Mason Students Learn at Feet of Historical Giant

Posted: July 31, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Wilkins receiving honorary degree
At Mason’s 2004 Commencement, Robinson Professor Roger Wilkins was presented honorary doctoral degree in humane letters by President Alan Merten.

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.

This is the third in a series of profiles of the Robinson Professors. Paul D’Andrea and Shaul Bakhash were previously profiled.

Roger Wilkins

By Rey. C. Banks

Roger Wilkins, Robinson Professor of History, is a living lesson: From birth, he was part of the civil rights movement. His mother was a lifelong civil rights crusader and the first African-American woman to head the national YWCA. His father was a business manager of an early black newspaper, The Kansas City Call. His uncle, Roy Wilkins, was executive secretary of the NAACP for 22 years.

Roger Wilkins
Roger Wilkins
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Wilkins’ subsequent jobs added to the historical context he received from his civic-minded family. Starting with his service in the Kennedy and Johnson administration, he fought to win passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and subsequently dealt with the horrific problems of inner cities.

Undoubtedly, Wilkins could instruct the many students who vie for admittance into his classes without the aid of books, outlines or research tools. He could simply sit, open his mouth, and recount the many exciting experiences that have made up his life.

For example, Wilkins’ editorials for the Washington Post earned him a shared Pulitzer Prize with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and cartoonist Herb Block. He also was the first black columnist at the New York Times, and became associate editor at the Washington Star.

The names of historical giants roll off his tongue: Martin, Jesse, Colin, Julian and Ramsey (Attorney General Clark to most of us). But to Wilkins, they are merely friends and contemporaries.

A Great University Citizen

“We in the Department of History were lucky to hire Professor Wilkins,” says Jack Censer, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“When the Robinson program began, we immediately thought of him as a natural participant since the stated goals of the program included attracting someone of national stature, interested in teaching undergraduates, whose breadth and understanding extended across many disciplines. Roger was perfect for this.

“His role and influence has continued unabated over the last 20 years. He is a great university citizen, a popular teacher and a noted scholar and public intellectual.”

Wilkins has definitely made his mark in public service and as an outspoken member of the African-American elite. He says he is saddened by the current administration’s failure to grasp and address the issues that affect so many Americans who have been ignored and, worse, suffer under policies that actively hinder personal achievement. He quotes statistics of the number of people in this wealthy nation who continue to live in poverty and crime-ridden areas with limited access to health care, wealth and quality education.

“How can students really be expected to learn in an atmosphere of fear, where their very lives are threatened daily and they know they have been abandoned?” Wilkins asks. “Poverty is a form of brutality on the soul from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover.

“There needs to be a broad, vigorous and sustained effort by African-Americans who have benefited from the advances of the civil-rights movement and now are living comfortably – an effort to bring about substantial improvements in the lives of those who the efforts of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s missed, the one-quarter of black Americans still mired in poverty and hopelessness.”

From his vantage point as a historian, Wilkins acknowledges his greatest legacy is his children. “All any of us can do is try to put good into the world,” he says. “That is what I hope I have done with them.”

This fall, Wilkins will teach HIST 389 History of Race and Law in the United States, 1619-1992, and UNIV 190 Robinson Freshman Seminar: Thinking about Culture.

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