The Business Voice: Your ties to George Mason University began with your father (former Gov. Linwood Holton), who helped the school gain independence from U.Va., and you’ve served as visiting professor since 2017. What does it mean to you personally to become the university’s first female president?
Anne Holton: I’m honored and privileged—and humbled—to be serving in that role, especially because of my dad’s involvement with George Mason University and especially as we approach the 50th anniversary of its establishment as its own institution, apart from the University of Virginia, which my father signed into law when he was governor.
TBV: You’re obviously no stranger to education in Virginia. Tell us about your priorities when you served as state education secretary, and your administration’s biggest accomplishments.
AH: I was very focused on equity with Governor McAuliffe, and how we can ensure that all of our students at all levels and of all backgrounds get a trampoline to life success through education. We focused on helping the state financially support education, increased funding for pre-K, K-12 and higher ed – which we did, but not by nearly enough. We worked hard to make sure that we were instituting policies that helped all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
TBV: GMU has touted your background in “bolstering the Commonwealth’s talent pipeline” as part of the reason you were chosen to lead the university. You will, at least temporarily, be heading up GMU’s expansion of the Arlington campus to help support Amazon’s efforts in Northern Virginia. What ideas and initiatives do you see for that project? How do you view Northern Virginia’s new high-tech future?
AH: Gov. Northam has pledged $235 million over the next 20 years to expand our computer science and tech-related undergraduate and graduate degrees. That’s a vote of confidence in Mason’s ability to find, attract and graduate talent, and in our ability to provide the state with a large percentage of the highly skilled workforce it needs in high-growth tech fields so that our state can continue to prosper.
Mason already is the largest producer of tech talent in the state. And our ability to attract diverse talent from all backgrounds and walks of life will fuel innovation and spur fresh approaches with our Institute for Digital InnovAtion, which will anchor the Arlington Innovation District.
We expect the IDIA and the Arlington Innovation District to serve as an engine of research development, economic growth, job creation and new tax revenue, where we will draw on Mason’s strong relationships with other organizations in the region, including private, nonprofit and public sector partners or prospective partners.
TBV: Your family is deeply rooted in Virginia politics. What ideals did your father and his tenure as governor and civil rights advocate instill in you?
AH: Even before I was old enough to be aware of the notion of public service, I understood from my father that people should feel a sense of purpose, that they have a calling to give back and a responsibility to make sure everyone has opportunities, regardless of economics or other circumstances.
I was 12 years old when we moved into the governor’s mansion. Dad sought to make Virginia a model for race relations. In support of that, my siblings and I attended formerly all African-American schools. The press followed us to school that first day. That was a life-changing experience, to get to be a part of something bigger than yourself.
My focus has always been equity and opportunity, whether through my work as a lawyer with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society or as a judge on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court and through my time as Virginia Secretary of Education.
TBV: Tell us about Tim’s candidacy for vice president. (Holton is married to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.) I certainly enjoyed seeing a Virginia person on the national stage. How did you handle the campaign and the loss? Do you ever plan to run for political office?
AH: I loved everything about our adventure with the 2016 campaign except the end! It was a 101-day whirlwind where I got the opportunity to travel across the country, especially to swing states. My focus in the campaign—which Secretary [Hillary] Clinton asked me to do—was to talk to teachers.
Dealing with loss is hard. In politics, there’s always a potential for loss, to lay it all on the line and know that it may not go your way. People who engage in public service do it all the time.
Do I ever plan to run? No. I’m happily not the one with my name on the bumper sticker.
TBV: Do you still enjoy clogging? What are some other things you and Tim enjoy in your downtime?
AH: I love old-time music and I listen to it every chance I get. When I hear it, I simply can’t sit still. At the Folk Festival in Richmond in October there were a number of good bands and we had the chance to dance with friends there. We also love the outdoors, and we hike whenever we get a chance. But sitting down to watch TV or a movie is nice, too.