Making a federal case
George Mason’s govcon center creates research, training hub
Two business colleagues sharing thoughts over breakfast and a pot of hot coffee — that was the setting for the light bulb moment that led to George Mason University launching the nation’s first academic center focused on government contracting.
“The idea for the center actually started in 2013 in a booth at the Silver Diner in Fairfax,” says John Hillen III, former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs during President George W. Bush’s second term. Hillen, who is an adjunct professor at Mason’s School of Business and also had a long govcon career, was having breakfast with the school’s dean at the time, Sarah Nutter, who went on to serve as dean for the University of Oregon’s business school.
“We discussed how odd it was that there wasn’t a single business school in the area, or the country for that matter, that had academic expertise in the booming half-a-trillion-dollar-a-year industry that is centered right here,” Hillen says. “It made no sense, considering government contracting represents at least 40% of Northern Virginia’s GDP and employs about one out of every six white-collar professionals in the area.”
Based in Fairfax County, with campuses in Prince William and Arlington counties, George Mason is located amid the nation’s largest concentrated regional hub for government agencies and federal contractors, a $700 billion industry, notes Ajay Vinzé, dean of its School of Business.
Six years after Hillen and Nutter talked over coffee, the Greg and Camille Baroni Center for Government Contracting was founded in 2019, and in August, it moved into its new home at Buchanan Hall, on the university’s Fairfax campus. Five years in, the center is fast becoming a significant presence in the govcon world, providing opportunities for research, education and collaboration.
Virginia currently ranks as the top state in the nation for defense spending, with $62.7 billion spent in Virginia for fiscal 2022, according to the Department of Defense, but for years that growth went under the radar.
“It was like people had been Rip Van Winkled, where they were asleep between the 1980s and 2000s when Northern Virginia just exploded,” Hillen explains. “Major contractors began moving their headquarters here, bringing jobs that have been driving the Northern Virginia economy ever since. Government contracting is inextricably linked with the evolution of Northern Virginia.”
Northern Virginia is headquarters to four of the world’s six largest defense contractors: Boeing, RTX (formerly Raytheon Technologies), Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics. In addition to those giants, Virginia-based federal sectors of tech corporations, from AT&T to Microsoft and Google, and a host of other contractors, from multibillion-dollar corporations to small businesses, operate across the region. With so much opportunity on its doorstep, George Mason leaders saw a need for a higher education center devoted to the industry.
“I felt strongly that government contracting, with its unique business, financial, strategic and marketing characteristics, was worthy of study within a business school, with professors doing research and teaching specialized classes,” Hillen says.
“That was the conversation that led to the center — a visionary dean wanting a mark of distinction for a business school that was rising in visibility and rankings, and a new professor who was asking why our business students were doing case studies on 3M when probably none of them would go to Minnesota to work on sticky notes after graduation. When you drive up and down the Dulles corridor, you see govcon company after govcon company. That is our local industry. This was Mason’s opportunity to specialize in an industry unique to us, one that we know employs a third of our students upon graduation.”
As Hillen helped get the process of launching the center underway, he came up with a tag line for it: “Building a Better Market for the Public Good.” He explains, “An industry that is studied becomes more transparent and is coached into better practices that better serve the taxpayers.”
Filling a hole
Jerry McGinn, who was hired in 2018 as the center’s inaugural executive director, brought considerable experience to his role, having worked in the Department of Defense’s Office of Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy, and in the private sector at Deloitte Consulting and Northrop Grumman, among other govcon businesses.
“I was asked to stand up the center, which was an attractive opportunity, because there was a real hole in the marketplace,” he says.
At the start, it was just McGinn and the center’s associate director, Charlie Dolgas, although today the center has seven full-time staff members and four part-time senior researchers. So far that team has released more than 60 reports, white papers and commentaries and has received more than $4 million in sponsored research.
Also, government liaisons from the departments of Defense, State and Energy, as well as the General Services Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, regularly visit the center to share their knowledge and viewpoints at center meetings and events. The center’s advisory board brings executive expertise from 59 companies representing the full spectrum of the govcon community, including banks, consultants and accounting firms, as well as small businesses and the largest defense and aerospace companies.
Vinzé, who joined George Mason as its business school dean in 2022, is pleased with the center’s progress. “We have been able to clearly define government contracting as an important area of practical and academic interest. Our faculty are industry experts, and our students graduate ready to take on today’s and tomorrow’s emerging careers in this field,” he says.
“As a university, we are a neutral convening authority,” adds McGinn. “We have no agenda other than seeking outcomes that benefit both government and industry. We do that through three lines of effort: research, education and training, and collaboration.”
In November 2022, the center hit an important landmark, receiving a $7 million gift from Greg Baroni, founder and CEO of Attain Partners, Attain Capital Partners and Attain Sports and Entertainment, and his wife, Camille; the center is named for the couple. Maximus purchased Attain’s federal business in 2021.
A govcon veteran who served in the early 2000s as Unisys’ president of federal systems and global sector business, Baroni spoke at the August ribbon-cutting ceremony for the center’s new home in Buchanan Hall. His friend and colleague, Anne Altman, a Mason alumna, piqued his interest in supporting the center, he said.
“Government contracting extends far beyond contract vehicles and task orders. It embodies our duty to serve our nation and its citizens with integrity, efficiency and purpose,” Baroni said during the center’s opening. “Our aspiration for this center is to become a beacon of knowledge, fostering a community of professionals who grasp the intricate responsibilities that come with working in this realm.”
McGinn says the gift is shaping the center’s future. “It is helping to elevate us from being a respected voice and thought leader in the community to becoming the national hub for govcon issues,” he says. “Whenever something comes up on the national level, we want Mason to be the first place the national media reaches out to for comment.”
Beyond training students for govcon careers and achieving national prominence, the center also aims to influence industry discourse.
On Nov. 9, the center will host a government contracting conference with the theme “Resilience for the Future,” which McGinn acknowledges is “very timely. The COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine have shown us how important it is for both the government and commercial sectors to be able to bounce back from crises and to continue to deliver what is needed despite supply chain shocks and rapidly evolving threats.”
Additionally, the center has become a hub for industry research, winning more than $4 million in research grants from the DOD and the intelligence community, while also developing its own research topics.
“Our industry and government leaders want research that is digestible and impacts them directly, so we focus on commentary pieces, white papers and reports,” says McGinn.
McGinn is currently leading a team of six center researchers in a federally funded study for the Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) Reform, in an effort to bring the Pentagon’s 60-year-old national security system up to date.
“The commission is looking at ways to adapt the Pentagon’s Cold War-era PPBE process to meet the challenges of today’s national security environment, and we are providing research, analysis and expertise to support this work,” McGinn explains.
In June, McGinn and Michael Roche, a visiting research fellow who is a professor at the DOD’s Defense Acquisition University, co-authored a report on a “build allied” approach to increase industrial base capacity.
“This report examines how international industrial collaboration for military acquisition and production can be a mutually beneficial and cost-effective way to increase industrial capacity and resilience, a need starkly highlighted by the war in Ukraine,” McGinn says.
For students, the center offers an early and more direct career path to an industry that can sometimes be difficult to enter without military or accumulated on-the-job experience.
Noah Rivers, who is working toward an MBA at Mason, is employed at the center as a graduate research assistant. Besides helping with the PPBE research, Rivers is examining the government’s micro-purchase thresholds, which are set annually for small-scale procurement of supplies, construction and services.
“I have previous military experience, and almost every person I know who made their way into a government contracting career did it through military service or civilian military employment,” Rivers says. “For people who don’t have that background, the center creates an avenue for them to make their way into that world.”
Through Mason’s School of Business, more than 850 undergraduate and graduate students take courses related to government contracting.
Mason’s undergraduate minor in government contracting requires five courses,
ranging from federal government marketing and supply chain management to government contracting and procurement, and not-for-profit accounting. Several graduate courses are offered through the MBA program, such as business issues in government contracting and focus on government contracting, and Mason offers two graduate certificate programs focused on government accounting for federal employment and contracting.
Meanwhile, a student ambassador program connects students with high-level industry leaders on the center’s advisory board via on-site company tours and visits, and job shadowing days, as well as industry seminars, roundtable events and workshops. The center also is a resource for companies to train and refresh their employees through an executive development program and two continuing education certificate programs.
George Mason senior Michelle Boone is slated to graduate from the business school in December with a degree in management and a minor in government contracting. As a student ambassador, she attended networking events that connected her to leaders in the industry. “I’ve learned a lot about the contract life cycle and the procurement process,” she says. “It’s been a great way to get to know the industry and explore career paths. I’ve met professionals in both the public and private sectors, and the opportunities are endless.”
Boone is unsure where she will land after graduation but is certain she wants to be part of the govcon community. “You don’t have to be a contracting officer to touch government contracts,” she says “Everyone in a company, from finance to HR, should be prepared to support a contract.”
“I’ve learned a lot about the contract life cycle and the procurement process,” she says. “It’s been a great way to get to know the industry and explore career paths. I’ve met professionals in both the public and private sectors, and the opportunities are endless.”
Guiding the center is its advisory board, which McGinn considers one of the center’s greatest assets.
“We really have become a respected, neutral convening authority for the industry,” he says.
Among the advisory board’s members are Michael Sanders, founder and CEO of Interactive Government Holdings, a service-disabled veteran-owned small business, and John Tenaglia, principal director of defense pricing and contracting in the defense secretary’s office.
“The center benefits small businesses by providing the research, in-depth information and networking they need to strategically place and orient themselves within the market,” says Sanders. “From large companies like ManTech to small companies like mine, it’s valuable to hear input from different perspectives. Mason does a nice job of synthesizing all the information the board provides and then turning it into academic products that are usable within the industry.”
A connected board and faculty also help bring in speakers to the center, including September’s Government Contracting Small Business Summit, which included representatives from the federal government’s GSA, the DOD and the Small Business Administration, as well as contractors Synertex, UpSlope Advisors, Roccomar and ITCON, among others.
For Tenaglia, “what excites me most about the center is the collaboration, where various voices can come together to discuss the critical hot-button issues that we face. The center brings together academia, industry and government — the three legs of the stool, if you will — for positive engagement that results in providing the best goods and services for our warfighters. That’s really the heart of why we are here, to protect the nation. The people who put on the uniform are entitled to the best systems we can provide.”
At a glance
Originally formed in 1949 as an extension of the University of Virginia, George Mason University became an independent institution in 1972.
Mason’s footprint covers 848 acres in Northern Virginia. In addition to its Fairfax campus, this includes the Mason Square campus in Arlington. Located in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Mason Square is home to the Antonin Scalia Law School, the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, the School of Business and the Schar School of Policy and Government. In 2025, George Mason will open its new Fuse building, a collaborative hub uniting scholars, students, researchers, policy and business developers. A Life Sciences and Engineering building is under construction at the Science and Technology campus in Manassas. The university also has the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation campus in Front Royal and a Mason Korea campus in Songdo, South Korea.
40,390 (fall 2023)
Mason offers 211 degree programs, including 78 undergraduate degree programs, 94 master’s degree programs, 38 doctoral degree programs and its first professional program, a juris doctorate.
Tuition, fees, housing and dining
In-state tuition and fees: $13,815
Out-of-state tuition and fees: $37,979
Room and board: $13,520
* Fall 2022