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.
Much more than the typical college president, Merten made his presence felt in the power circles of Fairfax and Richmond. He spent endless evenings glad-handing at community meetings and networking dinners, having learned from early life experience in Washington that the city and its suburbs functioned as one vast social network.
“He burrowed into the community,” joining “every task force. . . . He showed up everywhere,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who came up through the ranks of Fairfax elected officials.
The result was pride in a university that worked in tandem with what Fairfax leaders were doing to transform Northern Virginia’s economy as it boomed with technology jobs over the past two decades.
John T. “Til” Hazel Jr., a Northern Virginia developer who was on George Mason’s founding board and served twice as its rector, credits Merten with understanding that “for us to make Fairfax County the community we wanted it to be, it had to have a great institution of higher education. . . . We needed the airport [Dulles] at one end of the county and higher education at the other end.”
Merten said that he has struggled, by contrast, to sell the George Mason story to the state legislature and that the university remains perennially underfunded: “George Mason has never gotten its share.”
Merten came to George Mason from Cornell, where he was dean of its graduate business school and had a background in computers and management.
His wife, Sally Merten, recalled their first visit to the George Mason campus for a round of interviews: “I saw a young university, and I didn’t see any culture. And I would say that in the last 15 years, that’s what he’s accomplished. There’s a culture here.”
By building residence halls and courting international students, Merten effectively created campus life at George Mason. The entire nation bore witness to the new George Mason in 2006, when the men’s basketball team made it to the Final Four in the NCAA tournament, perhaps the high point of Merten’s tenure. The attendant blitz of publicity raised the profile of a university that despite its growing footprint in Northern Virginia was relatively unknown across much of the nation.
“We used the athletic megaphone to tell the George Mason story every day for a month,” Merten said.
If George Mason is to become a world-class school under its next president, according to Merten and others, one task will be to leverage private money from a relatively young alumni base and from the few major corporations headquartered in Fairfax in order to replace dwindling state funds. Annual fundraising has more than doubled to $52 million in five years, but that is far short of the mark at older and better-established schools.
“Harvard has had 400 years,” Connolly said, “but George Mason has had 40 years.”