Coffee with Roy, Roy and George Mason University""


I played comic second fiddle to Roy at George Mason for years. It was really obvious from the first time I met Roy that he was a really smart. You could see that right away. But a lot of academics are really smart—smart is sort of cheap in the way a beauty queen is beautiful—it’s look at me, and primping. And Roy wasn’t smart in that way; he was smart in a very unusual way. He was smart in the way he approached building community. George Mason was a wonderful place to work. Our Department was terrifically collegial and pleasant, and most of that was due to Roy. It was the way Roy worked. He had enormous respect for people in that department.

When I got there--George Mason is kind of a preposterous place in some ways. Well, all Universities are a little preposterous. But it reflected its origins as kind of a branch campus of UVA, and a lot of the faculty in that department had no pretensions to doing any research at all. They didn’t think of themselves as researchers, they were teachers primarily, and my training of course—I thought I was a hotshot academic—was to be contemptuous of that kind of thing. You now—that’s not what it’s about, it’s about the research. And Roy never reflected that attitude: although he himself was prodigious in his work he always treated all his colleagues at George Mason with enormous courtesy and respect he built a culture of mutual respect that was really striking. It wasn’t one of those two-tiered systems where one person gets all the influence…well actually it was: Roy got all the influence, but other than that it was pretty good!

But the way he got it is what’s interesting. I had come from a department where Jr. faculty were forced to enlist themselves in feuds that dated back to the Taft administration; their origins were lost in the mists of time: there was none of that at George Mason. None of that was enabled. And I think how did he do it?

We had department meetings about three times a semester and they were remarkably pleasant. They were usually funny they were usually short, but whenever things did get a little heated or a little tense, or there’d be a problem that’d be particularly knotty, everybody would start to look at Roy, who usually wasn’t saying much. My job was to make smart-ass comments; his job was to sit quietly, and then you’d see people start to look at Roy. “What’s Roy going to say?” “What’s Roy gonna say?” And then he would invariably say something that was extremely useful. Unlike most of us he didn’t take the opportunity to speak as a chance to lay waste to his opponents or settle old scores or denounce: he didn’t do any of that stuff; he would come up with some effective solution

But he would never say the solution: he would always say “well, you know, we could do this.” And people would say “hey, we could! That would be really good!” And pretty soon, that’s what we would be doing.

Now, I don’t want to make him sound like some kind of saint—he wasn’t some kind of some kind of namby pamby goody goody guy either: he had a scathing wit, as you all know. He was happy to settle grudges and lay waste to his opponents after the meeting was over, he was happy to do that sort of thing, and it was a lot of fun, actually, I loved those moments. But the thing that was most—as you now, he was a noodge, he never quit when he wanted to make something happen. He had no concept this thing you call the “weekend” or this thing you call “the holiday.” I once got a request from him to have a meeting—on Christmas day. And I said “Roy I’m gonna be in Philadelphia visiting my family on Christmas day” and he said, “well, could we do a phone conference?” No, we can’t do a phone conference.

The thing that was most annoying about Roy, which was, I think was the key to how he worked was he would never tell you what he wanted. I was happy—I realized early n that Roy was usually right. I had extravagant schemes, and elaborate interpretations that were beautiful castle sin the air, Roy had practical solutions, and he was almost always right and I figured that out fairly early and I’d want to say “Roy, look, just tell me what you want to do, and I‘ll go along; I’m happy to go along with you; just tell me what you want to do. And he never would, because he loved the idea of consensus, and he would move mountains to create the illusion that everybody agreed happily and spontaneously. This is sort of what he did; he would do everything to make that happen, He really believed in it.

It must have been very difficult in some way to be Roy: to know the right thing to do, and be surrounded by lunatics who had no idea what the right thing—imagine the burden that must be! But he would work patiently to bring about this consensus, and the way he did it was not, in the community of George Mason, making his own agenda or his own personal grievance the first order of business. And that’s why he would never tell me where he wanted to end up. Partly he didn’t always know, but partly he didn’t want to make his agenda the first order of business; he didn’t want to make denouncing his opponents the first order of business, he didn’t want to make posturing what it was all about.,

So he built this culture that was extraordinarily collegiate, extraordinarily pleasant, extraordinarily comfortable. He did the scut work that people of his stature typically didn’t do. You now, we had a picnic every year; Roy would stay after to clean up. He was humble in that way—he didn’t put on the airs that someone of his stature was entitled to. In that way too he didn’t put himself forward: he didn’t put his own agenda and his own opinions forward.

It was an extraordinary experience to be in a department with him: it was for e a completely new way of looking t how academics can conduct themselves, and how the life of a department can be conducted. It was extraordinary—I thought you had to be sort of bitter and infighting—I thought it was a requirement for the job! And it was a revelation to see otherwise. Every day at George Mason, every day, people walk around and say: “What would Roy do? What are we going to do with this problem? What would Roy do? How would Roy get to the answer?” It’s extremely difficult to do, but it’s a question we’ll never stop asking ourselves.


Michael OMalley, “Coffee with Roy, Roy and George Mason University"",” Thanks, Roy, accessed July 4, 2022,

Output Formats