The top underdog

GMU leader has overseen triumph on the court, rapid growth on campus

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Two George Mason University professors have won the Nobel Prize for economics, but the Fairfax-based school is perhaps best known as the “Cinderella” basketball team of the 2006 Final Four.

“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” says Alan Merten, GMU’s president since 1996. Reporters now dub any improbable contender as the latest “George Mason University,” no matter what the sport, and Merten gets a call.

The continuing buzz about that gutsy Patriots team has contributed to an ongoing surge of applications and increasing enrollment at GMU. It now has 32,562 full- and part-time students at its three campuses — in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties — an increase of about 3,000 in recent years.

But despite the marketing edge GMU has gained through sports, Merten has no intentions of starting a football team as Old Dominion University did in 2009. The sport is too costly, he says.

As at all Virginia universities, revenue and costs are major concerns at GMU.  Merten says the school’s per-student state funding has dropped 40 percent in constant dollars in the past decade.

He currently is serving his second (nonconsecutive) term as chair of the Council of Presidents, which provides a unified voice for the leaders of Virginia state colleges and universities.

The GMU president strongly believes that universities have an important role to play in their communities and in the state’s economic development. That was shown last year when Merten and his deans met with Wes Bush, the CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp., as the Los Angeles-based defense contractor was deciding where to relocate its headquarters. Bush picked Fairfax County where the company will move later this year.

Virginia Business talked with Merten in Richmond before the end of the 2011 General Assembly session.

Virginia Business: Do you plan to use your role as chair of the Council of Presidents in any special way in this coming year?
Merten: The current times for higher education in Virginia are about as crucial or as complex as ever.  We’ve just come through several years of dramatic budget cuts and growth at the same time.  One day we worry about the budget cut, and the next day we worry about the growth.  It’s also a strategic time with the arrival of a new governor, particularly a governor who during the campaign was quite outspoken about higher education.  Actually at George Mason University he gave a speech during the campaign, which outlined some of his goals and concerns with respect to higher education.  Then the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, which includes university presidents and business executives, urged the governor to set up a commission, so he did, [the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation and Investment].  So now as the council chair I have the chance to observe what is going on in the commission and to be able to at least be aware if not influence.  So it couldn’t be a more intense time.

VB:  What do you think of the commission’s recommendations?  Do you agree with them?
Merten: So far I am very pleased with what the commission has been doing.  I think so far what the commission members have done is set out markers for the areas in which things have to happen and maybe creating incentives for things to happen.  For example, there’s a recognition that we need to produce more college-educated people in Virginia, and they’ve made that statement.  They’ve laid out that we need to have so many more degrees by the four-year public schools, four-year private schools and the two-year schools.  So that’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that they still haven’t looked at the issue of who should grow and who’s going to pay for that growth.  On that specific topic, I’m maybe a little bit more parochial.  We’ve added about 3,000 students to George Mason in the last two or three years, so if the governor and others talk about the need to get more degrees – we don’t want to start the measurement in 2010-2011.  We want to start the measurement in 2004-2005-2006 to reward those who have grown and haven’t gotten paid for it.  There are several universities like that. 

Secondly, on the affordability and access, I’m impressed with the fact that they’ve laid out the need for financial aid, not just for the lowest income but maybe more for middle-class.  I’m also impressed and pleased with what they haven’t talked about.  They haven’t said anything about tuition caps and they haven’t said anything about in-state/out-of-state students.  The approach I believe of the governor and of the commission is: We need to produce more degrees particularly for in-state students, and we don’t have to cut down the number of out-of-state students to do that.  We should still have the out-of- state students and let the institutions decide how many out-of-state they want.

There’s also a recognition in the report of the need for more support for research.  We do not do a good job in Virginia of supporting research at our universities.  If we compare ourselves with many other states, we do a terrible job.  We’ve had a few flashes of brilliance.  At the end of Governor Warner’s term, we had the Commonwealth Research Fund, which provided incentives for us to get more fellow contracts and grants to hire superstars, and we did, but that’s the last time we’ve seen that. 

VB:  How much of your operating budget now comes from state funds?
Merten:  Our total budget at George Mason for the current fiscal year is about $900 million.  It’s about roughly $700 million operating and about $200 million capital.  We are in the midst of a massive capital campaign, a facility-building campaign.  Of that $900 million about $180 million comes from the state.  Similarly of about $1.2 billion of construction projects, we get about $250 million from the state.  A somewhat sarcastic comment was made by the president of a Midwestern university that “we used to be state supported, then we were state assisted, now we’re state located and we’re moving into being state annoyed.” 
Now where does the rest of the money come from?  The rest of the money comes from enterprises in terms of tuition and fees for people living in the residence halls.  It comes from federal contracts and grants.  It comes from private gifts.  Our university becomes a very complex business.  Again our budget is $900 million a year.  That’s a big business.

VB: Is the dwindling support from the state creating a “have” and “have-not” situation for Virginia universities, in that some older schools do have a big donor base while others don’t because they haven’t been in operation a long time?
Merten: The older universities have access to a larger private donor base than, say, the younger universities like George Mason, VCU and ODU, for example.  But because of the lack of flexibility and discretion in private gifts, we’re all somewhat in the same situation.  Several other universities like George Mason also have just grown so fast that we’re always catching up. 

When I came in 1996, we had approximately 2,500 freshman slots, and we had about 6,000 applicants.  For about 2,800 freshman slots last year we had 16,500 applicants.  We’ve gotten very good at sending our rejection letters.  We’ve gotten bigger, better and well-known, which then results in more and more applicants. 

We’ve also increased our retention rate.  We used to have retention rates at the end of the freshman or sophomore year of about 60 percent.  Now it’s 83 percent.  So people used to come and either drop out because their grades were not good enough or go some place they thought was better.  So now we’ve gotten better, so our retention rate has gone up. 

VB: Where do your students largely come from?
Merten: Our students come from 140 countries.  They’re from all over the world.  Certain parts of the world are more dominant than others.  China, India and Korea would probably be the top three countries. Our students are very diverse.  We believe about one-third of our students are either foreign, U.S. minorities or first-generation Americans.

Thirteen years ago, about 10 percent of the freshman class was from out of state.  About 26 percent of the freshman class is now out of state. Over 50 percent of the law school class is from out of state.

VB: You have three campuses (Arlington, Prince William and Fairfax), what are your plans for a campus in Loudoun where you recently received 37 acres?
Merten: For five years we have leased 20,000 square feet in an office park near the intersection of Highways 7 and 28 in Loudoun, and we’ve been teaching about 300 students a year in classes on the Loudoun site. 

We were asked by the County of Loudoun and the Town of Leesburg to do an assessment of how we could have a bigger presence in Loudoun.  With help from others we did a study, and we said several things had to happen and I’ll give them to you because they’re universal.  There’s got to be a demand, someone has got to give us land, the local officials have to be supportive, the business officials have to be supportive, and the members of the General Assembly have to be supportive of what we do.  We did the study.  The study said there was a demand, and the Van Metre Cos. gave us 37 acres of land near one of the exits of the Dulles Greenway.  It’s also near one of the new Metro stops.

So of the five or six things that have to happen, two have happened.  I recently spoke to the Loudoun Chamber about the others.  We need that support of the business community.  We need that support of the local government officials.  We need the support of the members of the General Assembly, because if we’re going to build any buildings out there on that campus, it’s got to come from the state.  If we’re going to operate any programs out there, it’s got to come from the state.  The story that we laid out for Loudoun is exactly the same story that occurred in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William.

VB: That brings up what the proper role for higher education is in economic development in Virginia?
Merten: The proper role for higher education in economic development is multi-faceted.  On one hand, we should be hiring faculty whose research leads to intellectual property which leads to companies and jobs, etc. So one example is leveraging the research capacity of our faculty. 

Second is teaching our students how to succeed in the creation of companies and in the development of wealth and jobs.  The third role is we should assist economic development authorities in convincing companies to come to Virginia. 

I received a call multiple months ago from Jerry Gordon saying he wanted to recruit [the headquarters of] Northrop Grumman to Northern Virginia. Would I call the CEO?  I said, of course.  I called Wes Bush and he was on vacation.  He called me back three days later, and I told him how much we wanted Northrop Grumman in Northern Virginia, and that I’d do anything I could to help.

That led quickly to a meeting that was arranged in which Wes and some of his people came to the Mason campus.  One of the things I remember most about that meeting is there were at least six deans there, which is slightly less than you get at normal deans meetings.  They all wanted to help. 

Now you have to have the right kind of deans that want to do that, but that’s what we picked over the years.  George Mason is a part of the community. If you don’t want to be part of the community, you’re not going to be at George Mason. 

Some of that goes back to the roots of the university.  If you look at [Northern Virginia business leaders] Til Hazel and Earl Williams and people in the 1960s and 1970s, they said things like: In order to have a great community, you need a great university.  So it wasn’t like you create a great community, and then you bring a great university in.  It was:  You better have that university being involved as you’re creating the community. 

I came to George Mason because of where it was and its active involvement in the technology area and its connections to the community … I told the dean candidates that when I show up at a meeting of the Northern Virginia Technology Council or the Greater Washington Board of Trade, I want someone to come up to me and say, “Alan, it’s really nice that you’re here, and your dean of engineering has been here for about a half hour.  The dean of science has been here for 45 minutes.  It’s nice to have you here as well.”

Another thing is I met with six superintendents of schools during my first six months.  [For example,] I had a talk with the superintendent of schools in Loudoun.  When I went out to see him he said, “I’ve never been visited by a university president.”  I said, “Well let’s put it this way – your graduates become my students and graduates of my college of education become your teachers.  We are in the same community.  We are coupled.  Are we smart enough to take advantage of it or not?  That will be decided later.”

VB: How do university presidents spend most of their time these days?
Merten:  I would say that we spend our time doing an incredible variety of things that includes “friend-raising” and fundraising.

VB: How much of your time is spent on that?
Merten: I would guess something like 20 percent, maybe 25 percent.  Some days it’s the whole day and some days it’s three short phone calls, so it’s friend- and fund-connected.

The second part of that is just being involved in the community, be it the business community or beyond.  I’m on the Greater Washington Board of Trade.  I’m on the Northern Virginia Technology Council. 

The third part would be just student-related activities, which can be meetings with student, it could be classes.  I teach symposiums on leadership.  It can be going to a basketball game and talking to students but just being visible among students.  I walk through the Johnson Center, the student center, as much as I can once every day. 

A certain amount of the time is with the other senior officials of the university, vice presidents and deans.  I had this vision when I came.  I wanted to create a group of senior people in the university, each of whom had to believe that they could give advice to any one of the other senior leaders in the university. 

And I wanted every senior leader in the university to have the strength to accept advice from everybody else.  Every place I had been in a university, there were real silos.  I was the dean of the Graduate School of Management.  I was dean of the College of Business Administration, and I had my little area.  I wasn’t asked to comment on what happened outside of that, and I didn’t have to accept comments from anyone else.  I just wanted to do something different, and we did it. 

VB: Basketball was one of the things that brought Mason to national attention.  What effect has that had on the university?  And the second part of my question is, are you considering a football team at George Mason?
Merten:  The run to the Final Four is the gift that keeps on giving.  Every time an underdog in anything succeeds, we get called.  I have commented on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays participation in the World Series.  I have commented on a horse in the Kentucky Derby that was going to be pulled until the grandson convinced his grandfather that this horse could be the George Mason of the Kentucky Derby. 

Right now there are different media programs being planned by others to celebrate the 5-year anniversary of the run to the Final Four. What happened during that month was great things on the court but equally great things off the court ... 

It had an impact on enrollment.  It had an impact on fundraising.  The biggest thing it had an impact on was on our pride. I have no recollection of any faculty member complaining about the fact that something was wrong when we were getting all of this attention for basketball when we should have gotten it for academics.  Instead the academics realized that whatever they did was going to get a lot more attention.  One faculty member was attending a meeting in Florida during that time.  When he got up to ask a question, he was asked to give his name and school.  When he said George Mason, he got a round of applause. 

Football doesn’t make sense financially.  We run George Mason in a businesslike fashion, and money that you’d have to put forward to have a football program just doesn’t make sense.  Tens of millions to get it off of the ground and student fees of $500 a year. I’m just not going to do it.  My successor might look at it differently. 

VB: Could you tell us how long you plan to remain president?
Merten: The way I would look at it right now is probably something over a year and a half but less than three.  I’ve loved being George Mason’s president.





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