Q & A with President Alan Merten, Part I

Posted: September 30, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: The Daily Gazette has published interviews with 10 deans, 2 institute directors, and the vice president for University Life focusing on what was successful in their departments last year and what the George Mason community can expect this year. This two-part Q & A with President Alan Merten is the final article in the series. Part II will be published tomorrow.

By Amy Biderman, Jeremy Lasich, and Daniel Walsch

You have talked about George Mason being at a crossroads in terms of growth. Would you expand on this?

One of the most significant developments with respect to education in the past decade was a 2001 enrollment projection study by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). In the late 1990s, many university officials believed that the state was not accurately predicting the size of the so-called “baby boom echo” and the impact it would have on public education. The 2001 study showed that this was true–that the number of college-eligible individuals would grow dramatically between 2001 and 2011. SCHEV’s 2001 estimate predicted that 40,000-plus more students will want to go to a Virginia college or university. That projection has since been revised to nearly 61,000.

Alan Merten
Alan Merten

The original 2001 study came at a time when we at George Mason were developing a strategic plan for 2007. The study showed that a substantial portion of the student growth would be in Northern Virginia. There was a belief by all of our communities–both on and off campus–that as a public university, George Mason should respond aggressively to this need by increasing both its programs and capacity.

In fact, SCHEV’s numbers, which we incorporated in our original 2007 plan, indicated that we should expect to grow to 35,000 students by 2010–an increase of 1,000 students each year. But since that initial projection we have grown faster than anticipated. The quality and quantity of our students has escalated, and our student retention rate has increased as well.

At the same time, we’ve experienced significant financial cuts. Between fiscal year 2001 and fiscal year 2004, the state reduced our budget by nearly $30 million. We were able to make up approximately half of that sum with tuition increases. However, between the enrollment growth and the fiscal cuts, state support at George Mason for in-state, full-time undergraduate students dropped from $7,200 per student to $5,000 per student.

In light of these issues, to be fiscally responsible, it made sense to take a step backward and ask the overriding question: “How big should we get?” As a result, we developed an alternative strategic plan for 2007, which held growth to a minimum.

I must admit that putting two possible futures next to each other–one in which we continue to grow until we reach a total student enrollment of 35,000 or one in which we confine our size to between 28,000 and 30,000 students–was a very enlightening exercise. It raised issues and stimulated conversations with groups ranging from politicians and the business community to K-12 representatives and our own faculty. People see that a viable choice exists and are now looking at the pros and cons of each option.

As far as George Mason University is concerned, both of these futures are bright. As I see it, in both cases we can dramatically increase the quality of our programs and our students.

From a budget standpoint, what are the issues facing the university regarding each growth option?

Either way, we have to maintain our commitment to attracting and educating excellent students, to supporting first-class faculty, and to supporting our communities and region. The answer regarding our future growth lies primarily with the state. If we are to grow to a point where our student enrollment is 35,000, then the state must supply the financial support that is necessary for us to educate and serve these numbers.

George Mason has a culture of doing more with less, but it cannot afford to jeopardize the quality of the enterprise. The Board of Visitors is fully supportive of this position. That said, I am constantly amazed at our ability to not only survive, but to thrive, in spite of everything that has been and is going on around us. I am simply amazed by our progress and at the pride people, especially alumni, take in the university. George Mason is simply blessed in many ways.

Our style, our way of operating, our entrepreneurial spirit, our innovative focus, and our strong connections to the community allow us to continue to make dramatic progress.

Given some of the incredible events last year–the war, the sniper attacks, and the budget cuts, to name a few–how would you assess the morale among faculty, staff, and students?

Morale on campus is better than I would expect it to be, and there are several reasons for that. One is that there is a resiliency and a general optimism underlying the George Mason community. At all levels, there are people who are willing to work a little bit harder, to fight for what is right, and to deal with adversity.

We have also worked hard to keep communications open during these tough times. We communicated with each other during the Sept. 11 attacks–in person and by e-mail. We communicated about the sniper. We communicated about the threat of terrorist attacks. And we communicated about the budget. While holding meetings and sending e-mails was not particularly original, I’m still surprised at how many people commented on it. It’s important that we talk to each other about mutual problems and challenges and that we share information.

But while morale is reasonably high, it is fragile. For example, I was surprised at the on-campus community reaction to the General Assembly’s decision to cap tuition. There seemed to be a general disgust among faculty, staff, alumni, and friends at the legislative choices being made regarding higher education. The feeling seemed to be, “Don’t kick us when we’re down. You cut our budget, you made life miserable for us by a combination of your actions, or inactions, and now when we are trying to move ahead in spite of your actions, you take more steps that are negative.”

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