Sarah Van Buskirk
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length
Pardis Mahdavi, the 19th president of the University of La Verne, began the position on August 15, a week before the fall semester began.
Mahdavi most recently served as provost and executive vice president of the University of Montana, where she worked closely with students to learn about the degrees they were interested in, and which helped create the School of Emerging and Applied Technologies there.
She has also previously held dean positions at Pomona College, the University of Denver and Arizona State University.
Mahdavi has written six books and published works on diversity, inclusion, human trafficking, migration, sexuality, human rights, feminism and public health.
Last week Mahdavi shared who she is in- and outside of her career, how she plans to approach issues at the University and her goals now that she is in the presidency position, in an interview with Campus Times Editor-in-Chief Sarah Van Buskirk and News Editor Samira Felix.
Campus Times: How did you hear about the University and what intrigued you about the position?
Pardis Mahdavi: I’ve known about La Verne for a little while, I was a professor at Pomona College for many years – I came to go to Warehouse Pizza, which is to this day, one of my favorite pizza places ever. I came out here with a group of friends and I just remember driving around and seeing that there was a university here and I saw University of La Verne.
I remember I went home that night, and I googled it, and I was reading about the University of La Verne and the core values around service, civic engagement, justice – who we are as a University today, that really rang through so beautifully, even as I was reading about the University of La Verne.
I left Pomona College and then became a dean at the University of Denver, a dean at Arizona State and Montana. When I found out about this job, it was actually the search firm that contacted me, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, La Verne, yes, absolutely.”
I just thought, this would be a perfect fit and I would get to come home because I grew up in Southern California.
CT: Where did you grow up? What was your high school and college experience like?
PM: My parents left Iran during the Revolution in 1978 and my mom was eight months pregnant with me. They boarded one of the last flights out of Tehran to the United States.
I was born in Minnesota, and when I was six years old – during the middle of a lot of anti-Iranian sentiment you had Iran Contra, the Iran Hostage Crisis – I came home from school one day and there was a sign posted in front of our house and it said “burn this house; terrorists live here.”
My father and mother were like, “Okay, we need to leave…We had a lot of family in the LA area. My dad made the decision to move to San Diego, which he thought was a little bit slower paced, a little more kid friendly at the time. That’s where I finished elementary, middle school, high school – in San Diego, and then I went to Occidental College for my undergrad.
I majored in diplomacy and world affairs, and that was very much because as an Iranian American. I always struggled with “my two countries are always at war.” Iran calls America the great Satan. America calls Iran the axis of evil. So what does that mean for those of us who are Iran and America in one body? And so I studied diplomacy thinking that was my way to be a bridge.
I decided to go to graduate school in New York, initially to study international media communications and human rights, but then I fell in love with anthropology as a method because I love that it was about, ground up instead of top down.
CT: How do you think growing up with immigrant parents shaped you to the person you are today?
PM: My dad said something to me when we moved from Minnesota to California. “You know Pardis, people are going to try to take everything from you. And they can take your belongings, they can take your home, they can even take your country, but the one thing no one can ever take from you is your education. So no matter what you lose, that’s the one thing no one can ever take from you.”
Those words still reverberate in my bones to this day because I wanted to be in a position where I can help others get that which can never be taken away from them.
CT: You have an extensive background in higher education, but what do you enjoy doing outside of your career?
PM: My horse, you probably heard me talking about.
CT: How did you get into horseback riding?
PM: You know what, I just wrote that book. It came out like two weeks ago. It’s actually about my grandmother who was a big horse woman, horse Woman Warrior. So if you think about the history of Persia, the Persian Empire was built by horses and horse woman warriors.
So … “How did I get into it?” It’s in the blood. It’s in the ancestors. But I was always drawn to horses as a little girl. I know a lot of people say that but for me it was … beyond My Little Pony. It was just absolute love. It’s just that deep, deep connection that somehow the horses feel to me like a deep connection to the past… And they take you galloping into the future. And at the same time, when you’re with a horse, you have to be fully present. So they teach me presence while giving me echoes of the past and a light into the future.
I’m also a single mom. So I have three beautiful children and I love spending time with them. But my other great passion is writing. I always say writing and riding. My days are bookended by writing and riding…I get up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning and I always write for an hour. And then in the evenings I try to go for a ride even if it’s just a half an hour.
CT: So how has it been being a mother with an immigrant past and a person of color in America? What values have you taught your children?
PM: I think the greatest way I teach them is in living my values. And in just showing resilience. I’m really honest with them, like when I’ve been kicked down, I tell them I’ve been kicked down but I’m going to stand up and you are too.
I think my kids teach me a lot. They are my greatest teachers. They teach me humility, they keep me grounded. And they remind me why it’s so important to do the work that we do because we’re passing it down to generations. And they also remind me of the importance of our culture and being in a multi-generational household. My parents live with us not full-time, but a lot of the time, you know, and I just love that.
I grew up and my grandmother raised me. My parents both worked full time, and I got so much out of tha – you know, and having the culture be passed down. I think having that richness and showing how it can be braided, and things come together in really beautiful ways.
CT: What inspired you to write a book about your grandmother and horses?
PM: I decided that I was at a place in my career, and the turning point for me was a book I wrote. I wrote a short book called “Hyphen,” which was about living in between and being a hyphenated American. It tracked the journey of the hyphen as a grammatical mark along with like hyphenated Americans.
That was kind of my moment of turning away from just academic writing, and letting myself do the writing that brought me joy, which was creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction.
And so once I had that experience with hyphen, I just let myself dream of the kinds of books I wanted to read. And when I learned the story, because I met my paternal grandmother only once, when I was like 5 years old, and I didn’t have a lot of memories of her. And I didn’t know she loved horses and I didn’t know my aunts loved horses. I didn’t know any of this until much later in my life.
And the more I learned, the more curious I became and the more fascinating her story became. And so I just allowed myself to dream into it and to share her story, because it was so touching for me.
CT: What have you learned from your previous academic positions that you are bringing to La Verne?
PM: That’s a great question. I think actually it’s really useful to have been not just the provost but to have been department chair. Actually to have been faculty, gotten tenure, been department chair, dean and provost, because I think the heartbeat of our University is of course the students.
So you are the heartbeat of our University, of everything that we do. And so having been in roles like faculty and dean, I see all the different ways in which all of us contribute to your experiences and I’m really eager to support our faculty and our staff in supporting you.
And so I think that having spent so much time in so many different positions on that side of the house, really helps to see the different perspectives, and to think about the student experience from a variety of ways.
CT: You’re coming into the University during a hard time, with the decline of enrollment and other issues. How do you plan to address these issues?
PM: Collaboratively. I think if I were to say it in one word, collaboratively, but I think first of all, enrollment has been declining across the country, right?
CT: COVID did not help.
PM: Also faith in American higher education is at an all time low. We have to take a hard look in the mirror as leaders, as folks who are knowledge architects, epistemological architects, and ask ourselves, “Are we providing the kind of education that you want today and that our world needs?”
So how I plan to grow enrollment is to work with you and figure out how we get you all what your generation needs, and how we support that. And to think about how we can work collaboratively together to come up with solutions and ways of learning and ways of knowing that help with the world’s most wicked problems.
CT: The University is struggling to retain faculty and staff resulting in it being understaffed, and students are affected by that. How do you plan on implementing incentives to attract and keep employees at the University?
PM: Again, I would say the word would be collaboration. What I hear is there are a lot of folks in this community that have suffered a lot of pain. And there are folks who’ve gone through a lot of things and so we’ve got to come together to heal and also to boost morale.
CT: The College of Health is receiving a lot of money, but we’ve noticed that the main campus is not receiving the same amount of attention that the College of Health is. Are there any plans to focus on supporting the main campus and restoring budgets that were cut in recent years?
PM: Yeah, I’m on my listening tour at the moment. But of course, fundraising is top of mind for all students. That’s why I keep saying, like all boats have to rise together instead of saying “Okay, well, we’re just gonna focus here and let these folks sink.” No, we’re not and that’s why the growing of the pie is going to be really intentional in that support.
CT: Are there any plans in motion for fundraising for the main campus programs?
PM: We’re definitely working on it. We are talking a lot about the main campus having different modalities of learning, bringing here some virtual reality, pods where students could learn in different ways. So fundraising around modalities of learning, those are just some early ideas that I’m excited about, but still forming.
CT: And then just to wrap it up, what are some exciting ideas and plans that you have. We know you’re coming in at a difficult time, but what are you excited about? What plans do you have for the University to involve students more? What is your dream now that you’re in the president position?
PM: Well, I’m excited to work much more closely with students, to figure out what are the kinds of degrees… because one of the things I saw in Montana and I don’t know, because again, I’m listening here now. But one of the things I saw in Montana was that students were succeeding in spite of us not because of us, as in they were like triple majoring and are double major and double minoring because they couldn’t get the types of knowledge they wanted.
And so as a result, one of the things we did is we created a whole new school called the School for Emerging and Applied Technologies. We got eSports gaming, game design – all of those bodies of knowledge, and then entrepreneurial arts and entrepreneurial entertainment, and entertainment management. We got a new certificate. And those were things that the students brought. Apparently our students became really competitive in eSports… So we created a whole new school. So I’m excited to do that kind of work here. We want to speak together about how we build the scaffolding for building and the kinds of knowledge that our world needs today.
Sarah Van Buskirk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samira Felix can be reached at email@example.com.