Here is the latest in a series of interviews with people striving to improve the world in unique ways. Mark Schulman is now the President of Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, after serving as a university president at three other institutions. He is a long-time social justice activist and a friend. I always learn so much from him and enjoy our conversations. I hope you do, too.
HF: Tell me about your position as President of Presidio Graduate School, now that you’ve been there a year, and what led you there.
MS: This is my fourth presidency: prior to this, I was president of Antioch University Southern California, Goddard College, and Saybrook University. While they were different from each other, I chose each of them for their educational approaches and progressive commitments.
I’ll offer a confession here: I’ve failed retirement twice, first leaving Goddard and then leaving Saybrook. When the president of PGS decided to resign, I was on the Board of Directors, and we were deciding how to proceed.
As an MD, you can relate to what happened next, I imagine, because I bet you’ve been in a theater or on an airplane when the announcement came “Is there a doctor in the house?” – and, knowing you, I also suspect you volunteered your expertise. Well, metaphorically, the PGS Board announced “Is there anyone here who knows about managing higher education?” and how could I not answer the call?
But I saw an opportunity to help build the infrastructure and stabilize the organizational underpinnings of a unique institution, and to promote the prominence of a school of business and public policy (which combination is also significant) that was built around sustainability and social justice.
So here I am, after agreeing for a short gig, a year later, still at it and planning to stay another year plus, after which I’ll try to retire a third time.
HF: A couple of years ago, The New York Times recognized Presidio Graduate School as the best place to receive a Master’s in Business Administration if you want to change the world. Why?
MS: Permit me a brief digression before I say “why,” as I think it’s informative.
The article in the Times was headlined “M.B.A. Programs That Get You Where You Want to Go,” and they chose PGS as one of the eight (out of 13,000!) business schools to feature. Where someone might “want to go,” for the other seven, were firms (e.g., Proctor and Gamble; Amazon) or functions (e.g., “Work in Private Equity”; “Start Your Own Company”). But we were listed for those wanting to go on to “world changing” – very different from the others. The article quoted the president I succeeded, “The decision to choose Presidio is a moral one, because our graduates know they’re doing the right thing…The arc of history is bending toward us.”
Possibly the notion that we were in the vanguard of a future of institutions equally change-oriented was overly-optimistic, but what mattered was that the Times took note that there were students who wanted an MBA not to become wealthy nor to buttress the status quo. Instead, PGS-inclined students saw business, properly oriented, as focused on a multiple bottom line (which I prefer to the “triple bottom line” – people, profit, planet – as a descriptor to recognize there’s always more to think about), as a force for good in the world.
Why did the Times include PGS? I think it was because, for at least a decade, and certainly aligned with the collapse tied to the Great Recession, many observers saw the need to recognize that business had to change from what it had been. As with any radical social change, there is a dialectical process: the thesis of more avaricious business ideology butting up against the antithesis of socially-responsible corporations. The reporter sensed that PGS provided the synthesis that allowed the common good to be part of the business curriculum. And he was right: that is what we do, so we were not surprised that that is what he discovered. But it was nice to get that recognition.
HF: What are some of the things you hope to accomplish during your tenure as President of Presidio Graduate School?
MS: Our most important current project happened by opportunity, not plan: A similar business school in Seattle, Pinchot University, was struggling and we acquired them last July. That meant we expanded from our geographic locale in Northern California into the Pacific Northwest. In addition, we are going to offer our degree programs, as well as certificates and professional/continuing education, online next Fall.
This expansion isn’t just for the sake of growth (growth for growth’s sake, after all, is the ideology of the cancer cell). We are steadfast in our commitment to use the business/public administration curricula as a path to a just, humane and sustainable world. And we will expand into other disciplinary areas as we stay steadfast in our commitments.
The point is to be part of a movement, not just an educational institution. We have a long way to go to do that, but we will keep at it with diligence. The important thing, I like to say, is to remember that individuals and institutions need to harken to what Lillian Hellman wrote to the House Un-American Activities Committee when they demanded she name names of communists in the movie industry during McCarthyism “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” And so we continue and persevere. That, I hope, will be my major accomplishment.
HF: You have a strong sense of social justice. What early experiences in your life led you advocate for social change?
MS: I was raised in the Washington, DC, suburbs and had the white and male privilege of my peers in that social milieu. But I also attained an intellectual sense of what was right and what was wrong, and, though I can’t really pinpoint how it happened, I became committed to social justice in high school. Two things I can cite that I now know were formative, among many others: publishing an underground magazine for which my co-editor and I were suspended; attending meetings at Howard University led by SNCC (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).
It continued in college: it was, after all, the sixties, and there was anti-war and civil rights work for white kids like me. My intellectual curiosity led me to try to understand feminism, Marxism, anti-racism, labor history, and some intersectional projects (though I confess it was later in life that I understood issues like LGBTQ oppression). Since I was committed to praxis, I never saw myself as an “armchair radical,” but wanted to always be activist in my work, both as an individual and in organizations. I was involved with anti-oppression work and socialist groupings and, for reasons too complex to go into here, chose education as the sector in which to work. This was a difficult choice I made, by the way, because it meant I abandoned my practice in the radical media movements – though media and communications did become my academic field.
One more point: Rather late in life, regrettably, my wife and I realized we could not claim to be committed to justice in the world and be carnivores. Ten years ago, we became vegetarians. And then the contradictions became completely clear to us, five years ago, we knew we had to be vegans.
HF: You’ve talked about the importance of social movements toward affecting meaningful change. Tell me more about why you think social movements are so important.
MS: Sustained and serious – radical – change only occurs when the oppressors have to respond to the pressure of the oppressed to cease the domineering behavior. The labor movement or the women’s movement or the movements for Black liberation, and now pro-immigration and anti-homophobia efforts, provide the catalyst for shifts in power that improve the world.
I believe that organized groups that “speak truth to power” are the key methods to promote such change. There are many tactics, of course, and lots to discuss about strategy, which will always need to shift as conditions change. But, fundamentally, there are severe limitations to reforms and electoral politics and people have to be “in the streets,” as well.
As you know from our conversations, that’s why I think it isn’t enough to say such things as “let’s change the world through education.” I obviously know that kind of work is important: I chose that kind of work for my life’s work, after all. But I think it is naïve to believe that those who hold and want to maintain power will allow schools (or newspapers or churches or …) to get so far away from the social reconstruction of the status quo that we can say those are where we will solely work. We need mass movements to challenge the forces of evil all around us. We need careful dialogue with those sympathetic to our efforts and those who can be won over. We need to have a multitude of tactics to engage ourselves in a life of struggle. And we need to believe, even if we can’t see it happen in our lifetimes, our children and grandchildren will live in a better world for all species.
HF: How can educational institutions best prepare graduating students to affect positive social change?
MS: “Critical thinking” – I put that in quotes because it’s used to mean too many things, not all of which are really critical (or really thinking) – is a key. Equally important is the ability for a graduate to ask the right questions. In fact, asking questions is more powerful than giving answers, as it hones your skill to listen and cogitate on what you hear.
It goes without saying that the tools and skills to be a professional and leader in the fields studied is part of the package.
I think there needs to be a deep understanding of history, and obviously not that history written by the victors. There needs to be a curiosity and a commitment – people should come to us who wish to change the world, after all.
Also there needs to be the cultivation of the built-in crap detector every thinking citizen should have. There’s so much crap needing to be detected these days.
HF: As a friend, I know you are interested in human rights, animal rights, and environmental conservation. How do these three issues come together for you?
MS: As I mentioned already, the streams of my raised consciousness of many different issues and intersectional projects came together gradually as I evolved as a person, a worker, a good partner to my wife, and a scholar-practitioner. I would guess it’s fair to say that I first was a human rights advocate, and then later became an environmental justice advocate, and last on my personal journey learned of and adopted an animal rights perspective.
When I try to answer your question, what comes to mind is what Mao said about how people become revolutionaries. He talked of a “spark” that ignites revolutionary consciousness, and, after it sparks, the person is transformed. Not only can they not go back but it never even occurs to them as an option.
At some point, the spark hit me. It not only meant I could not and did not want to “go back”: it meant I could not and would not separate the projects after they fused into one, large, overall project. Of course, at times a single issue takes precedence, but the rights of all living things – and I don’t want to get mystical but that includes plants and soil and rocks and wind – have to be weighed in everything we do. Sometimes we have to choose between contending interest and realities, and that’s hard, but we know we are making those choices, and try to make them for the right reasons. And it certainly does not mean that we do not call out and resist what’s evil and oppressive in the world because it, too, is “alive.” Those who wish to destroy the world cannot be permitted to sustain their ideology in some insane kumbaya embrace.
HF: What do you think the future holds in terms of some of the largest challenges of our time, including injustices based on race?
MS: I remember a poster from the sixties of a young woman sitting on her haunches, probably in the Haight, and the caption was: “First we’re going to get our asses kicked, and then we’re going to win.” A more genteel way to say it is in the quote often misattributed to Gandhi (which has a more convoluted etymology but nevertheless works for satyagraha and other forms of resistance): “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Racism is for me going to be probably the most difficult injustice to eradicate. The problem is that white supremacy can be overcome only when white folks work on dismantling it with other white folks. But white fragility and privilege mitigate against that project being taken as dead seriously as it must be. But I won’t believe it’s intractable, and I know I have to work with other whites, not ask black folks “what do you want us to do.” It’s pretty simple: Stop being racists.
HF: What motivates you to continue working in the areas you do?
MS: I want to be on the right side of history and I want to die only after fulfilling Horace Mann’s directive “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” which is Antioch’s tagline, so, you know, I gotta believe in it!
HF: The recent election has a lot of progressive people worried and even afraid. Are you?
MS: Somewhat worried, a little afraid. But we have to get beyond our fixation on Trump. Recent political activism, like the anti-immigration-ban actions, and the women’s marches, demonstrate that we have the capacity and we have to have the will to fight fascism, which goes beyond one person in an office which really isn’t at the source of the power: the presidency is just the chairmanship of the executive committee for the ruling class.
We will mobilize and we will keep strong. And we will envision a post-Trump, post-imperialism, post-oppression world whose wonderful image will keep us going.
Count on it!