When he departs in June 2012, Merten will leave behind an institution that has national stature and global reach — yet is still seeking to enter the top rank of American universities. George Mason trails such state flagships as the universities of Maryland and Virginia in endowments, admission rates and academic rankings.
“I think he has taken an emerging institution to a major teaching and research university, and he’s navigated all the rocks and shoals while doing that,” said Ernst Volgenau, who, as rector, leads the university’s governing Board of Visitors. “And the next person has got to take us to world-class status.”
In a letter to Volgenau on Wednesday, Merten wrote that serving as George Mason president “has been the greatest privilege of my career.” In a letter to the university community, Volgenau wrote that Merten’s tenure had been “remarkable and transformative.”
George Mason was founded as a branch of the University of Virginia and became independent in 1972. Under Merten’s predecessor, George W. Johnson, who was president for 18 years, it grew from a sleepy commuter facility into Virginia’s second-largest university. When Merten took over in 1996, he also seemed to inherit the school’s restless, upstart spirit.
“The George Mason story is a story of making things happen faster than universities normally do things,” Merten said in an interview Wednesday afternoon, shortly after he announced his retirement to the Board of Visitors. “We have an approach that says, ‘Do something in a hurry and then correct it, because it’s never going to be perfect.’ ”
George Mason has grown at an audacious pace. Twenty-eight new facilities have opened in the past five years, including a performing arts center, and a hotel and conference center.
Enrollment has swelled from 24,368 to 32,562, most of whom are commuters. The residential population, meanwhile, has grown from 2,466 to 5,400. Annual research funding has risen from $28 million to $100 million.
George Mason ascended from the fourth to the third tier on the closely watched U.S. News & World Report rankings under Merten’s watch, and it is now ranked 143rd among universities nationwide. The admission rate has declined from 81 percent to just above 50 percent in the Merten era, a sign of rising selectivity, while the average GPA among incoming freshmen has risen from about 3.0 to 3.6.
Merten’s George Mason also has exerted growing influence over the development of Fairfax County and the economy of Northern Virginia. He cultivated areas of the university that played to the region’s high-tech as well as military-industrial strengths, sending thousands of graduates into local jobs in public policy, information technology and the biological sciences.