Robinson Professors Enrich Undergraduate Experience at Mason

Posted: June 12, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Paul D'Andrea teaching
Through the Clarence J. Robinson bequest, undergraduate students are taught by senior distinguished professors, such as Paul D’Andrea, above.
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At many universities, the most distinguished professors teach only graduate students. But at George Mason, thanks to the vision and generosity of the late Clarence J. Robinson, undergraduates have the opportunity to learn from faculty members who are recruited to George Mason from senior positions at prestigious institutions, including Princeton, Harvard and Yale.

The mission of these educators, the Clarence J. Robinson Professors, is to enrich the academic experiences of undergraduate students while continuing their scholarly pursuits on broad and fundamental intellectual issues.

The first cohort of Robinson Professors arrived after the university started receiving income in 1984 through an historic bequest from Robinson. A leading businessman and civic leader in Northern Virginia, Robinson was prominent among a group of Northern Virginia citizens who sought to establish an institution of higher education in the region.

From 1964 to 1970, he chaired the advisory committee appointed by the governor to oversee the development of George Mason College as a branch campus of the University of Virginia. Later, in preparing his will, Robinson advanced his belief that if his bequest were spent on people rather than bricks and mortar, the effect would be much more profound for the young college.

Currently, there are 12 Robinson Professors. Collectively, the Robinson Professors have received numerous distinguished awards, including Guggenheim fellowships, the Pulitzer Prize and George Foster Peabody Awards. They have published countless academic articles as well as books, plays, films and documentaries.

Among the Robinson Professors’ activities are exploring the Holocaust through survivor testimonies, serving on advisory boards for human rights organizations, monitoring presidential elections in Africa, leading national efforts to reform science education, studying the thermodynamics of living systems and translating and adapting ancient plays whose themes continue to resonate.

This article begins a series of profiles on the Robinson Professors.

Paul D’Andrea: Renaissance Professor

By Laura S. Jeffrey

Paul D’Andrea is a Renaissance man – and not just because he teaches a freshman seminar on that time period. D’Andrea, Robinson Professor of Theater and English, has a deep intellectual curiosity about a wide variety of topics.

Paul D'Andrea, Robinson Professor of Theater
Paul D’Andrea, Robinson Professor of Theater and English
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D’Andrea is an academic who earned undergraduate degrees in physics and mathematics from Harvard University, then went to Oxford University to study language philosophy before returning to Harvard for master’s and doctoral degrees in English and American literature.

He is a voracious reader of tomes written in French, German, Italian and Latin, among other languages. He is a playwright whose sources of inspiration include an 18th century German dramatic poem and a 20th century American newspaper article about the vigilante killing of a bully. And he is a screenwriter whose work may be coming soon to a theater near you, although D’Andrea is reluctant to provide details until “the cameras are actually rolling.”

A native of Boston, D’Andrea was a humanities professor at the University of Minnesota when he first heard about George Mason University. The year was 1980, and Mason was producing D’Andrea’s play, “The Trouble with Europe. “Trouble” had been staged in Los Angeles and New York and had been nominated for best play nationally by the American Theater Critics Association.

D’Andrea was invited to Mason to interact with the cast and audiences of that production. The following year, he was asked to return for a writer’s conference. Four years later, then-university president George Johnson contacted D’Andrea, inviting him to interview for a Robinson professorship.

Building a University with the Arts as a Central Element

“Johnson was a visionary,” D’Andrea says. “He supported the idea of having the arts as a central element of the university, not a pendant or ancillary. He offered me what I saw as a unique opportunity to help build an institution with my work concentrating in the arts.”

Now-president Alan Merten “is another dynamic innovator,” D’Andrea adds. “I am fortunate to have worked with two presidents and with a provost, Peter Stearns, who see the capacity of the arts not only to enrich our lives, but also to help us to reach out and civilize ourselves.”

D’Andrea came to Mason for the 1985-86 academic year, the first year of the Robinson program, making him the most senior Robinson Professor.

In 1990, D’Andrea established Theater of the First Amendment (TFA), a professional equity theater company that celebrates free speech by providing playwrights the resources to explore and create new work. TFA utilizes professional actors, directors and designers in the Washington, D.C., area and, whenever possible, provides students valuable on-the-job experience and training both on and behind the stage.

D’Andrea, resident playwright of TFA, says he named the company in honor of George Mason. To date, TFA has received 12 prestigious Helen Hayes Awards, including best production for Heather McDonald’s “Dream of a Common Language,” and more than 36 nominations. “For a theater company with a small budget, that’s an amazing feat,” D’Andrea says.

“Nathan the Wise” Reaches Thousands

Perhaps TFA’s most celebrated production to date is “Nathan the Wise,” which originated as a German play by G. E. Lessing about the conflict among Christians, Jews and Muslims over the holy land claimed by all three religious groups.

When D’Andrea first read it, he says, it struck him that “here was this German who wrote a play in the 18th century where the heroes are a Jew and a Muslim who come to admire and respect each other – we [in the 21st century] haven’t gotten there yet.”

D’Andrea believed the play, with its theme of informed mutual respect, should be shared with American audiences. “But it was unavailable to them,” he says. “It was written in German verse and it was long, 147 pages,” which translates into a three-hour-plus play.

With the assistance of his wife, Gisela, D’Andrea translated the play into contemporary theatrical English. He cut the work to 47 pages, then wrote an additional 47 pages. D’Andrea worked on the project for five years; it debuted on the TFA stage two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Nathan” was later filmed for broadcast on WETA-TV and other public broadcasting stations. The project has been particularly gratifying because its message “is reaching thousands of people,” he says.

D’Andrea, who once lived among the jazz musicians of New Orleans to conduct research for a play, spends a part of each year in Los Angeles. He is working on several projects, including a screenplay, but he will be happy to return to campus in the fall to greet his new students.

“Mason students don’t think of themselves as elite,” he says. “It’s my job to show them the extent of their talents, gifts and skills.”

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