George Mason University has the opportunity to buy a $1 million house for its president at half price, but some people at the recession-strapped school question the merits of the move.
The house, offered by Joseph J. (Sonny) Mathy, a wealthy Fairfax County businessman, is on 10 acres of land on Popes Head Road about a quarter mile from the university. The furnishings, including valuable collections of art and antiques, are part of the purchase price.
John T. Hazel Jr., GMU rector, called the proposal ideal because of the amount of land and its proximity to the state university. He also cited the deteriorating condition of the president's current residence.
The GMU Board of Visitors, the university's 16-member governing board, is scheduled to vote on the issue Wednesday.
Hazel said the purchase would be "an extremely wise move. It is a very generous offer and a unique opportunity."
The $500,000 purchase price, he said, would be raised by the George Mason University Foundation Inc., a private group that raises funds for university projects. No state funds would be used, Hazel said.
But a 5 percent cut in state funds ordered by Gov. Charles S. Robb has hit George Mason hard. In January GMU announced major cutbacks in its continuing education program, elimination of a number of advanced degrees and a freeze on staff and outside hiring.
A freeze on faculty wages is likely for the upcoming year. And since the university was established in 1972, it has yet to offer academic scholarships.
"There are a lot of things we need down here besides a president's house," said Susan Suddith, a senior in decision sciences.
"Seeing that we don't have the money for some master's programs," added Stephanie Simms, a senior in communications at GMU, "I think it's ridiculous."
"It would be wonderful if the house was an entire gift," said Constance Bedell, a member of the Board of Visitors. "Then the foundation could spend time raising money for academic programs or for faculty sabbaticals, which it once did."
"We don't have the luxury of dealing with our first priorities first," said Randolf W. Church Jr., a member of the Board of Visitors who favors the purchase.
"Our main purpose is to get the academic program up," said Michael Kelly, professor of English and a foundation member. "But sometimes you have to reprioritize. Sometimes you can get all of the things that you want, but just not in the order that you want.
"I've been through these times before when the state pulls in its horns. People don't offer you a $500,000 gift every year," Kelly added.
Bedell said she "feels the board is very rushed" about making a decision on the project. The plan was first presented to the foundation and the Board of Visitors two weeks ago, she said.
"I would feel much better voting on this issue if I knew how the faculty and administration feel about it," Bedell said. "But there is not enough time to fully find out."
Some university officials suggest that the foundation headed off heavy faculty criticism of the purchase by suggesting that the president's current house become a faculty club.
If the purchase is approved Wednesday, fund-raising will begin immediately and the acquisition will be completed by July, Hazel said.
Sources said that Hazel is pushing the project so it will be completed before his tenure as rector ends in July.
Mathy, who has donated to the university's athletic and cultural resources funds, is out of the country.
Hazel says the renovated frame house on campus where GMU President George W. Johnson now lives is not adequate to accommodate the many guests who attend university receptions there. "With only one bathroom upstairs, it's not a particularly good place to entertain 50 or 60 people at a time," Hazel said.
The Mathy house, a red-brick Williamsburg-style structure with white columns and a grand foyer, is considered more lavish than the president's present house. Hazel said the Mathy house would be cheaper to maintain because it is newer.
Some who favor the purchase said they believe that the land is worth more to the university than the house. "My feeling is that if George Mason, being an urban institution, has any opportunity to purchase land, it should do it," said Val McWhorter, a member of the Board of Visitors. "I can see the day when we'll run out of land," Hazel said. "I'm not saying today or tomorrow, but it will be very shortly."
The Mathy property offer has raised questions about the role of the foundation at GMU, which in recent years has focused its fund-raising on real estate and other capital ventures.
GMU student Suddith said it is "unrealistic" to think that the foundation would alter its direction to fill the gaps in academics. "We need the funds, but I don't expect that they would do it."
"There is a need to explore what vehicle is going to be used to raise money for things like the endowment, scholarships and general fund-raising," Church said. "There is a strong argument that the foundation should be that vehicle. But I haven't reached that conclusion."
Raising money for operations is difficult, according to Kelly, a professor and foundation member. "People are much more willing to give money to put their name on a room in a house than to raise faculty salaries," he said. "No one wants to donate operations money to a state university. They say that's what they pay taxes for."