Episode 60: Bob Mong

Today on Good God, George talks with Bob Mong, the president of the University of North Texas at Dallas, about the importance of higher education for under-resourced populations. UNTD is being intentional about reaching that group and serving the community. 

In the second half of the episode, they discuss Mong’s previous career at the Dallas Morning News: the launching of the religion section in the 90s, and the importance of good religious news coverage. 

Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here for the full video.

George Mason: 00:00 A thriving democracy and a vibrant economy both require an educated and informed constituency. Bob Mong is our guest today on good God and he's had two careers in helping to see that come true in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned.

George Mason: 00:25 Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith in public life. I'm George Mason, your host, and I'm pleased to welcome to the program today, my friend Bob Mong. Bob, welcome.

Bob Mong: 00:36 Good to see you George.

George Mason: 00:36 We are so glad to have you with us. Bob is the president of the University of North Texas at Dallas, a school that is relatively new on the landscape here in Texas and is thriving in South Dallas. And this is sort of an encore career for you Bob. And I've heard you say things like some of your skills transferred, but an awful lot of them were learned on the job.

Bob Mong: 01:06 That's right. It's been a steep learning curve.

George Mason: 01:18 Wonderful. Well, you know, I had Ron Kirk on the program a while back and, and Ron was saying that when he was mayor, he looked at the difference between Dallas and Houston. And among those differences in his mind was the University of Houston, that really Dallas lacked that kind of a school that was for the public good, that would really create opportunity, especially for disenfranchised folk in the community. And that's really exactly what's happening at UNTD at this point. So tell us about your enrollment and the exciting things about how fast you're growing and some of the statistics that are just, I think a lot of people in Dallas really do not know what an extraordinary effort this is.

Bob Mong: 01:56 Well, thank you. He's right. I mean, I think you could make the case for both. Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, they all have major urban universities that serve under-resourced populations. Until Ron Kirk as mayor made this happen, he signed over the land from the city to the UNT system, there was no public university in the city of Dallas. And, so when I was asked to come in as president in 2015, the goal really was to get it out of startup mode. It had been kind of stuck around 2000 for a long time, up one year, down another. So, my role was really to come in and figure out what to do to get it growing. I'm happy to say the state of Texas just came out with, it's a biennial growth statistics for the 38 state universities, and we are now the fastest growing university in the state. We were up about 24% in the last two years and A&M San Antonio, which had been the perennial number one, they're number two now. So we are growing, we're also retaining students 20 plus points higher than we were when I got there. And our graduation numbers are way up.

George Mason: 03:26 And I think, did I hear it was 3,700 or something?

Bob Mong: 03:29 Yeah, 3,700 is our enrollment, and we're trying to get the 5,000 as quickly as possible.

Bob Mong: 03:35 Wonderful. And I think one of the most beautiful things is the relative indebtedness is one of the lowest of any schools where you graduate with very little debt. Is that correct?

Bob Mong: 03:50 Yeah, we've worked hard at that because one thing you don't want, if somebody comes in from a household income of 30,000, which is a lot of our students, you don't want them leaving with a pile of debt. There are some schools in the state that cater to an under-resourced population where their students are graduating with 40,000 in debt. We are actually now number one in the country for lowest debt upon graduation for a state university. So we're a little under 7,000. And so we work it hard and, you know, so far so good. I've raised tuition and fees once in the four years I've been there. Um, uh, but we still are only 9,000 all in to go there.

George Mason: 04:34 So it's a beautiful campus. You've had me down and I've been able to look around and see what you're doing. Tell everybody where it is and I think, invite them to come in and walk around.

Bob Mong: 04:45 Absolutely. The campus is just east of Interstate 35 on Camp Wisdom Road, or just south of 20 on University Hills. And it's really not far from 45 West. If you get off to go to Paul Quinn, it's called Simpson Stuart, but it becomes Camp Wisdom, right? So we're only about three miles away from Michael Sorrell's Paul Quinn College. And, so we're fortunate. We are right now, we're way up on the hill. You can see downtown Dallas 12 miles away. We're just about finished with our largest building, a $63 million student center. We also have a law school downtown, which also has a mission to cater to nontraditional students. Most of our students at the law school are in their thirties, a disproportionately high number of African American, Hispanic and female students. So in both campuses we're really trying to attract students who often are first generation, UNT Dallas, southern campus, 71% of our students are first generation.

George Mason: 06:02 Fantastic. Well, when we talk about the public good, the common good as we do all the time on the Good God program, education is one of those access points to human flourishing. It is. It is a way to transform generations in families, right. And to build generational wealth and self esteem and all the kinds of things that allow a person to really participate. How did you sense a shift in your calling to the field of education and what does that, what does that meant to you in terms of how you understand your work?

Bob Mong: 06:42 Well, it wasn't my idea, although I warmed up to it very quickly, but Lee Jackson, the chancellor at UNT system at the time called me out of the blue and asked me to have lunch, and he said he wanted somebody to lead the university who knew the city. And, I was sort of stunned. I didn't really think that I was qualified, but you know, the more I thought about it, the more I talked to people, the more I got excited about the idea. And so it's been actually even more meaningful than I thought it would be. And essentially what I found when I got there was that the educational inequities that tie back to, you know, how much money your parents make, that really exists not only in Dallas but all over the country.

Bob Mong: 07:44 So I look at it sort of the top 20% economically, the middle 40, and the bottom 40. Most of our students come from that bottom 40. And if you look at the statistics, only about 10% of those students have some kind of degree by the time they're 25 nationally. Whereas almost everybody in the top 20% has a degree by then, and in the middle it's about 35%. It's up a lot. So you can see there are disparities tied directly to income. And so it really helps shape our mission and vision. At UNT Dallas, our vision is to be a pathway to social and economic mobility. So everything we do is rooted in that vision that that's what we should do. So we focus our recruiting on urban Dallas and the entering suburbs and in the Dallas County community college, our partnerships are shaped that way. So we believe that that's why we exist. That's why I think we've grown so fast, is that people in the community see us as a leveler. You know, if you come to our school and you persist, you're going to get a pretty good job or you're going to go to graduate school or professional school after you're out. And it is transformational.

George Mason: 09:16 When you say it's transformational, I think there's a lot of ways to talk about that, right? I think one of them is employment wise and how one has opportunities for employment, but it also occurs to me that when we think about it spiritually, that God has really created us with the capacity to know and to grow and to learn and to reflect upon ourselves in the world and our place in it. And part of that transformation is just the self knowledge, isn't it? The kind of sense of who we are and where we fit in the world, that without that capacity to reflect on history and on the kinds of discoveries that human beings have made and participation in that, there's a kind of being locked into immediacy, right? There's, there's not this sense that you're part of something bigger than yourself. And so it seems to me that this, this transformation is also a kind of spiritual, moral transformation to about helping someone understand that they have agency in the world, that they can change things, that they can be changed. So it's a, it's a beautiful thing, to think of what higher education can do for someone.

Bob Mong: 10:44 Right? And ideally, it's kind of an awakening. We have three different constituencies and so we have to be sensitive to their different needs. So, our largest group really are transfers from the community college, mostly from Dallas, but some from Navarro and Tarrant. And so they've had some experience in college. They just want, they have made the decision that they, they want to take it further. We have a lot of non, our second biggest group are nontraditional. So these are often African American or Hispanic mothers or men who are in jobs where they want maybe a master's degree, to get promoted. A lot of the women have raised their children. Now they want to go back and get an education, or they want a master's degree too, depending on their circumstances. Highly motivated students, our nontraditionals, very high.

Bob Mong: 11:51 They come at night, they come on Saturday, highly motivated. And then our fastest growing really are the traditional students, 18 to 24, but it's about 30% of our population. So it's our smallest group. And they study mostly during the day, but all of our students for the most part work. So they, they go to school, they work, a lot of them have families. So it's a very different population than you might find that at say TCU or SMU. Not that they don't have some of this, but we're just a very different community. But when they get to the end of this process, they have bachelor at the end of their name. They do, you know, or masters, and we now have the potential to do doctorates. We haven't taken that step yet, but our accreditors have said, you know, we can do it now.

Bob Mong: 12:47 So, but right now we're focused, we're mainly a teaching university. We do some research, but we have some institutes. We have an emerging teacher institute, which is producing a lot of bilingual teachers in the community. We have a crew chief police institute, which is the best practice training program, which is sponsored by the Caruth Foundation through the Communities Foundation. And we have an urban institute called Search, which does a lot of work in the community. So, we've really become much more involved in the life of the community. We look at a lot of things through the lens of what are some of the problems that we can help solve. So we have a grave teacher shortage in North Texas. So that's one area we've really focused on. There are a lot of mental health issues in southern Dallas.

Bob Mong: 13:46 The police sub station near our campus leads the city in the number of behavioral or mental health related calls. And so we produce a lot of mental health counselors. And then we're also working with the city manager's office and the community college and the school district on trying to help Dallas solve its officer shortage. We have a criminal justice department. There's a high school, a collision academy down the street from us at Carter high school that is the police and fire academy. So we're trying to work with all these different entities to get a pathway going into the police department and other law enforcement agencies. So those are some of the things that we're doing.

George Mason: 14:35 Well, Bob, you mentioned that you weren't sure that when you got into this work that you were fully qualified for it, but there were some skills that you had that transferred from your former career. Uh, and when we get back from a brief break, I'd like to explore what some of those were, and go back to some of the times when we've known each other through the newspaper work here in Dallas. So let's take a quick break, and we'll come right back.

Jim White: 15:00 The Thanksgiving Foundation operates Thanksgiving Square. Good God salutes the Thanksgiving Foundation for advocating interfaith dialogue to promote understanding, harmony and friendship in a community of diverse faith traditions and cultures.

George Mason: 15:18 We're back with Bob Mong, president of the University of North Texas at Dallas. And Bob, we got to talking about your previous career here in Dallas, about 40 years worth of newspaper work, right? And you did have a little brief of excursion to Kentucky, Owensboro, as I recall, because I know that, because you left our church, when you went to Kentucky. You, Diane and your son were worshiping with us for a time. But then you came back and you were, I guess, managing editor, editor in chief of the Dallas Morning News for many, many years. And this is where we really got to know one another. Right? And so, very much, the newspaper work, as in higher education in a community, is about community. It's about knowledge, about telling the truth about informing people and educating people. And so some of the things that you bring now to your work were the product of a different kind of educational process? Right? So you said that some of these things transferred. What are some of the things that you brought with you to this work from newspaper work?

Bob Mong: 16:35 Well, first of all, if you're going to be any good at all, if you're a leader in newspapers, you have to have a degree of humility in the sense that, you cover a lot of issues. Some of the issues are quite enlightening to the community. And some of them you don't quite get right. And so you have to be able to make adjustments, read and react and, and not be defensive about your interactions with the community. So one of the things I've found most rewarding is I spent a lot of time in the community giving talks, listening to questions, meeting with smaller groups, and that ability to listen, that ability to make adjustments based on what people were saying about what we are doing. That, that was an important process for me.

Bob Mong: 17:37 And then I was also fortunate to work for a company that really was committed to the Dallas area and committed to putting a disproportionate amount of their resources into news coverage. I mean, these are all decisions that owners and leaders have. I mean, some companies maybe listed more on the side of profitability, whereas a company like the New York Times, I mean, they care about profit, but they want to make sure that the quality of what they do is very high. So they might list a little more on the side of high quality journalism. And I felt that our company was more in that camp. And because at its zenith, the company also had many high quality television stations that really did remarkable work around the country. So it wasn't just the Dallas Morning News, their television stations were winning Duponts and Peabody's in much higher numbers than most broadcasts.

George Mason: 18:54 This was the Belo Corporate. Which owns channel 8 didn't it, or did. Some changes taking place. Well, you mentioned learning from the community and adjusting and all of that. I think probably it would be interesting to people who might remember the religion section of the Dallas Morning News that this was a thing that you and I were in some ways involved in early on. I remember a breakfast we had, having a conversation about this after the Dallas Times Herald was bought out by the Morning News. And, you know, the question I remember asking you was, you know, how can we, in a place in this country like Dallas, Texas, where the largest or second largest congregations of almost every religious tradition exists in this region, how can we do a better job of covering the news where so much is really steeped in a religious underpinning and religious overtones. And you initiated the process that created an award winning section called the Religion Section of the Dallas Morning News. So what were, what were some of your thoughts about that enterprise and how it came about?

Bob Mong: 20:12 Well, I remember that breakfast at the IHOP very well. And, uh, I think one of the memorable points you made was while we had an excellent, a religion writer, Helen Parmley, her work was, you know, appeared once in a while. I mean, she was good. She had a lot of credibility. But you also mentioned that sometimes we did the sort of weird features like the 12 year old preacher, right? That really was kind of a one off situation. And, not indicative of what's really going on in the faith community. And, so we had that experience, and I thought made really good points about what the potential could be. And then a former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jimmy Allen, wrote a really interesting piece that critiqued the lack of religion coverage in the country.

Bob Mong: 21:27 And so I think you and I and Jimmy and others really started to think about, well, how could we do it better? And we started in 1993 a series of community meetings, interfaith, ecumenical meetings all over town. I think we may have had one here, but we had them all over town and everything you said was just echoed in every one of those meetings. We want more, we want more intelligent coverage. And it really led to, you know, I had a choice at the time working with my colleagues. We had a magazine that wasn't doing well. We put a lot of money into it and we ended up basically converting what we were investing in that magazine into the religion section after, you know, listening, coming up with a plan, going back into the community and explaining the plan and really got a lot of buy in for what we were doing.

Bob Mong: 22:37 And then we launched it, either in late '93, early '94, I can't remember now, but it really was informed by many, many community conversations.

George Mason: 22:49 And I think the outcome of it, if I remember correctly, something like 9 out of 10 years, it was voted the best relgion coverage in the country, in a newspaper.

Bob Mong: 22:59 It was, and we were able to get high quality staff members, Jeff Weiss, late Jeff Weiss, Sharon Grigsby, Christine Wicker, Diane Winston, many other people who, you know, have gone on to great careers, were writing for the section and many others as well. And a lot, I think some of the things that we didn't anticipate but occurred, they developed a lot of stories for page one. And even for the business section. So they not only, not only do we have a very good Saturday section, but the stories were developing during, say a presidential year. There was coverage of, you know, the political side of things and how various spiritual people were influencing candidates.

George Mason: 23:58 Well, when you have writers who understand the religion beat, they also develop relationships with clergy and with the professors of religion, those sorts of things. And it changes the way the rest of the news operates, covering stories that might have a religious dimension. Like I remember for instance, when David Karesh and, and the conflagration down outside of Waco took place. You know, so often we heard people reporting on this story with no real concept of what was the religious imagination of this apocalyptic group. But that's what happens when you have a religion team is, they know how to get to that aspect of the story, you know, and it's, so it doesn't then just become about the ATF and about, you know, government and fringe groups. It becomes how is religion functioning in our society to challenge the social mores and those sorts of things and what brings about this kind of thing. And so when you have that kind of stuff, and that's part of the loss, isn't it, that happens when you don't too. Because, the religion section is gone away. There's an effort now to bring something back in that respect. But in the newspaper business, like everything else, you've got to pay for it somehow. Right?

Bob Mong: 25:23 So we got to the point where if we could just sustain it at 300,000 a year, we could break even. And, you know, just got to the point where we couldn't do it. And we moved it in to Arts for awhile. And then it just sort of slowly went away.

George Mason: 25:46 Well it did, but it, it made its mark. And it also, I would say, led to some other things. Bob, you and I were talking about Thanksgiving Square just a little while ago, which is this interesting place downtown, where it really is hospitable to welcoming equally all religious traditions in Dallas, which is what the religion section did. It was, it was actually a little bit challenging at times, I'm sure for you, because of the dominant Christian culture in town, that there were stories about minority religions that were featured quite often, but it was on the vanguard of what is happening in America, really. And that is a growing pluralism, the growing sense that your neighbors are of a different religious tradition, maybe from other parts of the world, in fact. And so in a way, it has a lasting effect of having opened our eyes to understand some things about these changing times we live in religiously too.

Bob Mong: 26:51 I agree with that. Yeah.

George Mason: 26:54 So when, when you look at the connection between the newspaper business and the community itself, I think a lot of things are changing. People are not getting the paper anymore on their front stoop, they're getting it online and that sort of thing. People's expectations are growing about the news. Is there something that you would want to say, now that you've stepped back or you've stepped over, is there something you'd want to say to the public about how they consume their news and about how they think about the work of a local paper, that might help us all try to frame this differently in this new day?

Bob Mong: 27:40 Well, first of all, I think there are some very original journalism entities that are being created. I think the Morning News is changing dramatically. It still does things in this community that no other journalistic company or a nonprofit can do because of its scale. And it's also learning to deliver news through social media, digitally, because the power has transformed from the power of the printing press to the power of the individual.

George Mason: 28:30 Not just to the internet, but to the individual.

Bob Mong: 28:32 Absolutely. It's very, and it's very significant change, which is a good thing. Um, so the Morning News continues to evolve, but then you see like KERA, KERA has a much larger staff than it ever had. It does a better job of covering local news and in a more thoughtful way than it ever has. You look at the Texas Tribune in Austin, where that is a new model, and it's been, I don't know, I think they've been around close to 10 years. It's a nonprofit. It's a nonprofit. And, now they don't cover everything, but they cover politics very well. They cover higher education very well. And they're making it work. So I think there are some new models that are emerging. I think, however the Morning News comes out of this, I think it still has that, while it's a public company, it still has local ownership that dates back more than a hundred years. It still is, I think the oldest continuing business in Texas. So they're rooted here. They care about the community. So those are some of the lessons, but I'm encouraged by some of the changes that I see in what the groups that are producing news.

George Mason: 30:00 Well, Bob, we're glad you're rooted in the community. Continue to be. Just having moved over to a new enterprise and we wish you well with it. It sounds like it's going beautifully and thank you for all the contributions you've made, both to the education of the community through the news and now, through higher education at the University of North Texas at Dallas. We're grateful for you. Thanks for being on Good God.

Jim White: 30:30 Good God was created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God, faith and the common good. All material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons.

Jim White: 30:58 The Thanksgiving Foundation operates Thanksgiving Square. Good God salutes the Thanksgiving Foundation for advocating interfaith dialogue to promote understanding, harmony and friendship in a community of diverse faith traditions and cultures.

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