Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Last Tuesday morning George Mason University Provost Peter Stearns was on the Arlington campus to conduct one in a series of discussions throughout the region on the state of the university.

THe people who attended were vitally interested in the success of GMU both academically and within the community. They were not disappointed with Stearns’ informal presentation and the following discussion of a wide range of issues.

While the session concentrated on the problems associated with the continued growth of the university physically and in academic breadth, depth, and stature, and the wide range of solutions being considered, the underlying theme was the remarkable progress of George Mason University since its creation a scant 34 years ago.

Now approaching a student body of 30,000 students, George Mason has become the largest university in the state. From four buildings on the Fairfax City campus, it has grown physically to four campuses in Fairfax, Loudon, Prince William and Arlington, as well as a campus in the United Arab Emirates. The latter just began operations with seventy-two highly enthusiastic students. This will grow to five hundred students, when the new facilities now under construction open in 2008.

George Mason is now, as it should be, involved in extensive planning for the future, which includes a good deal of soul-searching about what kind of institution it wants to evolve into, the nature and size of its future student body, and the physical facilities it needs to achieve its goals. One of the discussions going on at the highest level is whether George Mason should strive to be a “great” university or merely a “good” university. I opt for “great”, particularly since we already have a number of programs that are universally recognized as “great,” including my own School of Public Policy.

For example, a committee is now working on a “coherent” enrollment strategy for the future. For the last several years, the student body has grown between four and five hundred full time equivalent students per year. Do we want to continue that kind of growth, or should we begin to level off? What should the mix between graduate and undergraduate students be? What should the in-state, out of state mix be?

Of course, much of the discussion centered on money. While the University did fairly well in the last state budget, it is still woefully under funded. The per-student state funding ration is lower than any other university in the state, and capital funding is consistently much too low to meet the current needs of the university.

Phase II, the planned new building on the Arlington campus parking lot, is a casualty, since we are now at least $23 million short of being able to build the original design.  Construction has been postponed for at least a year until the funding problem can be resolved.

What we saw at this meeting were the tremendous growing pains any institution must endure on its way to the top. Be there no doubt about it though, this is a university on the way to the top. As Dr. Stearns said, the atmosphere at George Mason is “continuously exciting.” Isn’t that great!