For the past year, officials at George Mason University have scoured the country for a new president.
Their demands have been simple. The new president had to be a charismatic leader and enthralling speaker, successful at public relations and fund raising; a skilled ad ministrator and savvy lobbyist, effective in wooing stubborn state legislators and bureaucrats, and a person of great energy and vision, able to lead George Mason out of its relative obscurity and make it a major center of learning.
After screening almost 300 candidates, they found their man. His name is George W. Johnson, former dean of the College of LIberal Arts at Temple University and now George Mason's fourth president. But in his first week on the job, Johnson was quick to disclaim any divine powers. "I don't want to pose as a Moses. I'm no savior," he said. "It's not my style to impose my vision on other people.
"But I don intend to be a very active president. I've always depended more on stamina than brains. So I plan to work hard. And I think they need an advocate here, a spokesman, a leader if you will. Because, believe it or not, this is potentially a very classy place."
The walls in Johnson's new office are still bare. He says he hasn't had time to decorate - too many meetings to attend, too many decisions to make.
"I've been trying to talk to as many people as I can," he said. "But I'm probably doing too much talking. What I need to do is some intensive listening."
He is a soft-spoken, articulate man, but occasionally he likes to kid. "Someone here asked me if it was difficult to make decisions about things I know nothing about. I told him, 'Hell, I've been doing that for years.'"
What Johnson did for the last 10 years was to head the largest division of one of the largest state schools in Pennsylvania. Friends at Temple, where he was known as "Big George" because of his towering, 6-foot-3-inch frame, say Johnson helped transform that institution from an unheralded commuter college to an improving an respected university.
"He was responsible for the development of our liberal arts college into a high-level graduate program with a strong faculty and diverse curriculum," said Temple President Marvin Wachman. "We've flattered he was selected by George Mason, but we're also sorry to lose him."
Originally from Jamestown, N.D., Johnson went to Jamestown College and then came east to do his graduate work in English at Columbia University. He taught at Rutgers University, the University of Missouri and the University of Maryland Overseas before coming to Temple in 1957. He worked his way up the ranks there, first as instructor, then as full professor and department chairman, finally as dean.
Johnson, who just turned 50 last week, says he sees similarities between the George Mason of today and the Temple of 10 years ago. "When I was at Temple, we were trying to build excellence at an emerging institution. That meant recruiting a top flight faculty, establishing new programs, building better facilities," he said. "And that's the goal we now have at George Mason."
Johnson admits that he knew little about his new school before coming to the campus for an interview last winter."I was rather diffident," he said, "until I got down here.I know this sounds trite, but I was struck by the fierce pride exhibited by everyone at this place."
The school's presidential search, which last 11 months, was "frighteningly open," Johnson said. The final candidates had to endure a grueling interview process before a final decision was announced last April.
Johnson takes over a university of 9,200 students. Located on a 500-acre campus near Fairfax City, George Mason is in its sixth year of operation as a four-year college independent of the University of Virginia, and is one of only two state schools in the Northern Virginia area.
Largely a commuter college, the school is expanding in several directions. Dormitories opened on campus for the first time last year, and two new classroom facilities, costing a total of $12.6 million, are now being built. School officials are also trying to buy the International School of Law facilities in Arlington.
Johnson sees these moves as important steps for the future of George Mason. "We have to build a comprehensive university to serve the needs of this area," he said. "We're making a commitment to quality."
But as Johnson's predecessors learned, it is not a commitment so easily made. School officials have long complained that the legislature, dominated by delegates from downstate, often neglects the needs of the northern Virginia school.
Vergil H. Dykstra, who resigned as president of George Mason in April, 1977, said at the time that he had been "disappointed in the lack of support for the school from the state in both salaries and in building construction."
Johnson said he understands that as George Mason's president he will have to be part-administrator and part-political lobbyist. "That's an added dimension of the job. It will be a learning experience," he said.
As for his plans for George Mason, Johnson said he hopes the school will become a model for colleges of the future. "We're moving away from the days of the bucolic conclave, the isolate tower," he said. "Today, the world of work flows almost uninterrupted into the world of academia. We'll remain essentially a commuter gram and better facilities."
Johnson said he plans to work 60-70 hours a week to "build a tradition of excellence" at George Mason. In the little spare time he'll have left, he hopes to spend time with his wife and two college-aged sons and to work at his favorite hobby, cabinet making. "But it's hard to disentangle myself from my work," he said. "I haven't created any sawdust in over a year."
How long will he stay at George Mason? "For 15 years," he said, smiling broadly. "I'm just glad to be here."