During his tenure, GMU’s enrollment grew from 24,000 students in 1996 to more than 30,000 and the Fairfax, Va.-based university also hosted the first-ever World Congress of Information Technology.
ExecutiveBiz recently caught up with Merten to discuss GMU’s growth since he came to Fairfax in 1996, his efforts to build the university’s brand recognition and the role of IT in education.
Executive Biz: How did George Mason University’s role in the culture and economy of the greater D.C. area evolve over your time as president?
Merten: I think it goes back to something that was several decades ago, even before I got here. Every great community needs a great university. When I came in 1996, my role was to take what Dr. Johnson had begun and to move it from a good local university to a great national university. That’s what we did and we did it every day. I think the thing we get most credit for is that we made progress constantly. We made progress in terms of bringing in the right faculty, the right administrators, the right programs. Then we helped make facilities not only for the university but facilities for the communities in Arlington and Fairfax and Prince William. We created a culture that made these things happen and maybe that’s the most important thing.
Early on, we decided to be innovative and entrepreneurial and decided we were going to move fast. Second, we made a decision to take advantage of where we were geographically. We were going to contribute to the community and draw upon the community and we were going to do those two things aggressively. Third, we did an assessment of our strengths and we had some strong programs in things like information technology, but we needed to get into other areas. We took advantage of strengths in IT to build up our biosciences program. Fourth, we made the decision early on that we were going to market the university. We were going to create a university so that when people would hear the name, they were impressed. They knew the brand.
Once people knew the George Mason name, they knew where George Mason was. We created events for the community. We created a book festival, Fall for the Book. We built a hotel and conference center, the Mason Inn. With the help of the community, we built a major performing arts center in Prince William, the Hylton Performing Arts Center. We didn’t do things and then ask ourselves how the community is going to use them. We talked to the people in the community as we decided to do something. Then we did it with the community.
ExecutiveBiz: In your time at GMU, what do you consider to be the biggest structural or foundational achievements at Mason?
Merten: I think we created an institution that was highly regarded. We put the name in everyone’s heads almost every day. We created this thing that people knew about before, but didn’t really know what it was. We explained it to people and then we made it represent quality. I would say that we drew upon and contributed to the community. When people hear George Mason University, they are now familiar with Northern Virginia; when they hear Northern Virginia, they think of George Mason.
ExecutiveBiz: Is there anything that you gained appreciation for with time to look back?
Merten: I think that I gained an appreciation of how important it was to be visible — to be in the community, the university community, be with the students, be with the faculty, be with the staff, be with the alumni, be with the community. I had no understanding of how important it was to be physically present at events and activities. In a sense, my wife and I became synonymous with George Mason. I didn’t think it was as important as it turned out to be. The lesson I give to corporate executives when I advise them on things they should do, is you just have to be there. It’s an anecdote, but don’t be shocked to tell people when you have salad one place, main course at another and having had cocktails maybe at the third. You may be at four different places. You have to be there. There is no choice.
My wife and I, during the last year as president, we were honored by numerous groups. When we would come home at night, we would talk about what happened, and what struck us more is that we were getting credit for being “approachable” during my time as president. It struck me that you get extra credit for that, meaning that some people in leadership positions aren’t approachable, which I think is sad.
ExecutiveBiz: What is significant about the information sciences and technology industry to the D.C. area’s future?
Merten: In the early days of George Mason, the business community and particularly the IT community were the major contributors. People like Earl Williams said from the beginning that George Mason was going to draw upon and contribute to the information technology community. One of the first recognizable units at George Mason was the School of Information Technology and Engineering.
It was probably one of the first times that someone had information technology in the name of an academic school. In the early days of George Mason, they recognized George Mason had to be a partner with the information technology community, both the government and the contractors, and then the support of the attorneys. Information technology, public policy and economics were basically the three pillars of George Mason in the early days.
My job was to strengthen them and to build on them and their strengths and other areas. George Mason’s decision to focus much of its attention over the years on information technology has made an enormous difference. It has also made a difference in where its alumni are. Our alumni and our part-time and full-time students many times are employees of the IT community. So we’re educating people who are doing research while on campus.
In many cases, a high percentage of IT graduates began their career while they were still students. We were always pleased with students having internships with companies that would lead to a job. That’s why we felt we had such a high number of transfer students. Northern Virginians would go someplace for freshman and sophomore year, then come home for Christmas and go for IT someplace else. They had very little opportunity for internships or part-time jobs and they would see their friends here involved with the local companies from early on in their academic life.
ExecutiveBiz: How can higher level educators help students gain successful careers beyond the traditional classroom education?
Merten: In the Mason case the educator may be a traditional faculty member or a full-time employee that just teaches one class. I think it’s important that the university create situations where students hear from traditional faculty and also hear from non-traditional faculty — those who are in the world of work. Back to Dr. Johnson’s time, we always made sure we and the deans hired people who were in the world of work. That makes it easy to talk about the world of work because they were in it.
Our students today in public policy can walk into a class and the professor is Michael Hayden. Or they can walk into an economics class and the professor is Steve Pearlstein. These are people who are very successful in the non-academic world teaching academic things but through a perspective of the world of work. I think faculty has a responsibility for preparing students for their current job, for their next job and for life. If all they are preparing them for is life, then they are not helping them improve their current status, so we were very demanding on that.
ExecutiveBiz: How do students respond to having adjunct professors?
Merten: It was always amazing to me that when I would ask a student or an alum who was their favorite professor, they might mention someone who was an adjunct. Sometimes. The student didn’t even know the difference, which was great.
There is no such thing as traditional or non-traditional because George Mason had students graduate this past weekend from all ages — from 17 to sometime in their 70s. The faculty members that teach at George Mason are sometimes full-time or sometimes teach one class, and that’s all they’ve ever taught. We changed the definition of what a student was and what a faculty member was, sometimes to the shock of people.
ExecutiveBiz: How can universities help spur some of the partnerships between public, private and nongovernmental organizations for economic and academic development?
Merten: In my case, I’m a computer scientist. I have a bachelor’s in math and master’s and Ph.D. in computer science. I was an engineering professor, a business school professor and a business school dean. It helped me understand this region. It helped me understand what we could contribute to the region, but it also helped me understand what we had to get from the region.
I think faculty has a responsibility to structure a class to bring in guest lecturers or to bring in someone from the world of work. Corporations should have the interest in volunteering someone to come and guest lecture or to be on an advisory board. The wall between the academic world and the corporate world should be permeable. We should be able to move people across this, and I see a faculty member doing something in the corporate world or a corporate person doing something in the university world at George Mason. The academic administrators and academic faculty members need to realize they are catalysts to make that happen.
When someone comes up to me and says, “I have this friend; he’s in in such and such a company; he’d love to teach a class,” I always felt it was my responsibility to get the person together with the faculty member the next day and get that person involved to be part of and contribute to the academic world. The George Mason story is a story of being very proactive. The joke always goes that universities are in the “ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim” business. George Mason is in the “ready, aim, fire” business. Get ready, get an idea, find someone and do it. We’ve made a couple of mistakes but that’s better than waiting. The corporate world has to be willing to take a risk by getting involved in academia and academia has to be willing to take the risk of bringing in some of the corporate world. It’s risky, but it’s worth the chance.
ExecutiveBiz: What can federal and local governments do to help support higher education?
Merten: On the federal side, we can have and we need more support of research activities. Research in universities like George Mason is an important complementary activity to our teaching and learning function. The federal government has historically supported primarily defense research, which was great. It not only contributed to the defense needs for our country, but the spinoffs helped meet the commercial needs of our country. We’ve lost the importance of research in this country. In Virginia, we’ve never really had it at the state level.
Governors in general don’t see the importance of supporting research at universities. They see the Internet. The Internet effectively was the result of universities working together with federal dollars. Both the federal and state have to support research more aggressively.
Secondly, I think we are going to need to become more and more aware of the fact that information technology is going to change. It has changed what we teach while people learn, but it’s going to do even more. The role of IT is a complement to the tools that a professor is going to use and the state and federal government have to support that. Third, the thing that disturbs me every year is that we attract the best and the brightest in our graduate programs in engineering, science and math from around the world. Then we have immigration policies that force them to leave. We want to attract them from around the world, particularly in the sciences and technology sectors, and we want them to stay here. They used to stay here and now our policies encourage them to leave. We’re losing something by doing that. We have to change immigration policies for people who come to the U.S. for education.
One of the things that makes me proud is the pride that students, faculty, staff and alumni have in what we did. A couple of times a week when I’m on the Metro, someone will look at me, and say, “You look a lot like Alan Merten.” I will be grateful since that’s who I am. They’ll thank me for what we did. Sometimes they are alumni; sometimes they are members of the community.
We put it on the map for so many reasons and I think a lot of it was our culture — a culture of entrepreneurs, a culture of taking advantage of where we were, a culture building on our strengths and a culture of telling our story. We took advantage of things — two Nobel Prize winners and a run to the Final Four.
ExecutiveBiz: What is your role with the university now?
Merten: I have two titles, the president emeritus and I am a distinguished service professor. On a structural level, I teach a course on education administration in the School of Public Policy. I do a series of seminars with honors students. I also find myself a career counselor to deans, faculty and students.
I think the George Mason story is told not just around the community and country, but around the world. I hope we realize how important that is. It helps us attract students and it helps us attract the best and brightest faculty because of the brand we’ve created. I hope the state and people at the university take advantage of that.
There was nothing when Dr. Johnson came in 1978 and there was something in 1996 when I came, but it had to be more. We’ve created something and I hope it stays. Just like we want our companies to be entrepreneurial, we want George Mason to be entrepreneurial.