Fast Times at George Mason U

Once a little-known commuter school, it’s now Virginia’s biggest university—with ambitions to be the best. Here’s the story of a college in a hurry.

By: Graham Meyer

The clock in DC’s Verizon Center counts down to two seconds. Trailing by two points, University of Connecticut guard Denham Brown comes down the court and pulls up at the three-point line. He shoots, and as the ball arcs toward the basket, the buzzer sounds. The ball, still alive on borrowed time, comes down on the rim, then bounces away.

Game over. Connecticut, the nation’s number-one team, exits the 2006 NCAA basketball tournament. George Mason University, nobody’s pick to win anything, heads to the Final Four.

About 20 miles west of the Verizon Center, on George Mason’s main campus in Fairfax, the phones start ringing—and don’t stop. Anxious to tell a Cinderella story, reporters want to know: “What is George Mason University?”

Few get it right. “Little George Mason” they say—ignoring the university’s 30,000 students and the fact that it’s the biggest four-year school in Virginia. Others talk about its “small leafy campus,” forgetting it has locations in Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William, and Loudoun counties as well as the United Arab Emirates.

George Mason has grown up in such unusual fashion that it doesn’t fit the usual media clichés. Only 50 years after the seed for the college was planted at a Baileys Crossroads elementary school, it’s one of the nation’s biggest universities, with ambition to be one of the best.

Though most of its students come from Northern Virginia and live off campus, it chafes at the “commuter school” label and aspires to be a world-class institution. Most colleges take 200 years to move into the elite ranks, says Stephen Fuller, an economist and George Mason professor: “We’re going to do it in half that time, or a third.”

During its rise, George Mason rode the crest of Northern Virginia’s surge in population and wealth. Tailoring itself to the needs of local businesses, it cultivated entrepreneurship and a freewheeling approach that would be heretical on many campuses.

The university’s growth fueled, in turn, the area’s growth. “I think a lot of these companies might have been hesitant to come here had they felt the educational system was incomplete,” says Fuller.

As it’s grown, George Mason’s had little help from Richmond’s state powers; many remain suspicious of fast-growing Northern Virginia. Lawmakers have thrown up roadblocks that forced the school to be creative—and a bit rebellious. “I was told early on that part of our success was based on our philosophy that we should not ask permission, we should just ask forgiveness,” says president Alan Merten.

The 17 students who met in that Baileys Crossroads elementary school in 1957 were enrolled in University College, a branch of the University of Virginia. It was rechristened George Mason College two years later, in honor of the Virginian who was the intellectual father of the Bill of Rights.

The school opened its Fairfax campus in 1964 on a plot of land donated by the town of Fairfax. Two years later, the Virginia General Assembly voted to make George Mason a four-year institution. The university treats 1972—the year lawmakers gave it independence from UVa—as its founding date.

In George Mason’s first years, Northern Virginia was a sleepy farm region. Dulles airport was completed in 1962, the Beltway in 1964. “Northern Virginia was poised to demand and benefit from a major educational institution,” says Til Hazel, the legendary Northern Virginia real-estate developer and one of George Mason’s top benefactors.

The growth that came in the next few decades was staggering. Fairfax County had 490,000 residents in 1970; today, it has more than a million. Loudoun County went from 37,000 to 273,000. Virginia’s share of the DC area’s economy nearly doubled to 46 percent, fueled by increased government outsourcing that attracted an army of contractors and high-tech companies.

“Northern Virginia was developing a new economy with new enterprises, new disciplines, that were going to become the economic engine of the commonwealth,” says George Johnson, who was the university’s president from 1978 to 1996. “You could feel the egg of a new world cracking all around Northern Virginia.”

George Mason saw the possibilities and sculpted itself to supply the higher education the region would demand. Its expansion, Johnson says, had to parallel the area’s growth. Which is to say a lot had to happen fast.

Some Virginia power brokers in Richmond weren’t eager to see Mason expand. “Other institutions were not pleased to see resources shipped to the Yankee land of Northern Virginia,” Hazel says.

“Thirty years ago,” Johnson says, “downstate viewed ‘those people in Northern Virginia’ as rootless, familyless, and undependable.”

The first major battle between George Mason and the state was over a law school. University and community leaders believed a law school would enhance George Mason’s reputation and signal that it was to become a major university. A law school was also “the one professional school that we could create and afford,” Hazel says.

The State Council for Higher Education and Virginia lawmakers voted the idea down repeatedly, noting that the state was cranking out lawyers at the University of Virginia and at William and Mary. Johnson recalls “vitriolic” opposition, particularly from downstate newspapers.

Meanwhile a fledgling law school was meeting independently of George Mason in a former Kann’s department store in Arlington. A group led by John W. Brabner-Smith, a Yale Law graduate and government lawyer, had founded the International School of Law in 1972 to connect legal education with theology and moral philosophy. The school had a few hundred students by 1978, but it failed to gain accreditation.

With no help from lawmakers, George Mason took matters into its own hands. The nonprofit foundation created to support the university purchased the shopping center that housed the International School. Hazel cosigned the $3-million loan. Classes continued, and the foundation leased space to raise money. That cash, the university told Richmond lawmakers, meant the state wouldn’t have to put up any cash of its own for some time.

After lobbying by Hazel, Johnson, and students, the General Assembly in 1979 gave its blessing for the International School to merge with George Mason. The school was accredited the following year and named for Hazel in 2005.

Over the years, the law school has leveraged a specialty in law and economics into competitive advantage and a spot in the top tier of the ranking of law schools by U.S. News & World Report. At 37th in the latest ranking, it’s below UVa (8th), Georgetown (14th), and George Washington University (19th) but above Maryland (42nd) and American University (43rd).

Henry Manne, who became dean in 1986, wanted his faculty and students to do interdisciplinary work in economics, political science, behavioral science, and technology. But the distance between the law school in Arlington and the main Fairfax campus made such cooperation impracticable. Manne narrowed his vision to just one coupling: law and economics.

Today the George Mason law school is one of two in the country—the other is the University of Chicago—known for law and economics. That, along with the hiring of prominent conservatives like Douglas Ginsburg and Robert Bork—who’s since left—gave the school a right-wing reputation.

“It’s just ignorance or neurosis that continues to characterize a law-and-economics orientation as right-wing,” says Daniel Polsby, who became dean in 2005.

Polsby says the school doesn’t offer courses in subjects such as feminist legal theory that tend to attract scholars on the political left. “There are some idealistic young people that would like to be in an atmosphere of left-wing ferment—‘to the barricades’ and all that stuff,” he says. “This is not the place for them.”

To start an engineering school, George Mason again had to make an end run around the state.

In the 1980s, then-governor Chuck Robb proposed a science-and-technology center in Northern Virginia to boost the region’s expanding high-tech sector. Robb’s allies talked about putting the center in Fairfax County, perhaps even at George Mason. But that was unacceptable to state leaders who, loyal to other state universities, worried that the tech center would consolidate power and money at George Mason.

Northern Virginia business leaders—including defense contractor Earle Williams and tech executives John Toups and Chuck Gulledge—pressured the state to find a compromise. A deal was struck. Robb got his stand-alone Center for Innovative Technology, which opened in 1985 near Dulles. And Mason was authorized to open an engineering school that would eschew traditional subjects—aerospace, mechanical engineering, and the like—taught at other state schools and focus on information technology.

“When you’re facing the waves of change,” Johnson says, “there are two basic responses: the bureaucratic and the entrepreneurial. The bureaucratic response looks for a higher seawall. The entrepreneurial looks for a better surfboard.”

The information-technology school was the first of its kind in the nation. To help attract faculty and write curriculum, it turned to the high-tech companies that had made Northern Virginia an East Coast version of Silicon Valley. These companies also told George Mason the skills they needed in the university’s graduates.

George Mason in its early years also built connections to the region through its public-policy school. Building the program was not easy, says Kingsley Haynes, the school’s dean: “Washington is like a black hole for talent. People get plugged in to government and tend not to have time to sit back and think about the operational things they do in a theoretical or abstract framework.”

Haynes says the school chose to focus on a few key programs, including regional economic development, science and technology, public administration, and international relations. The school also emphasized master’s-degree-level professional development—a wise choice given the demand of the growing immigrant population in Northern Virginia. And to help pay its expensive faculty, it made faculty and students available to do research for local business. Eventually grant and contract work paid for two-thirds of running the school.

George Mason also promoted a cultural connection with the community. In 1990 the university opened the Center for the Arts, which joined Wolf Trap as a cultural center for Northern Virginia. It presents music and dance from local and national artists as well as university ensembles.

“It was something that you could organize the cultural community of Northern Virginia around just as we organized the business community,” Johnson says.

To build its reputation, George Mason wooed big names from Washington power circles. Those who teach at the university or who have done stints there include Manuel Johnson, former Federal Reserve Board vice chair; Alice Rivlin, the White House budget chief under Bill Clinton; and former Virginia senator and governor Chuck Robb.

The university also raided faculty from other universities. “Over five years we moved something like 100 full professors,” Johnson says.

Stephen Fuller, the region’s preeminent economic forecaster, came over from George Washington University. The public-policy school persuaded Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the world’s best-known sociologists and political scientists, to relocate from Stanford for its opening (Lipset died last December). Economist James Buchanan left Virginia Tech for George Mason in 1983 and won a Nobel Prize three years later. University of Arizona economist Vernon Smith came in 2001 and earned a Nobel in 2002.

Recently the public-policy school lured Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, from Carnegie Mellon. “Universities are really reputational entities. What you are doing with a university is competing for eminence,” Florida says.

Johnson says that when Mason started trying to steal top professors, it was up against an “iron law” of academia that said professors would only move up in prestige or laterally. “George Mason was a rinky-dink institution,” he says. “How is it going to attract faculty overnight that would lift it to some kind of respectability?”

One key was money. Helped by its nonprofit foundation, George Mason dangled salary offers bigger than the norm for a state university of its size and reputation. When Johnson arrived in 1978, the foundation had less than $1 million. But he and Til Hazel, the foundation’s head during key years, aggressively tapped local business leaders and increased its assets to $33 million by 1995.

Those holdings were a pittance compared with the University of Virginia’s, which has one of the biggest endowments in the country. But it gave Johnson enough money to chase faculty stars for select programs. “Those hires gave George Mason instant visibility, and they’ve never looked back,” says Gordon Davies, former director of Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education.

Last year, George Mason paid full professors an average of $113,000—the same as William and Mary and more than any other school in the state except for UVa.

In addition to money, George Mason gave top recruits free rein—a “tabula rasa,” as Johnson says: “We make a handshake deal that if you come to Mason, you write your own program.”

Some worry that the big names don’t translate to a better education for students. Roger Geiger, a Penn State professor who studies higher education, says hiring by fame risks neglecting the rest of the department.

“If you have a few stars and everybody else is mediocre, that doesn’t make for a very healthy department,” he says.

But Johnson and others thought the talent they were recruiting was exactly what a young university needed: people who wanted to work hard and build something from the ground up.

The George Mason that Alan Merten inherited from Johnson in 1996 was growing fast—almost too fast. The university, Merten says, “was like this small entrepreneurial company that now had to become better organized.”

Merten created a traditional academic organization to underpin schools and departments but tried hard not to kill the university’s spirit of innovation. “My job,” Merten says, “was to keep the train running at the same speed and slide a new engine under it as it was moving.”

Merten put together plans for more dormitories and added more research programs. Enrollment has grown by 25 percent. The university now houses 4,000 students on campus and will add another 1,000 beds next year.

Like Johnson before him, Merten traveled the state to meet with legislators. As he talked about the university’s future, relations began to thaw. “People bought into it,” he says.

In the past, Mason had to fight to get a seat at the table in Richmond. In the future, Merten says, any expansion Mason takes will be in partnership with the state, not in spite of it.

“If the state could provide the funds, I could see us growing to 40,000,” Merten says. Only 14 universities are that big, including Ohio State, Florida, and Texas.

Some on campus say the state still slights the university. George Mason this year received $6,757 in state aid per student—$3,300 less than the University of Virginia and $2,200 less than Virginia Tech.

Dan Hix of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia says such comparisons are misleading because the numbers don’t take into account the expenses of programs. Mason has few programs in traditional engineering and no school of medicine—both of which are costly.

Regardless, the idea that George Mason must fight the powers that be is a powerful rallying cry. In academic circles, such stories are known as “institutional sagas,” says Roger Geiger. “When people buy into those, that creates good morale and loyalty to the institution.”

Higher-education experts say George Mason has done what a smart university does to grow: tap the resources of the region that surrounds it. Northern Virginia’s growth has increased the pool of students who apply, the number of businesses that might hire its graduates, and the wealth that can power its expansion.

Geiger says George Mason also smartly leveraged its proximity to Washington power to focus on public policy and the social sciences. That has led to “an opportunity to be more than a niche university.”

George Mason still has a way to go. While it’s built a high profile in some disciplines, it’s done little in others. “You look around the university,” says Haynes of the public-policy school, “and you see in one area unbelievable talent.” But at times when Haynes sought to join other departments on a project, “nobody knows anything about it.”

As a young school, George Mason is still building its fundraising base. About 12 percent of its alumni give money to the school, about the same rate as at the University of Maryland and George Washington. But in 2005, George Mason raised only $20 million—a pittance compared with what like-size universities like Iowa ($100 million) and Utah ($136 million) bring in. In 2005 Georgetown raised $99 million, Maryland $84 million, George Washington $49 million, and American $18 million.

The quality of its students is improving but still lags other area schools. U.S. News ranks George Mason in the third of its four tiers, below the median and looking up at most other area schools. Half of its incoming class in 2005 had an SAT score between 1000 and 1200—up 100 points from 1994 but still below Catholic (1040 to 1240), American (1180 to 1360), Maryland (1180 to 1370), George Washington (1200 to 1390), UVa (1220 to 1430), and Georgetown (1290 to 1490).

George Mason’s six-year graduation rate has improved from 45 percent to 53 percent since 1994, but it’s still considerably lower than at Georgetown and UVa (93 percent), George Washington (78 percent), and Maryland (76 percent).

The Final Four appearance by its basketball team may help George Mason catch up. “We got more media attention in a ten-day period in March than in the previous nine years,” coach Jim Larranaga says.

Applications are up 25 percent this year, compared with the 10-percent annual increase in years past. The growth is especially noticeable in high-achieving applicants. Admissions dean Andrew Flagel estimates this year’s acceptance rate will be 50 percent, down from 77 percent in 1994 and about the same rate as at Maryland.

George Mason is now a household name, Merten says. “Boise State in USA Today was referred to as ‘the George Mason of college football.’ Trinidad and Tobago in the World Cup was referred to as ‘the George Mason of the World Cup’ . . . .We’ve become a noun.”

Virtually everyone at the university credits Larranaga and the basketball team for the class act it put on. “Jim Larranaga, bless his heart, gave terrific talking points about Mason,” says Christine LaPaille of the university’s public-relations office. “He talked about a lot of things other than just his team, and you don’t see many coaches doing that.”

When Larranaga interviewed for the job as coach in 1997, Merten told him that he wanted to make George Mason one of the best universities in the world. The men’s-basketball program, he told the coach, had a part to play in the growth of the university and its focus on learning and innovation.

Larranaga, who had been coaching in the college ranks for 20 years, says, “It was the first time a president talked to me about basketball’s role in the university.”

Says Merten: “One of the best hiring decisions I ever made was hiring Jim Larranaga. From the interview, from the first year—the man is a teacher who happens to have the title ‘coach.’ ”

This year the Patriots struggled to re-create the magic that got them to the Final Four. They finished 18–15 and fifth in their conference.

But the season had several bright spots, including a great freshman class. The team also scored a coup when it signed for next year Vlad Moldoveanu, a senior at DC’s St. John’s College High School. A native of Romania, the six-foot-ten Moldoveanu is a good three-point shooter who had scholarship offers from big-name programs like West Virginia and Kentucky.

“Rarely would a recruit to Kentucky or West Virginia look at a George Mason,” Larranaga says.

The coach says someone asked Moldoveanu why he would consider George Mason. Moldoveanu’s response? “I was here in March, and all I saw on TV was George Mason.”

Writer Graham Meyer is a former assistant editor at Chicago magazine. His work has appeared there and at Esquire.com, and can be read on his Web site, Theothertiger.com.