Q & A with President Alan Merten, Part II

Posted: October 1, 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. Click here to read part I.

By Amy Biderman, Jeremy Lasich, and Daniel Walsch

Construction continues to be a big focus at George Mason. Would you please talk about what’s called the “South Sector Plan” and what that end of the Fairfax Campus will look like in a few years?

Universities, and ours in particular, tend to grow in fits and starts and focus on different things at different times. In the late 1990s, we concentrated our attention on how to serve the student body and how to make the best use of our existing buildings. Now, we are quickly moving into a time of more students and more research, and the question becomes how to develop our campus most effectively to serve those growing needs. The passage of the general obligation bond by Virginia voters last year has provided the funding to meet a number of our facilities requirements on the academic side, but we are also using a variety of funding sources, private and revenue, to do such things as expand the Aquatic and Fitness Center, build more student housing, and–very important–more parking.

Alan Merten
Alan Merten

The south sector of the Fairfax Campus, from the corner of Braddock Road and Roberts Road and moving to the north and west, will look dramatically different in five years if everything goes according to plan. Just look at what has already been added and what will be going up there: Innovation Hall, Academic V, Liberty Square, Housing VI, and Research I, as well as our second parking deck. All these facilities combine to serve our students, to support our faculty and our research efforts, and to serve our community.

At its May 2003 meeting, the Board of Visitors (BOV) again raised tuition. How does that offset the budget cuts that have been imposed upon us and how will George Mason make up the difference?

One characteristic of George Mason that is relatively unique compared with other universities I know of is that our administration, across the board, has developed financial management policies and procedures that are very businesslike. That means we have developed a mechanism for planning and operating financially that is open and that allows both the BOV and the administration to do what each is supposed to do.

Our presentation to the BOV last May was very businesslike. We presented a broad overview of the university and its funding. We talked about George Mason over time and how it has grown. We also laid out fiscal changes over the past few years and explained what we needed to do in the future in order to fulfill our mission. The final piece of information we shared was the proposed tuition increase. It was laid out in the context of the two alternative plans we have proposed for 2007. The BOV ultimately approved a 6.5 percent tuition increase for in-state undergraduate students.

The budget we have developed based both on the tuition increase and cuts that have been imposed ensure that this year we will be able to continue to serve our students and to improve the quality of their education. From a business perspective, that is not dramatic, but from a university perspective, given the current fiscal climate, it is.

Have you thought about how many more tuition increases we can expect?

We have responded to dramatic state cuts with less than dramatic tuition increases. We have now gotten to the point where instead of the state paying 70 percent of the costs associated with a student’s education, it now pays approximately 44 percent. If the citizens of Virginia believe that higher education provides not just private benefits, but public benefits as well, then we have to return to the point where the state covers a higher percentage of the costs. If this does not happen, then we will have to consider more tuition increases.

For the past few years in Virginia, we have had a situation where policy is being driven by budget decisions as opposed to the other way around. The state has been setting our budget and then we must make policy decisions. This is the wrong order. For instance, George Mason has 40 percent more out-of-state undergraduate applicants than it had two years ago. That is a real tribute to our faculty and staff, and it gives us an opportunity to enroll significantly more out-of-state students. If we are not provided with the required funds to teach our in-state students, then we will probably accept a sizable number of those qualified out-of-state applicants. Some of this may be done at the expense of our in-state students. Is this a good policy change? Probably not. Is it a necessary policy change? Probably yes, because of the fiscal situation.

In light of all the turmoil over the past few years in Virginia, our country, and the world, what advice would you give our students?

Winston Churchill once said, “I am an optimist–it does not seem to be much use being anything else.” I would encourage students and all of the community first to be optimistic. Second, they need to recognize that now, more than ever, they need others and they need to help others. The day of every person being for himself or herself is probably gone. We need to build stronger connections to family and friends.

With respect to jobs or careers, I would urge students to find a career that allows them the opportunity, either in the private or public sector, to interact with others. Quite simply, a greater reward goes to those who are able to understand the customer or client of an organization. Understanding the finances and the rest of it is important, too, of course, but understanding why someone selects a particular product or institution versus another is vital and puts you on the front line for success.

Finally, I would tell students not to get too high or too low. It is easy in good times to get euphoric and in bad times to despair. A degree of moderation is necessary.

A recent study shows that George Mason’s three campuses attract approximately 2.1 million visitors each year. Why is that number so significant and what does that say about the university?

The standard description of a university is that we should be in the business of teaching, research, and service. The teaching aspect is clear. Research, of course, is something we are committed to. And service usually implies serving your profession or some other organization.

At George Mason, we reach far beyond that traditional notion of service. We provide a myriad of services to the community beyond those of educating our students. This includes providing a gathering place, almost a city center, for our community. George Mason is a home for the graduations, the business meetings, the concerts, and arts events of Northern Virginia. As a venue, we are unique in the region. There are just not a lot of other spaces like the Patriot Center, the Johnson Center, or the Center for the Arts. When we hosted the World Congress on Information Technology in 1998, we had more than 19,000 people attending sessions and more than 100 booths set up in the Johnson Center. The Freedom Center at the Prince William Campus attracts close to a half million visitors each year, and that is because it is a joint venture among the city, the county, and the university. George Mason just does this sort of thing naturally. It is part of what we are.

If you ask when George Mason became involved with the community, the answer is that there would be no George Mason without its community connection. The bond between the two has become much larger than any of us ever expected and is a significant part of our culture.

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