Randall Edwards to Retire

Posted: October 21, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patty Snellings

When Executive Vice President Randall Edwards started thinking about exchanging his leadership role at George Mason for a leisurely retirement, he didn’t want to make any sudden moves. So the 39-year veteran of Virginia higher education left his official duties at the Prince William Campus on Sept. 30 to begin a study leave that focuses on the university’s distributed university concept and economic development in each of its communities. He officially retires March 1, 2004.

“My calendar certainly doesn’t look like it belongs to someone who is retiring,” jokes Edwards. “I’m busier than ever.”

In addition, Edwards already has a six-month consulting contract in hand to continue work on Prince William Campus projects, such as Belmont Bay and the proposed performing arts center, after his retirement. He also is working with Northern Virginia Community College on its search for a new provost at the Manassas Campus.

Edwards is a civil engineer by training, but a close look at his distinguished career in higher education reveals a different kind of designing and building. In 1965, Edwards put a lucrative job offer with a major oil company on hold to teach at Wytheville Community College in southern Virginia while he was finishing a graduate research project. By the time he finished his doctorate at Virginia Tech in 1970, he had been heavily involved in the building and opening of Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg and was serving as its first dean of instruction. His leadership and creativity skills were soon tapped again, and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College opened in Richmond two years later. Edwards served as the first provost.

“I’ve been a builder throughout my career,” he says, “and nothing is done by yourself. I believe in teams and working together.” He remembers moving furniture, screwing in lightbulbs, and scrubbing floors. “The work created camaraderie; we made things happen.”

By 1976, Edwards was preparing to make things happen at New River Community College in Dublin, Virginia as he accepted its presidency at the age of 34. Today, a building at the college bears his name.

Edwards came to George Mason in 1988 at the encouragement of longtime friend and colleague J. Wade Gilley. Now enjoying his own retirement, Gilley joined George Mason in 1982 after serving a term as Virginia’s secretary of education. He left the university in 1991 to become president of Marshall University in West Virginia, and he assumed the presidency at the University of Tennessee in 1999.

Under Mason’s former President George Johnson, Edwards’s role as vice president for administration included planning and construction of new facilities; management of access, police, parking, and space allocation operations; and responsibility for all university life activities, including housing, student unions, student activities, and student health. While making an indelible mark on the early stages of transportation planning, university expansion, and economic development in Northern Virginia, Edwards’s leadership also was key to the planning, design, and implementation of the university’s major performing arts initiative, which included raising the curtain on the Concert Hall at the Fairfax Campus.

Change and excitement were in the air in 1996 when Johnson retired after 18 years at the university, and President Alan Merten was chosen to take the helm. At the same time, growing pains were affecting the Arlington Campus, and the fledgling Prince William Campus was preparing to move to its permanent home. George Mason was at a crossroads–critical decisions were needed to steer the university in a new direction.

As the distributed university model began to unfold, Merten realized that Edwards’s unique combination of proven leadership and keen sense of responsibility could develop the vision that would lead the two younger campuses to success.

“He became the conscience of each campus,” says Merten, who appointed Edwards to the position of executive vice president that same year.

An advocate of the distributed university concept, Edwards has spent the past several years developing and promoting its principles at the Arlington and Prince William Campuses to build a stronger university that draws from and gives back to the individual communities it serves. He is recognized as an untiring organizer and supporter of collaborative relationships that benefit the university and its constituent communities.

Comparing him to the business school model of a project manager, Merten explains that Edwards knows how to be a team member and how to be a team leader. He also has the ability to draw on outside resources to make things happen.

“Randall has that rare blend of internal and external focus,” he says. “He accumulates responsibility but has no trouble relinquishing it. He does the worrying and delivers the product.”

Merten’s highest praise of Edwards echoes what others say: “He makes things happen without keeping score.”

Merten admires the respect that Edwards has earned in the Arlington and Prince William communities for his leadership. “I’m never at an event in those communities where he isn’t recognized for some accomplishment.”

Edwards is action- and results-oriented and has the foresight and willingness to engage in long-term projects, Merten says. “He doesn’t want to be concerned about the trains running on time, he wants to design the railroad.”

Gilley points out that his friend has made many contributions to Virginia. “He’s smart, he’s had a wonderful career in higher education, he’s raised a great family, and he was one of the last civil engineering majors to play football for Virginia Tech.”

It’s not surprising then to hear Edwards say leadership is like the linebacker who tackles the ball carrier. “If you stay focused on an objective and don’t worry about peripherals, you’ll do okay.”

Commenting on the budget and growth challenges that face George Mason, Edwards says he hopes the university doesn’t back away from growth. “There will be significant opportunities and risks in the next 10 years, but we need to continue to get bigger and stronger.” He explains that this is not the time to get complacent. “The students are there, and the economy will recover. If George Mason doesn’t serve them, another university will,” he says. “We need to stay the course with a sound plan, continue to be entrepreneurial and seize new opportunities, and take a calculated risk that resources will be made available.”

Taking a long look at his career, Edwards says he feels “pretty damn good” about his opportunities and accomplishments. “Nothing is impossible,” says this education pioneer. “The impossible only takes a little longer.”

Note: The George Mason community is invited to a retirement celebration for Edwards on Friday, Jan. 23, 2004, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Fairfax Campus. Additional details will follow at a later date.

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