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Voice Magazine / Stories / 2023 Winter / Mahdavi’s Mission

Mahdavi’s Mission

President Pardis Mahdavi shares how her experiences with exclusion shaped her identity and personal mission, empowered her to bridge transformative opportunities for others, fueling her commitment to education and providing focus for university work ahead.

Where It Started

In the late 1970s, amidst the Iranian revolution, a young doctor and father-to-be made the difficult decision with his pregnant wife to leave their home country and find refuge in America. They settled in Minnesota. Six years and three kids later, the couple once again found themselves forced to pack up their home when their daughter found a disturbing sign on the front door that read, “burn this house; terrorists live here.”

During the move from Minnesota to Southern California, the father imparted to his daughter:

“People are going to try to take everything from you—they can take your home, they can take your belongings, they can even take your country—but the one thing no one can ever take from you is your education. They can never take your mind.”

This powerful message became the foundation that propelled Pardis Mahdavi toward a career and mission in higher education to help others get that which can never be taken away.

“I want to be at a place where we measure ourselves by who we include, not who we exclude,” said Mahdavi, who became the 19th president of the University of La Verne in August.

“This is what drives me as an educator and why upholding a commitment to access and excellence are so important to me.”

Finding Inclusion Among The Excluded

Always the curious anthropologist, Dr. Mahdavi spent years studying social injustices and revolutions, women’s rights and movements, access in education, and more. Her research has allowed her to bring societal and cultural issues to light through the stories and voices of the excluded. In every case, Mahdavi amassed strong and personal empathy as she struggled to find her own self-identity and cultural heritage while feeling caught between trying to fit prescribed identities.

“I have tried most of my career to fit in boxes and I have learned that I just do not. I have not fit because I was interdisciplinary… because of my identity as a hyphenated individual…because I identify as a woman of color…because of my Iranian name…for one reason or another, I just haven’t fit. So how can I belong? That’s why co-creation to me is the framework that helps us create space.”

Her experiences and observations have made her a distinguished author, national and international public speaker, and notable thought leader and scholar. She has published six single-authored books, two edited volumes, and numerous journal and news articles in popular media.

Journey Into Educational Leadership

As a young professor at a private liberal arts college, Mahdavi was excited to widely share her passion for education, but it quickly simmered as she noticed fewer numbers of students coming from low socioeconomic and diverse backgrounds. The lack of access, equity, and diversity among students, and even her colleagues, weighed heavy on Mahdavi.

She decided she needed to be at the table where critical decisions were made and where she was empowered to develop innovative educational opportunities. She needed to lead.

Mahdavi spent more than twenty years in higher education, most recently serving as provost and executive vice president at the University of Montana, a public flagship research university in Missoula. She previously held deanships at Arizona State University and the University of Denver, as well as several leadership positions at Pomona College.

Her career has focused on strengthening education, institutions, and opportunities for students through the lens of democracy, diversity, and service. In 2020, she founded the J.E.D.I. Academy, a justice-oriented, mission-driven academy to assist corporations and organizations in equity, diversity, and inclusion work.

Colleagues and industry leaders have characterized Mahdavi as an inclusive, visionary leader. She has a significant record of success in developing relationships, strategic planning, identifying resources,

Vision For The Future

Now at the helm of the University of La Verne, Mahdavi is an everpresent president, listening intently, taking copious notes, engaging with stakeholders, and of course weaving in her professional training roots with ethnographic work and social mapping. Sometimes, she still enters a quiet space, an “in-between” space, but today, it is a vantage point, allowing her to spot outliers, establish champions in education, and create bridges to educational excellence.

“I try to honor the strength and values of the past—to weave it into a bold and innovative future,” says Mahdavi. While she is still meeting with stakeholders to build a joint vision, some needs are starting to emerge:

  • Enhancing and improving online offerings with wrap-around support
  • Creating transparent processes and policies that factor in diverse labor and facilitate the creation of an infrastructure that supports our goals and our mission
  • Supporting and enhancing a culture of research and internships
  • Living into the university’s core values

Plans continue to evolve. Dialogue assuming good intent is encouraged by Mahdavi, who thrives in co-creation and collectiveness.

“It’s not about me,” she says with deep sincerity. “It has to be about what is right for the entire university and using strength in that collectiveness as we create further partnerships, build bridges and move forward.”