By tapping its high-technology neighbors in Northern Virginia, George Mason University is trying to transform itself into the "university of the 21st century"--a school a long way removed from GMU's origins as a community college operating out of a collection of house trailers.

George Mason's educators hope to use the high-technology corporations' expertise to establish the school as a major technology education center, and thereby declare its independence from the state university system that spawned it 11 years ago.

GMU's effort is being received enthusiastically by the leaders of the area's high-tech industry, who see the involvement with GMU as a chance to mold a major university to provide the type of academic support needed for an environment similar to California's Silicon Valley or Boston's Rte. 128 technology bastions.

The company executives hope the university will become a source of trained personnel as well as a graduate school for current workers. GMU officials, in turn, see the companies as sources for part-time lecturers and internship programs.

"As a baby institution, we're trying to orient ourselves to the 21st century," says university President George W. Johnson, who took office five years ago and soon began mapping the high-tech effort.

The school has begun an ambitious program to offer education and advanced degrees in disciplines that just now are being included in the curriculum at many colleges: computer sciences, systems engineering and microelectronics, as well as an innovative PhD program in information technology.

GMU officials also hope to create a research park, located on GMU-owned land across Virginia Rte. 123 from the campus, that would provide space for industry-university research programs and in basic corporate research, as well as the university's own high-tech programs. This project--the first stage of which is expected to cost about $28 million--could begin operation within three years, and an interim program could start up even earlier.

"We're building an entirely new type of university," says J. Wade Gilley, GMU's senior vice president. "What we're basically doing is creating the engineering school of the information age."

GMU officials believe their school's location is ideally suited for that task. They reckon that there are more than 425 high-tech firms in Fairfax County alone; hundreds more in the surrounding area. And George Mason is principally a commuter school, with virtually all of its 15,000 students coming from Northern Virginia.

"This is the kind of school where almost necessarily the margin between town and gown--the dividing line between what's the community and what's the university--ought to be blurred," Johnson says. "We're a regional university, but we're in a peculiar region."

The major thrust of GMU's liaison with Virginia's high-tech industry is the George Mason Institute for Science and Technology (GMI), an affiliated not-for-profit organization set up two years ago and built around an 18-member advisory board made up of top executives from area high-tech corporations or corporate divisions.

The group, meeting monthly with GMU administrators, is helping shape the university's move into the information age by providing advice on what business needs from educational institutions.

"What it represents is an opportunity for business people to express views and insights to the academic community of our needs in the continued growth of high technology in our area," says one member, Ronald J. Koval, vice president for sales and marketing of Boeing Computer Services Co. in Vienna, who sees business' participation in GMI as an opportunity to "get our needs understood by the people who are going to be providing our work force in the future."

"I think one of the things that really excites . . . those chief executives is the ability to shape a university," Johnson says.

The executives say Northern Virginia, because of its growing number of high-tech companies and, in turn, jobs, needs a source of education in these disciplines that doesn't seem to be available in the area, if anywhere in the Virginia state university system.

"I think it probably is a weakness in this area," Donald Stack, manager of the administrative staff at AT&T Long Lines in Oakton and a GMI board member, says of high-tech education. "That's about as tactful as I can be about it.

"We have a large need in particular areas, computer programmers for instance, and what I'll call technical sales people," he says. "To the extent I can get qualified people close by and cheaply--and by that I mean the cost of the recruiting process, not the salary--it's to my advantage to do that."

Such skills are not available in sufficient quantities, the executives say, at the state's two other major public universities, the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute. More traditionally oriented engineering programs offered by those schools "don't produce the kinds of skills that fit the directions that high-technology areas are moving in," Koval says. Even if those programs were beefed up, the executives say, their location would be disadvantageous.

GMU's aggressive growth in the high-tech area, and in general, has led to some battles over state funds among the three universities--battles in which the university has lately found powerful allies and lobbyists in the members of the GMI board. The executives say GMU's location in Northern Virginia and the requirements of businesses in the area make the school's needs unique. "We don't see ourselves at all in competition with anybody else," Williams says. "We don't even want a conventional engineering school up here. That's not what we're asking for."

Just as important as providing basic education and employes, the executives say, is the university's potential role as a center of the area's high-tech community: providing research facilities, allowing exchanges of students and employes for internship programs or lecturing assignments, and simply as a prestigious employe-recruiting tool.

"It's easier to attract high-level employes and retain them in the area if there's a high-quality university in the area," Williams says. "People with this inclination, with this background, don't feel like the community is a whole community if there's not an institution in the community where they can interact with their peers . . . The quality of life is measured by a lot of people by the quality of educational institutions in the community. It's not the same if you have to go over to Maryland or the District of Columbia to find it."

"If you look at any group of high-tech people, they tend to intellectually feed on themselves, and they need a top-drawer university that provides all levels of education up through and including PhDs," Stack says.

That philosophy is also expressed as the need to create a "high-tech culture," a "critical mass," or, as Gilley puts it, a "high-touch" environment. It's the same sort of environment that exists around the famous high-tech centers in Silicon Valley (where Stanford University is the educational base) or Boston (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University).

The participants in George Mason Institute don't have their sights set quite so high; there are many other ingredients involved in creating a Silicon Valley, and GMU isn't in its most optimistic moments dreaming of parity with technological education giants like MIT or Stanford.

"What we simply need is a first-class institution," Williams says.

GMU officials do not want to lose sight of the university's other disciplines in the rush to beef-up technology education. "We're trying very hard to stay balanced," Johnson says. Adds Gilley: "High-tech means more to the university than biotechnology and computers. When you get right down to it, it means state of the art--in performing arts, in public policy."

GMU officials say the business people appreciate the need to strengthen the liberal arts side of the university as well as the technological side, in part because a strong humanities program aids the university's lure as an employe-recruiting tool.

But even as they encourage input from business into the university's future course, Johnson and other university administrators are watching the heated debates on other campuses over the increasing corporate role in university life, particularly when it comes to research funding.

"Certainly it can skew the direction of a university," Johnson says, but adds, "I'm not so concerned about being beholden to the high-tech industry because the insides of a high-tech concern feel and look like a university"--in their collegial atmosphere and striving for innovation.

Yet while Johnson sees direct conflicts potentially arising only over the subject of corporate-funded proprietary research in college laboratories, he says, "We just have to stay vigilant and attentive and worried."

Direct financial participation by business is so far all-but-nonexistent at GMU, save for some donations of equipment made to the university by GMI members. Johnson hopes that expansion of the university-business link at GMU continues along its current path, with more business-supplied internships and lecturers, the possibility of joint recruiting efforts that would bring a scientist to a company who could also lecture at the university, and similar programs.