George Mason University

News at Mason

John Paden retires after 30 years as professor; leaves 4,000 books for Africa studies library

May 9, 2017   /   by Buzz McClain

Retiring Robinson Professor John Paden has donated his 4,000+ item collection of materials on Africa and Asia to Mason. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

As a student at Occidental College, John Paden was required to take three years of Western Civilization studies, which only increased his curiosity about “what was on the other side of the mountain,” he said.

“Well, the other side was China and Africa, and China was closed in those days while Africa was just opening up after the Colonial period,” he said.

His thirst for knowledge about the “other side” would have to wait until Paden completed his education, first at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and then at Harvard for his PhD.

A grant from the Ford Foundation to establish universities in Africa sent Paden on his first voyage to the rarely studied interior of the continent.

“And when China opened up, I jumped on that, too,” he said.

Paden came to Mason in January 1987 after starting his career as a professor of international studies at Northwestern University, which he describes as one of the premier universities for African studies. He left Northwestern for Mason because the young university was eager to try new things.

“The essence of coming here was the challenge of building up a new something,” he said, which included expanding the Robinson Professors faculty.

“The idea [then-president] George Johnson had was to get senior scholars back into the classroom to mentor and nurture the next generation, and I think we’ve done that,” Paden said.

Paden was also asked to help increase Mason’s profile at its nascent Arlington Campus in the mid-1980s.

“With the Cold War over, we realized the next big thing was going to be the global economy, so we set up the master’s program of International Transactions, which morphed into the International Commerce and Policy program,” he said.

Both programs were essential to developing what is now the Schar School of Policy and Government at Mason’s Arlington Campus.

While teaching at Mason, Paden was helping the Ford Foundation set up an African studies programs in China. Because of his familiarity with Sufism, Islam’s mystical sect in sub-Saharan Africa, he also worked on a senior-level task force at the Brookings Institution on U.S. policies toward the Islamic world.

All the while he was writing books—his latest is a biography of Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari—as well as collecting them.

His collection of 4,000 books, periodicals, photographs, maps and related ephemera about Africa and Asia will be available to students and the public in the new John N. Paden Nigerian/African Collection at Mason’s Arlington Campus.

Paden retires in May after a 30-year career at Mason, but he won’t be slowing down.

“I’m not the kind to go fishing and watch the clouds go by,” he said. “Nigeria never lets me go. You wake up in the morning and wonder what’s going to happen next in Nigeria.”

Some of his former students are now in positions of authority in Africa’s most populous country.

“My former students are now running the universities and have senior management positions in the government,” he said. “I visit them, and we think about how we can make the world a better place.”