Robinson Professor Paden Still on a ‘Path of Inquiry’

Posted: March 26, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

John Paden
Clarence J. Robinson Professor John Paden will travel to Nigeria as part of the U.S. delegation monitoring the presidential elections there.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

By Laura S. Jeffrey

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 seventh in a series of profiles of the Robinson Professors. Paul D’Andrea, Shaul Bakhash, Roger Wilkins, Harold Morowitz, James Trefil and Carma Hinton were previously profiled.

With Madonna raising money for orphans, Oprah Winfrey establishing a school for girls, George Clooney calling attention to humanitarian crises and U-2 lead singer Bono working to solve monetary and health problems, Africa seems to be the celebrity cause du jour. But John Paden has long been interested in the world’s second largest continent.

Paden, the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of International Studies at Mason as well as professor of public and international affairs, will travel to the Western African nation of Nigeria in April as part of the U.S. delegation monitoring the presidential elections there. It will be Paden’s third time serving as an international monitor. Indeed, the trip represents just one of a number of Paden’s accomplishments during his distinguished academic career.

“The thing about celebrities is … they certainly highlight many of the challenges and issues,” Paden says. “But it’s up to the universities to follow through, and in cooperation with African universities to help solve problems through internship programs, summer projects, and the more difficult task of teaching African languages.”

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As an undergraduate at Occidental College, Paden was co-chair of the first Operation Crossroads Africa. This exchange program inspired the creation of the Peace Corps. Paden was one of 12 American students who helped 12 African students build a primary school in Ghana.

“In many ways, [Operation Crossroads Africa] set me on a path of inquiry,” Paden says. “It also set me in the firm belief that undergraduate education matters. This is where directions are set and lives can be changed.”

After graduating from Occidental with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Paden attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy, politics and economics. He continued on to Harvard for a PhD in political science.

While he was a student at Harvard, Paden returned to London for intensive Hausa language training, and then traveled again to western Africa, where Hausa is spoken. “I immersed myself in the culture, partly because I wanted to see where the overlap was between Western culture, African culture and Muslim culture,” he says. “That turned out to be in Nigeria.”

After Harvard, Paden taught at Northwestern University for many years but took a leave of absence to work at two universities in Nigeria. He was professor of public administration at Ahmadu Bellow University in Zaria. He then helped to establish Bayero University in Kano, where he was founding dean of the faculty of social and management sciences.

Paden was director of African studies and the Norman Dwight Harris Professor of International Studies at Northwestern before joining the Mason faculty.

“I came to Mason because I liked the idea of working across disciplinary boundaries,” Paden says. “That ‘disciplinary trespassing’ extends to building bridges — not just across disciplines but across cultures as well. That is something that I’m interested in.”

Paden is the author of several books, including “The African Experience,” which was the first major interdisciplinary U.S. college textbook on African studies, and “Muslim Civic Cultures and Conflict Resolution: The Challenge of Democratic Federalism in Nigeria.” His latest book, “Nigeria as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World,” will be published later this year.

During his career, Paden has served on several high-profile projects, including the team that helped plan the new Nigerian federal capital at Abuja, and a senior-level task force at the Brookings Institution on U.S. policy toward the Islamic world. He also worked closely with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Institute of Peace to inform political leaders about international Muslim communities.

In addition, Paden worked with the Ford Foundation to establish African studies programs in China. In fact, Paden will be on leave from Mason for the fall 2007 semester, traveling throughout China to follow up on interests dealing with socioeconomic change and international commerce.

At Mason, Paden has served as director of the School of Public Policy’s China summer graduate program in international commerce and policy. He also helped to found and is co-director of the university’s Center for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation.

As a Robinson Professor, Paden has taught freshman and sophomore honors seminars, as well as upper-division courses, and helped develop the undergraduate minors in Asia Pacific studies, Islamic studies and Afro-American and African studies.

“I do think that we’re living in a globalizing world here now,” he says. “As the world becomes smaller, the thing to do at our universities is to build bridges and not walls, keep the lines of communication going and try to mitigate conflicts as best we can.”

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