An outspoken government official and a determined university president are bumping heads over what academic institution can best represent high-tech research in Northern Virginia.
It's a long-running controversy that has begun to heat up again. The area lacks a research campus on par with Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and critics have said the omission hinders the region's growth. A top-ranked research university can create technologies that spawn corporations nearby, and it can serve as a magnet for top technologists.
George Mason University, which was founded as a branch of University of Virginia in 1957 and became independent in 1972, has strived under the leadership of President Alan G. Merten to step into that role. The university has grown in standing as well as size.
But Virginia Secretary of Technology Eugene J. Huang created a stir in November when he said in an interview that it may be time to consider alternatives to GMU as the region's technology centerpiece. And he's not backing down. "I completely stand by the comments I made," he says.
The problem is that GMU simply may not be up to the task, he suggested in a recent interview. "It would require some significant and sustained investment for GMU to get to where we want to be 10 to 20 years from now," Huang says. "You put aside the politics and infighting and ask, 'What is in the realm of the possible?' "
Huang's call to look beyond GMU echoes a little-noticed report submitted to Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) in September.
The report was produced by the governor's Virginia Research and Technology Advisory Commission, made up of representatives from the state's universities, business executives, financiers and government officials. It outlines four options: (1) Build a new research university from scratch. (2) Expand George Mason University. (3) Establish new satellite campuses for Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and/or Virginia Polytechnic Institute. (4) Create a single research campus that would house facilities for several of the state's institutions.
Merten does not hide his distaste for the alternatives to GMU. "To create another entity is laughable, to be honest," he says. "I'm baffled." Creating Northern Virginia outposts for out-of-state universities would be a costly mistake, he says. Merten says Huang's dismissal of GMU as a top player was "depressing to our faculty."
"I wish our political and business leaders would get to the point of asking, 'How do we make GMU a great research institution?' rather than saying we don't have one," Merten says.
But Merten says GMU is growing and has made strides in attracting students. Applications are way up -- the university had 11,000 applications for 2,300 freshman spots this year, compared with 5,700 applications six years ago. The single problem, as Merten sees it, is that the university doesn't have enough money. GMU receives $135 million annually from the state. Merten says it needs at least $20 million more a year to adequately fund the expansion of research. He suggests the state get behind GMU with its blessing -- and more dollars -- then hold it accountable. "Force us to be the vehicle," Merten says. "Make us the conduit."