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Public Universities

Public Universities

An interview recently with one of our bright undergraduates, and then a very persuasive talk by an incoming faculty member joining us from the Washington Post, prompted me to think more specifically than usual about the nature of public universities like George Mason.

The undergraduate was legitimately interested in the increasingly blurry boundary between publics and privates as state funding declines and public universities look to more diverse sources of support, including private philanthropy but also higher tuitions. It remains true that we continue to benefit from public status, in terms of some operating money and certainly capital project funding, so I was able (I think) to persuade her that simply going private outright would not be a good idea. But I also emphasized the particular responsibility public universities still have to reach out to a wide array of qualified students, to promote diversity, and to keep a very careful eye on accessibility. Some of these goals are a bit harder to achieve now with funding changes, but they remain valid and can still be achieved.

The incoming faculty member made his own case for public universities as being the reason he decided to join us. He wants to reach a wide array of students who can use their enhanced learning in a variety of positions after graduation. He appreciates the publics’ outreach, their commitment to broad-based recruitment, and their relative efficiency in delivering to substantial student numbers. Of course, he also liked Mason particularly among public places for some other good reasons, but that’s another story.

So despite our travails and our obvious overlap with universities in general in terms of developing new knowledge and working to enhance student learning, it’s useful still to remember the public part of our mission. The one note to add, which is where some complexities legitimately come in: commitments to efficiency and accessibility do not mean lowest possible cost, for these goals must be balanced against a concurrent commitment to quality and new initiatives. That’s part of our public commitment, and it’s the combination of goals that should shape our futures.