generation than any before them … and we have no choice but to prepare them and those who follow for a task that is nothing short of saving the world.”
In Washington, George Mason chose a president who, through years of engineering research, specializes in shaping innovative solutions to challenges.
Shaping a Path
The New York native has always had a fascination with how things are built. “As a child, I would take apart toys, even my toughest Tonka truck, which my mother found exasperating,” he recalls. “Then someone suggested that maybe I would become an engineer, so she began to think about it differently.”
As a teen, Washington and his friends would visit construction sites looking for day work and quick cash. At one site, Washington noticed a man who would periodically emerge from an air-conditioned trailer to talk with the laborers. “That was the engineer,” he says. “When I learned that he earned more than all the others, it became clear to me what kind of job I wanted. It started me on a path.”
As a student, Washington’s favorite subjects were literature and history. “I didn’t fall in love with math until my high school physics teacher opened my mind up to what I could do with math,” he says. “That’s what got me hooked. By the time I got to college, I knew I was going to be a physicist or engineer.”
An accomplished researcher, Washington specializes in smart material structures and systems (materials that can significantly change shape under various external stimuli). He traces that interest to the first time he saw the 1991 movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where the robot T-1000 could shift from a liquid to a solid. “As a young guy, I just thought that was really cool. Then I learned in graduate school that there are actual materials that can change shape, and I started figuring out ways to make those advanced materials perform better and do cool things. It’s what I did for years, using these materials for everything I could imagine, from automobiles to aircraft, all the way to antennas that go out in space.”
Today, Washington applies that same creativity to shaping futures for students. “The reality is that people need role models. If a person never sees something, how can they ever aspire to be it or know that it exists? I want to provide models for as many individuals possible.” Four years into his term, Washington’s initiatives reverberate across George Mason’s multiple campuses.
He Made a Promise
Creating academic and entrepreneurial pathways for all Virginians is the heart of Washington’s Mason Virginia Promise initiative. Students who earn an associate degree at Northern Virginia Community College and other specific Virginia community colleges are guaranteed admission to the university to complete a bachelor’s degree. “Mason should be the ultimate Point B university, regardless of a student’s Point A,” says Washington. The initiative also includes training and financial support for Virginians who aspire to start businesses rather than pursue degrees.
Partnering with select NoVA high schools, Washington recently expanded the university’s direct admissions opportunities. The program identifies and reaches out to vulnerable candidates with a GPA of 3.25 or higher, to ensure that even the most disadvantaged students have a chance at a college education. “It’s a concept that is gaining traction nationwide and a positive disruption to the way that universities recruit new students historically excluded from higher education,” says David Burge, vice president for enrollment management. “President Washington has been a tireless advocate for Mason’s Direct Admission program and keeps challenging each of us to do more to think outside established practices in order to serve students.”
One of George Mason’s core values is “Students Come First,” says Rose Pascarell, vice president for university life. “Under President Washington’s leadership, we’ve strongly aligned ourselves with that value by expanding access to more students who want a college degree, creating streamlined pathways to a college education, and increasing student success initiatives.”
Virginia’s First College of Public Health
Washington arrived for his first day at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, a time that greatly magnified the critical need for skilled, interdisciplinary health professionals and research across the state. In November 2022, the university built upon its former College of Health and Human Services to establish the first and only College of Public Health in Virginia. “Our graduates will bring new and diverse talent to Virginia’s health workforce, addressing critical shortages and building a strong talent pipeline for the long-term health of the region,” says Washington.
More than 1,900 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students are enrolled in the college, which offers degrees and certificates within its five academic units: School of Nursing, Department of Global and Community Health, Department of Health Administration and Policy, Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, and Department of Social Work.
A Blueprint for Growth
In April 2023, Washington announced the launch of Mason Now: Power the Possible, a $1 billion comprehensive campaign to power student success, research, innovation, community, and stewardship. “We need a level of financial support that matches our ambitions,” Washington says. Already, the campaign is off to a strong start. George Mason recently received a $50 million planned gift from the estate of Donald G. Costello that led to the establishment of the Donald G. Costello College of Business.
In November 2023, George Mason completed the structural frame for Fuse at Mason Square, a 345,000-square-foot collaborative and digital innovation facility at the Arlington campus, scheduled to open in August 2024. “As the largest producer of computing graduates in Virginia, we will forge a new model for what is possible when a university brings scholars, students, and industry together to drive innovation and bring ideas to market,” says Washington. In spring 2025, George Mason expects to open the Life Sciences and Engineering Building at the Science and Technology Campus in Manassas — a four-story, 133,000-square-foot building comprised of highly specialized instructional labs, classrooms, and support spaces.
At his April address at the launch of the Mason Now campaign, Washington acknowledged that George Mason is well-positioned for growth. “Why Mason Now?” he asked. “Because Mason is the engine that drives the most populous region in the state. Mason is at the nexus of government and industry, policy and health care, business and technology, culture and innovation. Because Mason is an integral partner in why Northern Virginia is home to more than 100 U.S. and global corporate headquarters.”
Looking to the future, Washington referenced the new College of Public Health and pushed the envelope a bit further, hinting that NoVA’s first collegiate medical school could be in the university’s future. “That’s the Mason in me,” said Washington. “Going right from launching a School of Public Health to envisioning a Mason School of Medicine.”
Washington says that in his heart, he will always be an engineer, but now he uses those skills to build futures instead of aircraft components. “This is a job that is in alignment with who I am and what I do,” says Washington. “Mason’s power is proven, our possibilities are endless, and our time is now.”
Feature image of Gregory Washington by Ron Aira, Creative Services, George Mason University