President Merten Discusses Report on Higher Education Reform

Posted: December 13, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: December 12, 2010 at 7:12 pm

By Daniel Walsch; video by James Greif

The recent interim report by Gov. Robert McDonnell’s Commission on Higher Education Reform has dominated much discussion lately at universities and colleges throughout the commonwealth.

In the report, the commission outlines a number of goals, including awarding 100,000 college degrees over the next 15 years; developing a plan for optimal year-round utilization of facilities; and reducing reliance on tuition and fees to support operations and instruction.

President Alan Merten was asked about his thoughts and reactions to the commission’s report. Following are highlights of the discussion.

What is your overall reaction to the report produced by the governor’s higher education commission?

When Gov. McDonnell was running for office, he talked about what was important to him about higher education. He said he was going to establish a commission. Since his election, he carried out his promise. I’m very pleased with the report for two reasons: It lays out a blueprint for actions that need to be taken, and it distinguishes between what has to happen on the state level and what the individual colleges and universities need to do.

President Alan Merten reacts to the Higher Education Commission report.
Video by James Greif

What concerns do you have about the report?

One has to raise the classic concern: “The devil’s in the details.” The commission’s report lays out the areas that need to be addressed, but it has not dealt with matters of funding. One specific area of concern for all of us is the governor’s and commission’s desire for us to produce more degrees. The question is going to be which institutions will do this and how are they going to be doing it? It’s a significant challenge. At Mason, we have a strong interest in this particular goal. We believe this issue should not just deal with 2010 but should actually go back five years or so to 2005. Some of the institutions have grown dramatically since then, including us. We raise the point as to how those institutions are going to be paid for that growth along with how are they going to be compensated now?

I am impressed with the discussions the commission has been having thus far. They recognize that some of the institutions have already been doing what they are calling for. Now, as the commission and governor move to the next phase, they need to take that into consideration and reward these institutions for their efforts and then get others to do the same.

The report mentions a $50 million investment in the universities and colleges. How will that money be raised and then distributed?

In his address following the release of the report, the governor realized this is an extremely small amount. He knows that total is more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. By itself, it is not going to make a real difference to any individual institution.

Speaking of money, what does the future hold for Mason in terms of more budget cuts?

The governor has asked all the universities to prepare for budget cuts of 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent. At Mason, we have been very fiscally conservative over the past three to five years. We’ve known what was coming and prepared for the possibilities. We know what we have to do with respect to tuition depending upon the severity of the cuts. There are only two places from which money we need to operate can come: the state or from tuition. We don’t have a money printing machine, unfortunately.

Realistically, how can tangible success be generated as a result of meeting the goals identified by the commission’s report without adequate resources?

How I view the commission’s report and how I view statements from the governor at the current time is not so much in respect to what is going to happen in the legislative session in 2011 but more from what will happen in 2012. The commission’s report outlines the discussion that needs to take place and will occur over the coming months, and what the governor proposes for 2012. All of this is contingent on economic recovery. Things are tough in Virginia right now, but I hope people keep in mind that, compared with how things are in a number of states, Virginia is doing very well.

Other issues brought out in the report include a call for institutions to make better use of their facilities year round, to increase their number of graduates and even continue their overall growth.

George Mason University has long been recognized as one of those institutions that make highly efficient use of its facilities. Can we do better? Of course, but we are a very efficient user. In respect to the awarding of more degrees, this raises a question about the college experience itself. Is getting a degree in four years good? If so, does that make getting one in five years bad? Students at Mason and other institutions are here for an experience. To say we want them to graduate faster or in a shorter amount of time is not necessarily good.

The university experience that one gets over a period of time is much more than an accumulation of courses. We need to be careful that we don’t force behavior that is counterproductive. Plus, there are people who come to Mason who really don’t want a degree. They want to take specific courses to help them in their current position. This means we need to know what we mean when we talk about the current student. The way we used to view students was as someone who was 18 to 22 years of age who came to get a degree in four years. Today, that person accounts for about 20 percent of our student population. The definition of the basic term “students” has evolved dramatically. Students are younger than 18, older than 22. They are very different.

There is also discussion revolving around the question of enrolling in-state versus out-of-state students.

The commission has done a very good job of staying away from that issue, but what it has effectively said is that we should figure out a way to educate more Virginians and award more degrees without having to cut back on the number of out-of-state students. Because they pay higher tuition, out-of-state students will continue to support in-state students.

Given the financial challenges we face, what does 2011 look like for George Mason?

In the next two to three years, I look at the Mason story as being titled “leveraging.” Over the past few years, we have created an organization that makes sense and makes things happen. We have created a sense of actual capital in our faculty in all areas that attracts quality students. We have also created this massive set of physical facilities that are making things happen. Over these next few years, we will continue to add new facilities, add to our intellectual capital, and use what we have created to do things that are far beyond our expectations. That will be our agenda.

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