The Wilder School Bids Farewell to John Mahoney
By Tiffany Murray-Robertson
Each weekday morning at precisely 9:50 a.m. for the past decade—armed with a cup of coffee and dressed in a variation of chinos, pastel gingham or plaid—John Mahoney, Ph.D., has breached the heavy oak door of Scherer Hall, greeted its first-floor residents with a smile, some questions about what they’re working on and then made his way to a corner office on the second floor.
When he arrives at the Wilder School’s Undergraduate Advising Office, Mahoney repeats the cycle, with each member of his small staff as they prepare for the day that lies ahead.
“I can pretty much set my clock to it,” said Nicholas Garcia, who has worked alongside Mahoney as an advisor to undergraduate students since 2014.
Mahoney seldom leaves his office before 6:30 p.m. and reserves the end of the day for answering email from students and faculty.
"John's passion for students and student success, his deep understanding of what makes for academic and institutional excellence and his strong sense of intellectual and personal integrity, are all part of the elements that have made him a visionary leader and a compelling presence in our community.”
“It is a quiet time that I can devote to the more complex questions and issues that arise. It is gratifying to find solutions or to be able to offer helpful advice,” he said.
On June 30, Mahoney, a longtime administrator, associate professor of sociology and assistant dean for undergraduate academic affairs at the Wilder School, will perform this ritual for the last time. At the age of 68, he will retire this summer.
Mahoney’s departure will conclude a career spanning more than three decades—including 34 years in higher education and 29 years as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves—a hard-won feat of concurrent service that has earned him a reputation as a gifted administrator and respected colleague.
“John has a way of cultivating a culture of equality and respect in the smallest of actions,” said Garcia, who will replace Mahoney as the Wilder School’s director of undergraduate advising.
“The morning greetings are symbolic of that spirit. He is someone who understands the potential of every individual who walks through our doors and embodies that ethos in his everyday encounters.”
Those sentiments were on parade on May 8, when dozens of faculty, staff, students and alumni gathered from across VCU to celebrate Mahoney’s career at the University Student Commons. In a litany of recollections that revealed the breadth and diversity of his contributions, one tribute offered by University Librarian John Ulmschneider seemed to say it all:
“John has been an indefatigable contributor to a thousand committees across the university. He is one of those rare individuals you can describe as guileless: devoid of ulterior motives, seeking only the good of the cause. His passion for students and student success, his deep understanding of what makes for academic and institutional excellence and his strong sense of intellectual and personal integrity, are all part of the elements that have made him a visionary leader and a compelling presence in our community.”
A Family Tradition of Naval Service
Mahoney grew up in Quincy, Mass., an industrial town once known for its granite quarries and shipbuilding industry. His father was a trade school teacher who had served as a Naval officer in World War II.
“I learned that my dad could have received a draft deferment because of his age and the fact that he worked in a ‘critical’ civilian profession. Instead, at the age of 38, he volunteered and was accepted into Officer’s Candidate School,” Mahoney said. “Growing up, I respected that, and it sparked a lifelong interest in the Navy that still exists, today. While in high school, I decided to apply for an NROTC scholarship and was accepted.
“My father suggested that I consider majoring in physics and study Russian as my required language because they would be of value to a naval officer,” Mahoney said smiling. “Like me, he loved science, especially science fiction. I guess that he thought it would be a good match.
“Well, I did all right in physics, and fortunately, my university did not offer Russian, so I took German instead. But it was clear from my performance in chemistry that I needed to find a different major. I had enjoyed my introductory psychology class, so I chose psychology instead of physics. Call it a first lesson in advising,” said Mahoney, who earned an undergraduate degree in psychology in 1970.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until his fourth year of college that he discovered his true passion: sociology. “Because I needed a few more social science credits, I ended up taking a social problems course with Dr. David Bromley.”
"Life on a ship at sea was incredible. It was, in many ways, the ultimate social laboratory."
-John S. Mahoney, Ph.D.
Bromley was a junior faculty member at UVA at the time but would go on to become a distinguished professor of religious studies and sociology at VCU’s School of World Studies.
“He was a provocative lecturer who took his classes into the field—to prisons and nearby asylums.”
That was it for Mahoney, who described the experience as transformative.
“It was amazing—it was as if the lights were suddenly turned on. Instead of being focused primarily on the individual and what internal factors shape individual behavior, Bromley showed me how social forces influence individual action and the importance of social groups in our everyday lives. I knew immediately that sociology was what I wanted to do.”
But sociology would have to wait. While the NROTC scholarship covered all college expenses, there was an active service obligation for a minimum of four years. So immediately after college Mahoney found himself assigned to sea duty.
“Life on a ship at sea is incredible. Standing on the bridge of a large naval vessel, you can sense the curvature of the Earth, and the oceans are so vast that they defy the imagination. How many people get to maneuver a 659-foot ship and learn the art of ship handling? Also, for a budding sociologist interested in group dynamics, it was fascinating. The Navy is a total institution that controls us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As an officer, you were responsible for 350 sailors, some of whom had serious problems in their personal lives. The ship was also a microcosm of the larger society at a time fraught with tension over race, class and the war in Vietnam. It was, in many ways, the ultimate social laboratory.”
In 1974, Mahoney returned to UVA to earn a master’s degree in sociology and affiliated with a Naval Reserve intelligence unit on campus. “I had to change my designator from surface warfare to naval intelligence staff officer. The standard joke was, ‘They took out half my brain to make me an INTEL Officer’ because Naval Intelligence is an oxymoron!”
In the mid-1970s more intelligence work was shifting in the Navy Reserve. Units that had once been known “for sitting around watching victory-at-sea movies one weekend per month” were suddenly tasked with “providing consistent, meaningful support to an active duty gaining command,” Mahoney said.
From its drilling facility on the grounds of UVA, Mahoney’s unit provided monthly scientific and technical intelligence support to a Naval organization based in Washington, D.C.
“It was stimulating stuff, the perfect complement to my graduate studies. I was taking courses in non-Western cities, declining societies, complex organizations and basic sociological theory. They were all relevant and applicable to my work in the reserves.”
He completed his master’s in sociology in 1976 and immediately began work on his doctoral degree. It was during this period that a roommate recruited Mahoney for an intramural softball team through which he would meet his wife, Rhoda, a third-year medical student.
“She was a far better fielder than I and covered third base and short stop with the grace and agility of a professional ball player. They stuck me in right field where I could do the least harm possible!”
Mahoney completed his doctoral degree at UVA in 1983. The next seven years were frenetic for the young couple as they balanced Rhoda’s residency at MCV, a subsequent pediatrics practice and the birth of their first child with John’s first full-time teaching appointment at the University of Richmond and his increasing responsibilities within the reserves.
By the time the couple welcomed their second child in January 1991, Mahoney found himself toggling between the looming threat of deployment to the Persian Gulf, his new Inshore, Undersea Warfare Reserve Unit at Cheatham Annex near Williamsburg and the hour-long commute between both jobs and the couple’s Richmond home. Although the rapid conclusion of Desert Storm in early March would alleviate the threat of deployment, it was still a very stressful period.
Mahoney met the challenge and went on to ascend the ranks in two fields simultaneously.
Before his retirement from the Naval Reserve in 1999, he had attained the rank of captain and was one of 13 national leaders selected to run the entire Naval Reserve intelligence program. In this role, he was the regional commander for all six Naval Reserve intelligence units in Virginia and North Carolina.
A Love of Academia and Teaching
Mahoney’s career at VCU began in 1991, when he was hired as an instructional faculty member within the Department of Sociology.
He was in the midst of his second year of a teaching appointment at the College of William and Mary when he received a call from VCU sociology professor John Palen, Ph.D.
On the phone, Palen didn’t mince words.
“He told me to give my notice because he had a much better deal for me here in Richmond at VCU,” Mahoney said.
It turned out to be a collateral faculty position. Mahoney would be among the first term, or non-tenure track, hires at the university in a hybrid role where he would be balancing a three-course teaching load with advising approximately 200 undergraduate sociology majors. Eager to return to VCU, Mahoney accepted the offer.
“John pioneered the role of collateral faculty. His career serves as a model—a testament to the value and importance that we place on students within this institution.”
-Jennifer Johnson, Ph.D.
Before long, he also became the on-site program director of the Philip Morris Bachelor of General Studies program.
Philip Morris USA invited VCU and John Tyler Community College to work together and create a bachelor’s degree program for talented workers and mid-level managers. The program was designed to be offered on-site at two of the company’s major facilities. The curriculum was divided into four terms with two evening courses being offered each Monday through Thursday from 4 to 9:30 p.m. Mahoney’s job was to make it happen.
It was an administrative gauntlet that could be charitably described as wearisome. It was also, as it turns out, one that played to his strengths.
Mahoney set the entire teaching schedule for each year, hired VCU faculty to teach courses in the BGS major, coordinated teaching schedules with JTCC officials, worked with company officials to obtain classroom space and advised Philip Morris students. No element evaded his consideration: it was a project that leveraged his knack for managing a variety of functions and personalities, a skill he had been honing since his early days in the Navy.
He also got heavily involved in teaching at Philip Morris.
Mahoney’s courses in the “Sociology of Organizations” and “The Sociology of Work” provided an ideal opportunity to discuss management concepts with seasoned professionals and individuals who were themselves experts in navigating Philip Morris’ unique structure and culture.
“With those students,” chuckled Mahoney, “I learned as much from them as they learned from me, perhaps even more. It was a wonderful opportunity to balance textbook learning with practical lessons from the floor of a manufacturing plant or even from a corporate board room. It reminded me of my own experiences managing a Naval Reserve unit.”
When he wasn’t running that program, Mahoney was back on the Monroe Park campus teaching and advising students in the Sociology Department. He remains an impassioned advocate for advising, and collaborating with colleagues across the university to foster studentsuccess.
“I often wonder how my college career would have changed had I started out in sociology rather than discovering it my last year when a senior,” he mused.
Over the years, Mahoney has also served on more than 20 college and university standing committees. When asked which of these he considered to be most rewarding, he said, “It would have to be all the library committees over the years. There were several, going back to 1992, and I plan to continue my support of VCU Libraries even in retirement, as many other VCU faculty and administrators have done.”
As the past president of the VCU Friends of the Library Board, Mahoney has worked tirelessly with Stephanie Holt, John Ulmschneider and others to secure support for the expansion and renovation of the James Branch Cabell Library, which added 63,000 square feet of improvements to the existing structure, providing students with more space to study, collaborate and conduct research.
Mahoney’s accomplishments in teaching and university service did not go unnoticed. In 1999, he was promoted to the rank of assistant professor and then associate in 2006. It was a commendation that rightly balanced the merits of Mahoney’s extraordinary commitment to students with his contributions to teaching, service and scholarship.
“For term faculty at the university,” said Jennifer Johnson, Ph.D., chair of the Sociology Department, “John’s promotion marked a significant milestone in recognition for collateral faculty.”
“John has helped to lead the school from its very beginnings—from a small group of faculty, staff and students joined together to address public problems—to an accomplished, respected standalone school offering best-in-class advising and student support services."
-Sarah Jane Brubaker, Ph.D.
Even today, said Johnson, who has worked with Mahoney for the past 12 years, there “are only a handful of VCU term faculty with an associate designation. Whenever I talk to term faculty about their goals and potential, I point to John.
“He pioneered the role of collateral faculty. His career serves as a model—a testament to the value and importance that we place on students within this institution. John cares deeply about students. It’s a commitment that has guided his work as a faculty member in sociology, as an adviser within the Wilder School and in his numerous leadership roles within the university.”
Mahoney moved to Scherer Hall in 2007, during a reorganization that added sociology to the existing disciplines in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Almost immediately, he became the school’s first undergraduate program coordinator and was tasked with centralizing course scheduling and advising for four academic programs supporting approximately 2,000 undergraduate students.
“Those early days were challenging,” said Mahoney, who recalled emotional conversations with students who—not long after sending out graduation announcements to friends and family—discovered that they were not, in fact, on schedule to complete their degrees.
“We had students who had never seen an advisor in the course of their college careers. They didn’t realize that it could be an unproductive and expensive decision not to seek the counsel of an advisor. What we needed was a cultural change. And, over time we created it.”
Mahoney led the standardization of advising processes and procedures, instituting templates for each program to help students monitor their progress toward degree completion and strongly encouraged advising by appointment. He also streamlined the process for course overrides and grade changes, removing a significant administrative burden that had previously fallen on teaching faculty.
As the chief architect of the Wilder School’s first undergraduate advising office, Mahoney’s greatest achievement has been the expansion of dedicated advising support staff.
In the last decade, Mahoney has significantly increased the office’s advising workforce, strengthened hiring and recruitment practices for part-time graduate advisors and advocated for a full-time senior and lead advisor.
Those successes led to Mahoney’s promotion to director in 2014. Following a national search, he became the assistant dean for undergraduate academic affairs in 2015.
“Over the course of his multifaceted career at VCU, John has been a positive force in so many arenas one can hardly list them for fear of omitting something critical,” said Sarah Jane Brubaker, Ph.D. , associate professor and the Wilder School’s former associate dean of academic affairs.
“He has a special insight into identifying what’s best for our students that helped shape my perspective on the impact I wanted to have as a teacher.”
Brubaker cited his involvement in the Wilder School Faculty Council, numerous faculty and staff selection committees and his role on student scholarship and enrollment committees, such as VCU Health System’s Pre-Health Advisory Committee.
“He’s been a valued leader, supporter, teacher, mentor and friend. John has helped to lead the school from its very beginnings—from a small group of faculty, staff and students joined together to address public problems—to an accomplished, respected standalone school offering best-in-class advising and student support services,” said Brubaker.
Nicholas Garcia, his successor in the undergraduate advising office said he appreciates how Mahoney helped identify opportunities for junior staff to grow and develop and how he was always available to colleagues and students alike.
“I think part of what makes John’s level of engagement so exceptional is that he has played an equally important role in the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of other students throughout his career,” Garcia said. “That’s something to be extremely proud of.”
For former sociology colleague and Director of Student Success, Gay Cutchin, Mahoney was something of a mentor.
“Throughout my career I would go to him for advice on how to best serve students with difficulties. John was always there and I was always impressed by his compassion and objectivity,” Cutchin said. “He has a special insight into identifying what’s best for our students that helped shape my perspective on the impact I wanted to have as a teacher. I hope I’ve made half the impact he’s made on his students.”
During his retirement, Mahoney plans to read lots of science fiction and perhaps write some himself. He looks forward to traveling with his wife, who will also retire on June 30, and spending time with their daughters, Susan and Anne Byrd.
“I’m pretty pleased with the way my career turned out,” Mahoney said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have not one, but two jobs that made me want to go to work every morning. It has been a privilege to work with colleagues I admire and to serve students from all walks of life. To help students find their passion—that force that will inspire them to go to work every day—is very rewarding. I’ve appreciated every minute of it.
“I think what I will miss most will be the contact with my colleagues and my staff, many of whom have become like members of my extended family.”