Merten reflects on university achievements, struggles

President Alan Merten applauds the men's basketball team during their 2006 NCAA Final Four run in Indianapolis. (Student Media file)

Few things about George Mason University have remained unchanged since 1996. Fifteen years ago, there was not an Aquatic and Fitness Center. There was not a nationally known basketball team. There wasn’t even a Starbucks.

But, 15 years ago, as now, Alan Merten was president.

“Being president of an institution for 15 years is a long time,” Merten admitted in an early April interview with Connect2Mason. “Especially when you take into account the fact that the average tenure for a university president is less than 10 years. I stayed because every three or four years I would look around and realize this [university] had become a very different place.”


Earlier this spring, Merten announced he would retire in the summer of 2012. Since Merten’s term began nearly two decades ago, the student population has nearly doubled and extensive construction has transformed the Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington campuses, and a fourth campus was opened in Loudoun County in 2005. 

Mason overtook Virginia Commonwealth University in September 2009 to become the most populous institution of higher learning in Virginia. In 2010 Mason passed another benchmark when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classified it as a “primarily residential” campus.

Merten credited the school’s extraordinary growth to long-term strategy—and a little bit of luck.

“For one, we had a plan,” Merten explained. “The university had had significant successes before, and we did have a general plan for future growth. Second, we hired really good people. Third, we took advantage of targets of opportunity.”

Merten said that four such “targets of opportunity” presented Mason with unique windows for success: Faculty members receiving 1986 and 2001 Nobel Prizes, the Patriots’ 2006 run to the Final Four and U.S. News and World Report’s 2009 designation of Mason as the number-one school to watch.

“In each case there was already a lot going on, but these things caught the world’s attention,” he said. “We were fortunate because we had those opportunities and we knew what to do with them.”

Merten has long believed in Mason’s potential, and his inaugural address in 1997 proved oddly prescient of the university’s future.

“No longer can universities and colleges afford to follow the 19th century model that promoted isolation and detachment from the world,” Merten said upon becoming president 14 years ago. “At George Mason we are uniquely positioned academically and located geographically to be world leaders in our use of information technologies.”

While some of Merten’s observations may seem quaint to a 21st century eye—in another section of his inaugural speech he pondered the wonders of students “learning to communicate through e-mail” and “doing research on the Internet”—he was by and large right on. In 2011, Mason has students from more than 130 countries and boasts academic programs that are among the top ranking, both nationally and globally. Much of the president’s vision has come true.

Not everyone has been happy with positions enacted during Merten’s tenure, however, and rising tuition has been the target of constant criticism.

“On several situations the fiscal situation of Virginia has been poor and we’ve had to make progress despite a lack of financial support,” Merten said. “We had to either not grow as fast or raise tuition more than we wanted to, but that didn’t stop us. We kept going.”

Merten said that responsibility for tuition ultimately rested in Richmond.

“The thing that controls tuition is the existence of money from the state or the non-existence of money from the state,” he elaborated. “When I first came here, for every dollar we gave, the state was giving us two dollars back. Today, for every dollar we give, we get 50 cents back. The state has moved from paying two-thirds of our costs to paying one-third of our costs.”

Merten added that freezing tuition would require cutting class sections, which he believed would lengthen enrollment times and cost students more in the long term.

“The fiscal situation in Virginia is not what [it] needs to be,” he noted. “But we’ve charged ahead. We’ve built different buildings than we wanted to; we’ve borrowed money. We’ve done what we’ve had to do.”

Merten, whose retirement will become effective on June 30, 2012, said he’s not sure what he’ll do next.

“I’m still healthy, my wife’s still healthy, and we have two children and four grandchildren,” he mused. “There was no particular reason for me to retire. There was sort of this assumption that I’d continue to be president for a very long while more. Sally and I started talking about our future and we decided it was time.”

Merten said he and his wife will continue to reside in Northern Virginia.

“We plan to remain very active at Mason,” he said. “We’ve become synonymous with it.”



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