A Milestone for President Alan Merten: Ten Years as George Mason Leader

Posted: October 6, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

President Merten with students
President Alan Merten says he plays the cheerleader role to let people know what the university should and should not be celebrating: Going to the NCAA Final Four last spring was definitely on the celebration list.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Alan Merten as president of George Mason University. In this interview, he looks back at his beginning days at Mason and reflects on some of the broad challenges that the university has faced since 1996.

(Editor’s note: President Merten’s 10th anniversary will be recognized by the university community at the 2006 fall convocation, set for Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 3 p.m. in the Johnson Center Dewberry Hall.)

By Daniel Walsch

What attracted you to Mason?

I wasn’t looking to become a university president, as I was enjoying life as a dean of a major business school. I had received inquiries for presidential positions at other universities, but up until that year I had not thought about seriously pursuing a presidency. When I was approached by Mason, it was about the same time I was contacted by several other institutions.

I would say there were three things that attracted Sally and me to George Mason. The first was location. Sally and I met and married here. We had always enjoyed coming back to the greater Washington and Northern Virginia area, so somewhere in the recesses of our minds we always thought it would be nice to end up in the Washington area at some point. Secondly, I had been watching George Mason from various perspectives over the years and had seen the national attention that the university was getting. What struck me more than anything was that it was getting attention not just for what it was doing but how it was doing it. To me, the “how” was equivalent to my “how.” The third thing was that I recognized the potential of the institution. But for me, the question of whether this potential was realizable was something I was not sure of. On top of that, I had several mentors – friends – who said that Mason fits me.

In your inaugural address you mentioned four goals you wanted to pursue: having our institution do a better job of connecting research, teaching and outreach activities; having Mason perceived by others as world-class; initiating activities that have a major impact on our region; and establishing a record among faculty and others to identify and pursue a base of financial support for their activities, including research. How is Mason as an institution – and how are you as president – reaching these goals?

I remember the early days at Mason where teaching was clearly recognized as the primary function. In limited areas Mason had some success in research, but I felt a lot more could be done. As for outreach, Mason had not only reached out to the community but actually connected, although I did not think the connections were broad-based. George Mason had a reputation that was evolving and based largely on culture, not so much on what it was doing.

While teaching is better than it was and remains highly valued, research is enormously different now. We have research programs and accomplishments in many more areas than we’ve had before. This is a result of hiring the right faculty and deans and, in some cases, taking advantage of what was going on around us. On the outreach side we have created a bigger footprint for the university. We were recognized by some in our community as providing appropriate support, but we had to get more of our leaders to connect with the public, and that’s what we have done. On the funding side, [former Mason] President [George] Johnson had done an excellent job of obtaining the first phase of state support. But we had the potential to generate more support and are currently leveraging that support from both the private and the federal side. Now we are in a mode where support from the federal, private and state sectors are beginning to come together in a very meaningful way.

When I came to Mason I felt there was an interesting uncertainty among the campus community about the past and the future. People on and off campus weren’t quite sure what George Mason had accomplished, and they weren’t confident what the university could achieve. From the beginning, and even now to some degree, I’ve played the cheerleader role to let people know what we should and shouldn’t be celebrating.

Was that a surprise?

This uncertainty about the past was a surprise. Collectively, people knew something great or, at least, unusual had happened, but they weren’t sure what it was. There were people in the community who were probably betting against me. They just didn’t see what the future could be because they weren’t sure what the past had been. When I came in, I did things differently than Dr. Johnson. But he was one of my biggest supporters. He knew what he had accomplished and he knew what had to be done next. He also knew that if the university were to continue advancing, then things had to be done differently. I took that advice and went about trying to do what was right.

President Merten
President Alan Merten has presided over 10 Commencement ceremonies at Mason.

You had quite a few important challenges right from the very beginning. Several dean’s positions had to be filled or replaced. Then there was your relationship with the Board of Visitors. In the second year of your tenure, a number of members of the Board of Visitors were pushing hard for football, and that played out in some very provocative meetings.

The issue pertaining to the deans’ positions was one where the glass was either half full or half empty, depending upon your point of view. The openings were generated by Dr. Johnson and me. We actually started talking about them before I came on board, so the process started with him. We also created several new vice president positions, including vice president for technology and vice president for university life. We had at some point as many as eight major position searches going on at one time. It was the largest turnover of major positions at a large university that I had ever seen. It was stressful, but in retrospect we did have a chance to bring in a new team and, interestingly, ended up getting candidates that perhaps would not have been interested in coming here if there had been only a few open positions. But people seemed interested in becoming part of, in a sense, a brand-new team headed by a brand-new president.

The issue on the Board of Visitors had to do with an unfortunate circumstance in which we had some board members who had narrow agendas. Their interests were not necessarily in the university but focused more on their own agendas. It was a stressful time, but I always believed that we had to look out for what we were trying to create and struggle through the challenges.

State funding has always been a challenge for Mason. This is something you inherited. How do you deal with it?

My approach regarding funding is that we always have to fight for more than our share. We have to convince the state that we are a good investment. We have to do what is necessary to obtain more, but we cannot spend the majority of our time complaining about what we didn’t get. Our time and energy have to be spent on taking what we have received and on being as efficient and effective as we can. We may only get a dollar when we need a dollar and a quarter, but we should be so efficient with our dollar that we’ll be more effective than any other institution that gets that dollar and a quarter. I believe we have accomplished that. This is based on my fundamental belief that you don’t run the university like a business because it’s not a business. Instead, you run the university in a business-like fashion.

Has your philosophy of leadership changed over the past 10 years?

My philosophy has evolved. If anything, it has strengthened over the years rather than changed. I’m a long-time believer in the philosophy that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If you let people know you care, they will feel good and accomplish extraordinary things. In recent meetings with student leaders and friends from the community, it is evident how much people appreciate this style. Sally and I do care about people, and we are out there trying to show that. Sometimes it shocks people. At freshmen move-in days, when I walk up to a car and introduce myself to the students and their parents, you simply cannot believe the looks on their faces.

Another pillar of my philosophy is to not micromanage people. The final pillar is to make decisions, though not necessarily too quickly. Sometimes an apparent crisis occurs and people look to you to do something. Sometimes it is best to sit on something before rushing into a decision.

One thing I have observed is how presidential attention can be so time-consuming. Something I have come to learn is when to give an issue my attention. There are some events I simply don’t have time to attend though people may want Sally and me to be there. During our first year, we accepted every invitation that was humanly possible. Until we had the deans and other vice presidents in place, we felt we had to be visible. We had to have people talk about how they had met the new president and his wife. At the time, I didn’t know what was important to attend and what I could say no to. But being visible in Northern Virginia, in Washington, D.C., in Richmond and here on campus was important.

When you run into someone and they ask you, “What’s going on at Mason these days?” What do you say?

We take advantage of our location, focus our attention on things that are important and market ourselves. People know about us, particularly on a national level. I am amazed at the pride that people have, even those with only the slightest connection with the university, in what we have accomplished. When you add to that the students, faculty, staff and graduates, it is just amazing. Looking back at Mason’s March Madness, so many people commented to me how much they felt we deserved all this attention and all the accolades. I found it very heart-warming. Not too long ago a friend was talking about the fanfare that came from the basketball team’s success and commented that we at the university were simply getting credit for being ourselves. Maybe that summarizes why we are so successful – the right people with the right attitude, and good things happen.

Ten years ago in conversations you would sometimes comment on how the university was, at times, prone to “ready, fire and aim” instead of “ready, aim and then fire.” Have we gotten better at that?

The key thing is we still take risks. We have gotten better at it, but then I’m not sure if we really should get much better at it. If we start creating a culture where we stop taking risks, then that is not good for the institution. We do overextend ourselves from time to time and reach beyond our capacity. We try to do too much at times, but I believe we are better organized and are proficient at assigning responsibility and holding people accountable. We have fewer failures, but we do not have fewer risks. People still get out there and start something new, but typically it is connected to something that already exists.

When I was considering coming to Mason, I observed that the university had a tendency to set up new entities to do new, innovative things. I felt that was possibly necessary but only transitory because it sent out a wrong message. That’s why I demanded we be innovative but more with existing entities. Sure, we created new entities, but our primary responsibility was to build on what existed. This approach helped reduce our failures and kept the light on what was already under way. In a sense, it motivated those programs and initiatives to keep seeking ways to improve and be more effective.

I think people were shocked when I came in and closed down or merged some programs and innovations. Good organizational structure doesn’t guarantee success, but bad organizational structure does virtually guarantee failure. Even though we were a young organization, we had to convince people that we had to streamline. In some cases, in order to create something new, we had to get rid of something old. And in some cases, what we might have been eliminating was not necessarily bad. It simply was no longer strategic to the institution. With few exceptions, people understood that and supported it.

President Merten looking at construction
During President Merten’s tenure, numerous construction projects have enabled the university to grow in programs and enrollment.
Creative Services photos

Almost every year, you have traveled out to Arizona to walk down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. How did that come about?

We have some great friends that we knew in Michigan. In 1998, they called me and said they were going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in 2000 – you really have to plan that far in advance – and wanted to know if I would be interested. But in extending that invitation they added that I would be too busy and would not have time to get in the proper shape. As a modified Type A personality, that’s the kind of challenge I do not take lightly. So, I said yes and put it on my calendar. It was in September 2000 when we went down, and I loved it. I’ve done it six times since then. That experience is so different from my normal life. Also, almost every time some member of my family has joined me, so it gives us a great opportunity to bond. And I do it because it helps keep me in shape all year long. You can’t wake up one morning and say I’m walking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon tomorrow. The trip is a reminder that I have to eat the right things and that I have keep walking every day in order to be ready for the next time. It’s a combination of the beauty of the whole thing, the physical fitness involved and being able to do something unique with family. My ultimate dream is to do this for at least another 10 years and have my grandson join me.

How would you like to be remembered when you eventually step down as president?

I’d like Sally and I to be remembered as people who took the university from a position of excellence to a position of greatness in many dimensions, and in a way that was caring, fun and inclusive. What we accomplished was perhaps unique at the time, but became more of the norm for those who followed. I’d also like us to be remembered for not only what we changed but how we did it. The “how” is important because it sends a lot of messages. When an institution is as successful as we have been over such a relatively short period of time, then people want to know the “why” and the “who” and the “how.”

From your vantage point, what’s around the bend for George Mason?

The next phase of the university will be one that has increased emphasis on research; not at the expense of teaching and outreach, but in support of teaching and outreach. Secondly, the facilities that are now under construction will solidify the university’s position as one that is excellent and on its way to greatness, and solidify our connections to our communities. Many universities use the word “community,” but we use “communities.” I see more research that results in greater visibility for the university and facilities that will contribute to that as well. I tell people who visit us and comment on our growth and successes that they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

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