Edwin Meese was first appointed to George Mason University’s Board of Visitors (BOV) in 1996. For six of his nearly eight years on the board, he has served as rector. At the conclusion of the current academic year, the former attorney general of the United States will complete his second and final term as a member of the university’s governing body.
What are the overall responsibilities of the Board of Visitors?
The Board of Visitors, by law, is the legal governing body of the university and has the overall responsibility for the proper management of the institution. It has a fiduciary responsibility to the faculty, students, and staff–and to the citizens of the commonwealth–to make sure the university is properly administered for the benefit of its various stakeholders. Obviously, the role of the board is to establish policy, to employ the president as the chief executive officer, and to ensure that under his direction the day-to-day administration of the university is properly carried out.
From time to time, concern is raised that the Board of Visitors is too involved in the day-to-day running of the university. How do you respond to that?
During the time I’ve been on the board, it has had a good sense of its role in relation to the role of the administration and the faculty. Basically, our role is to set policy. The implementation of that policy belongs to the administration and, in some instances, to the faculty. There have been times when, as a matter of policy, the board has had to make decisions that some members of the faculty viewed as becoming involved in faculty matters. But these instances have been few and far between.
Please describe your job as rector. What does it entail?
The title “rector” is the term used for the chairman of the board, while the president serves more as the chief executive officer. “Rector” is one of those historic titles that has been handed down for centuries. My role is to provide leadership to the board and to be sure its activities are carried out in a timely and effective manner. I also preside over the meetings of the board throughout the academic year. In addition, I am responsible for appointing chairs of the various board committees and ensuring that their work is properly carried out.
The rector also serves as the primary liaison between the board and the president, and as a liaison between the board and the Faculty Senate. The president has the primary responsibility to serve as the chief liaison between the university and the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) and with Virginia’s legislative body. But I also participate in these ongoing efforts.
What are some of the major issues the Board of Visitors is attempting to address this semester?
The primary issue revolves around the question of finances and the ability of the university to continue its quality education in an era of fiscal stringency. This involves talking with the legislature to seek a more appropriate allocation of funds. At the same time, we want to make sure that we are exercising all reasonable economies so the work of the university can go on without sacrificing the teaching function.
Other issues with which we are dealing include maintaining and improving the “spires of excellence” within the university, such as the Law School, economics program, and many other top activities. We will also be working on our major priorities: continuing the successful implementation of The Campaign for George Mason University, which is designed to enhance the university for the future, and expanding the role of the university in technology where, as an institution, George Mason has been on the cutting edge.
One other issue that has to be faced is university advancement, particularly in terms of enrollment, quantity, and quality. We will have to determine how many additional students George Mason can accommodate in view of the financial constraints that have been forced upon us by the legislature. Our ability to admit new students is somewhat restricted by the fact we are now retaining students over a longer period of time.
Do you expect the BOV to raise tuition again this semester?
I don’t know. It’s too early to answer. The issue of tuition has come before the board each year and we try to be very careful about this because we don’t want to make participation in the university too much of a financial burden for our current and potential students. At the same time, there is a minimal amount of funding needed to enable George Mason to maintain the quality of education for which it’s known. We will continue to wrestle with this issue.
How would you assess George Mason University–its strengths and weaknesses?
George Mason is probably the fastest rising public educational institution in the commonwealth, both in quality and in public recognition. Our strengths include an excellent faculty, outstanding leadership by the administration, and an entrepreneurial spirit that permeates the institution. Our principal weakness is lack of adequate funding. We’ve always lagged behind the other doctoral institutions in terms of state support. Our strong prospects for the future are limited by the problem of adequate support.
Looking back over your eight years as a member of the BOV, what do you consider to be among the highlights?
The main thing is the continuing improvement of the university as an institution and its recognition nationally. We have many spires of excellence: our economics program; the School of Law; the College of Nursing and Health Science; the School of Public Policy; the use of technology, particularly in the School of Information Technology and Engineering; the development of an excellent Administration of Justice Program; and the willingness to engage in innovative educational processes.
What role did the BOV play in making those strengths possible?
The BOV has had a major role in supporting many of the areas in which George Mason excels. These include the Law School’s rise to a top tier level, the creation of the School of Public Policy, and the recruitment of outstanding faculty, particularly in the field of economics.
How have you enjoyed being on the Board of Visitors?
I have personally enjoyed working with the board, which is composed of outstanding people. The people of George Mason, including President [Alan] Merten, his administrative team, and members of the faculty, are a fine group to be associated with. They have all added to the pleasure I’ve had in serving on the board these past eight years.