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Will the Real George Mason…

Will the Real George Mason…

The past decade plus has been a dynamic period for George Mason. We’ve grown, added programs, added facilities, etc. There is every reason to take pride in the varied achievements and the basis they provide for the future.

It’s also important to note that in many ways we’ve been trying, in this same period, to become a bit more conventional. Our new dorms and expanded student life have emphasized resident over commuter students, and we have really wanted to escape the commuter school label.  In the process we’ve also attracted more conventional-age undergrads, though our age profile is still a bit distinctive. We’ve expanded research, seeking to begin rivaling the Big Boys in range and rankings. Like other schools as well we’ve done things like set up centers for teaching excellence and an honors college.

We’ve pushed toward more conventional characteristics because of faculty interests (in research, for example, or in getting more academically talented students); because of public pressures — advancing in research has measurably benefited the region economically; because of the spur of rankings like US News — even though we still don’t fare well here, mainly because of fiscal deficiencies, we have improved our levels; because of Board of Visitors pressures, for example in the prodding toward becoming “world class”, which on the whole meant becoming more conventionally recognizable.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with what we’ve done, and in my view we should continue moving in some of these directions. Happily as well, through planning and circumstance, we haven’t become just conventional. We still are unusually entrepreneurial and opportunistic; we can take good ideas and move fast. Our student body is unusually diverse, a huge educational and social plus. We also retain a good bit of accessibility, in terms of social and economic profile. We’re unusually global, again a huge advantage. We’re also unusually collaborative, not only with international partnerships but through cooperations with the Smithsonian, with some commercial partners, and with some technology linkages. Our commitment to effective and innovative teaching, instantiated in our long-established promotion criteria, goes beyond conventional moves like the Center for Teaching Excellence.

So, I would argue, we’re a good mix of conventional and unusual, and we shouldn’t fasten too firmly on either pole. We certainly shouldn’t get trapped in conventional measurements, like US News, that resolutely ignore some of the characteristics of a genuinely contemporary university.  But it may be time to turn a bit more eagerly back to the less-conventional, responding to the new pressures on higher ed, and to new leadership by taking pride in a more distinctive path, in approaches we can take that are deliberately less ordinary.

Some years ago, when we were wrestling with the “world class” challenge, a friendly outside observer urged us to be the “best George Mason we could be.” It’s good advice, though vague. It certainly reflects the fact that we’re still in the process of becoming — one of the things that makes working here exciting — yet with sufficient achievement to maintain confidence in a distinctive mix of ingredients.