A new outlook
GMU business dean plans lower cost, big impact
When Ajay Vinzé takes over as dean of George Mason University’s School of Business on July 1, he will carry with him a lifetime of experience in higher education.
He also comes with a plan to help streamline how education is delivered and to reduce the cost of a college degree — a contentious topic that has gnawed at college officials and the public for decades.
At the University of Missouri’s Robert J. Trulaske Sr. College of Business, where he was dean for five years before accepting GMU’s deanship, Vinzé advanced online credentials and certificates, as well as experiential learning opportunities for students.
He hopes to do some of the same at George Mason and is a proponent of modular education — the division of conventional courses into smaller components or modules — as one way of reducing the overall cost of education while permitting students to accumulate the skills and certifications they need to move expeditiously from the classroom to the workplace.
“The cost of higher education is a concern,” Vinzé says, “and how we deliver how higher education is consumed.”
As of May, approximately 44 million Americans owed $1.7 billion in student loans, and the College Board reported that average annual tuition increased to $10,740 at public four-year colleges for the 2021-22 academic year, more than twice the average $4,160 annual tuition for the 1991-92 school year. For in-state undergraduates at Mason, the 2021-22 tuition rate was $9,510.
Vinzé says there’s room for improvement: “Instead of institutions saying, ‘Thou shalt take all of these courses,’ why can’t we create education in smaller modules that society more broadly can consume in ways that are directly applicable and that stack up into a degree?
“When we talk about mass customization and we talk about stackable [degree programs] and so on, what we’re doing is delivering education in a more focused way,” he says. “You reduce the exposure to things that are adding to the cost but are not adding to the experience.”
Explaining how costs can be trimmed while providing students with what they want and need, Vinzé uses an analogy about compact discs.
Back in the 1990s, he says, “I remember that CDs were a big thing. At some point in time when you bought a CD, you had to buy all 14 songs that were on that CD. You actually liked only three of them, but you paid for the whole CD.” That changed when iTunes and other services sold songs individually for download. Now, streaming services have changed the music marketplace even more.
Academia needs to also consider keeping up with modern students’ expectations of education and the fact that one size never fits all, Vinzé says. “To do these things, you have to have an institution that has a willingness to do these things — colleagues who are willing — because it changes the way faculty deliver courses. It changes the way we present courses.”
The incoming business school dean anticipates there will be resistance and is prepared for it. “These are very smart people with Ph.D.s. If you appeal to them with reason and research, they will be more accepting. If you try to push it down their throats, that’s not going to work.”
However, the main thing, Vinzé says, is that “we can’t afford to say, ‘We won’t change.’”
‘Time to start running’
As an administrator, Vinzé was influenced by what he researched and practiced during his time at Arizona State University, Texas A&M and in private industry.
He would best describe himself as an “educational entrepreneur.” And one aspect of being an entrepreneur, he notes, is a willingness to take risks — sometimes to fail and then regroup.
“Sometimes you have these great ideas. Sometimes the ideas are premature, sometimes your thinking was premature. Sometimes the situation is not right. I’ve experienced all of those along the way,” Vinzé says. “A number of times I was pushing, pushing, pushing, and maybe that wasn’t the right time to push.”
Vinzé isn’t waiting for his official start date to think about how he will be making an impact on Mason, a university he found inspiring when he interviewed for the dean’s position.
“I was not looking to leave Missouri, but the Mason opportunity grabbed my attention in a big way,” he says. “It is an outstanding institution, a young institution and one with a tremendous trajectory upwards. Lastly, the location: Mason is this vibrant institution that sits at the edge of a vibrant city.”
After meeting with GMU President Gregory Washington, who was dean of the University of California, Irvine’s Samueli School of Engineering, Vinzé found they were of similar minds.
“My thinking aligned very nicely with his thinking in terms of being forward-looking, being a positive force for change, which is what higher education institutions should be,” Vinzé says.
Even before his official start, he has put together a transition team to study potential partnerships, especially those that drive innovation and entrepreneurship. The team also is at work recalibrating the future of business education and examining options.
“I’m not a very patient man by nature,” Vinzé says. “When I arrive in July, it’s no time to think ‘What now?’ but time to start running.”
With more than 39,000 students, George Mason is Virginia’s largest public research university. Since 2012, enrollment has soared by nearly 19%, according to data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).
U.S. News & World Report recently named GMU the most diverse university in the state. In fall 2021, students of color represented about 53% of total enrollment, rising from about 35% a decade earlier, SCHEV’s numbers indicate.
Mason’s also growing geographically, from its main Fairfax campus to outposts in Prince William and Arlington, as well as in South Korea. The business school has an enrollment of 4,500 undergraduates and 700 graduate students, spread across five centers that focus on government contracting, innovation and entrepreneurship, real estate, retail and “business for a better world.”
Vinzé says each of the centers offers “wonderful windows for connecting with partners” in the region, and he plans to maximize their outreach.
The meaning of business
The Business for a Better World Center (B4BW) may be the most unusual of the centers, integrating elements of a liberal education into a business school environment. It was founded in 2019 to acknowledge rising interest in having the business community engage in societal and environmental issues.
In a recently published case study about the center, GMU professors say that while the School of Business and B4BW endorse a view that “a liberal education offers the best preparation for work, citizenship and life,” they explain that a liberal education is different from the liberal arts. A liberal education refers not to specific disciplines or fields of study, such as arts and languages, but to the ability to foster a broad knowledge base from multiple fields of studies, as well as high-level intellectual and practical skills.
In one B4BW program, business students and students from other parts of the university and a variety of disciplines are brought together to study the role of business in society and its capacity to be a force for good in the world.
Lisa Gring-Pemble, an associate professor and the center’s co-executive director, says B4BW is helping equip future leaders to work in businesses that have more than profits on their mind.
That proposition, she suggests, seems to define the spirit of the age as Generation Z begins to exert its influence on business. “The incoming generation really cares about aligning their work with their own values,” Gring-Pemble says, “and they care deeply about giving back to their communities.”
For baby boomers, economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman defined the social responsibility of business. “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game,” Friedman wrote in a 1970 editorial for The New York Times.
But Gring-Pemble says that in recent years, an increasing number of business leaders have embraced a different worldview, saying that companies must balance financial performance with “making a positive contribution to society,” quoting Larry Fink, the billionaire chairman and CEO of BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest investment management firm. Fink has promoted the idea of businesses being aware of their impact on society.
Sustainability is one of the core values of the university at large, and B4BW has ongoing initiatives focused on sustainability.
Yasmin Jubran, a junior double-majoring in marketing and business analytics, grew up in Palestine and enrolled in George Mason because of its location in a busy and rapidly growing business region. She also cites “the great opportunity it offers for diversity and inclusion. I’m a firm believer to be a better businessperson overall, you need to learn more about other disciplines and other cultures.”
Jubran recently completed a project exploring whether environmental sustainability could be marketed through mobile gaming. She says that many people in her generation are concerned about the environment and creating greater sustainability — and they are seeking employers that share their values.
As he arrives as dean of GMU’s School of Business, Vinzé says he’s acutely aware that universities — like businesses — have to pay attention to what the rising generation of digital natives is looking for, both from their learning environment and in their jobs. “The expectations have changed.”
That seems apparent, Gring-Pemble says. Students in Mason’s business school are exposed to Friedman’s theory, as well as the ideas of more contemporary business leaders and economists, who are pushing different priorities.
But she says there’s no doubt about where her center stands on the subject: “We’ve planted our flag … and we’ve said that business as a positive force for good is what we’re about. That’s one of the tenets of the School of Business.”
To introduce the general population of undergraduate students to the world of business — students who may have never considered such a pathway before — the school created the Business Foundations program within B4BW.
The program focuses on personal and professional skills, as well as business in societal, global and legal contexts. Credits earned there can be applied to Mason’s general education requirements.
Gring-Pemble says they didn’t expect the high demand the program has received. The program started with four sections of five or six undergraduate classes, and within two years the program ramped up to 20 sections because of outsize demand.
Students cite a wide variety of reasons for wanting to be a part of the Business Foundations program.
“We had people from health and human services who said, ‘We’d like to explore a business class that would give me credit for a general education, but which might also interest me in a business minor,’” Gring-Pemble says. “We had a student from the visual arts saying, ‘I’d like to see what a business class looks like.’”
Among the Business Foundations faculty’s
areas of research are cryptocurrency, sustainable beekeeping and environmental research communications, and they hold a wide variety of degrees in topics ranging from history and political science to writing and business.
“I think what we’re doing is really special and unique, and it’s our willingness to say [that] it’s not just about business education,” Gring-Pemble says. “It’s how business is interacting with history and philosophy, health and economics and engineering.”
At a glance
Originally formed in 1949 as an extension of the University of Virginia, George Mason University formally separated from U.Va. in 1972.
Mason’s main campus is located on 677 acres in Fairfax County, just south of Fairfax city and about 20 miles outside Washington, D.C. Mason’s Arlington campus, located in the county’s urban Clarendon business district, is home to the Antonin Scalia Law School and the Schar School of Policy and Government. The university also has the Science and Technology Campus in Manassas; the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation campus in Front Royal; and the Mason Korea campus in Songdo, South Korea.
38,629 (fall 2021)
In 2021-22, Mason offered 213 total degree programs, including 80 undergraduate degree programs, 93 master’s degree programs, 39 doctoral degree programs and one First Professional Juris Doctorate program.
GMU has 1,662 full-time instructional and research faculty.
Tuition, fees, housing and dining
In-state tuition and fees: $13,119
Out-of-state tuition and fees: $36,579
Room and board: $12,630