Just before the Virginia General Assembly opened its 1982 session, George W. Johnson, president of George Mason University, scheduled a luncheon with state Del. Warren E. Barry, a member of the House Appropriations Committee--the body that controls the school's funding.
The morning of the lunch legislative committee assignments were announced in Richmond and it became known that Barry would no longer sit on appropriations. One of Johnson's assistants called Barry shortly afterward: Something had come up. Could Johnson get back to Barry about lunch?
Barry says he is still waiting for the lunch.
Many who know Johnson, a former English professor turned administrator, say they aren't surprised. Johnson, they say, is an intense man with a single-minded goal: to transform what was once a pint-sized commuter school in the Washington suburbs into what he envisions as a state university of national acclaim.
While he has made enormous strides toward his goal, Johnson may yet face a major obstacle. Gov. Charles S. Robb recently told reporters that his view of the school's future may not be as rosy as some of George Mason's supporters. Robb said he would like the school to become a strong, but regional university with a clearly defined--and more limited--mission.
Johnson, known in Richmond as a master of hard-sell and a duke of cunning and selective diplomacy, could be just the man for the challenge. In his four years at the school, he has tapped nearly every outlet of power and influence in the state, cutting a path across the social, political and economic landscape that could serve as road map to power in Northern Virginia.
At the same time his slick and sometimes controversial lobbying on behalf of George Mason has led him deep into the political trenches, headlong into the fold of area businesses and sometimes straight into the scorn of his own university faculty and students.
But even his sharpest critics concede that Johnson has made things happen at what some students boastfully call "the other George university" in the Washington area.
"I don't believe there is any college president I've known who has accomplished so much in such an organized way in such a short period of time," says Adelard L. Brault, a state senator from Fairfax for 17 years and dean of the Northern Virginia legislative delegation.
Since Johnson took office July 1, 1978, student enrollment has risen by 19 percent to the 9,875 fulltime students expected this fall. That compares with minute increases at two of the state's larger schools, the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. George Mason's overall budget has increased a whopping 143 percent, twice as much as any other state-supported college.
Eleven new buildings have cropped up on the school's wooded campus on the southern edge of Fairfax City. And at least two more--a $16.8 million, 10,000-seat arena and a $21 million humanities center--are on the drawing boards with funding approved.
Some faculty members and students dispute claims that the growth is Johnson's handiwork. They say that George Mason is a product of its environment--the fastest-growing region of Virginia--and would have blossomed regardless of its caretaker.
Johnson agrees. "I used to say that given the circumstances you find in Northern Virginia, an idiot could have become president and things would have happened," he says. "Then I noticed there were too many people solemly nodding."
Even so, few dispute that Johnson has been the catalyst behind the university's growth in a period when most of Virginia's state-supported schools have been forced make severe budget cuts and reduce their programs.
His winning tactics have been to present Northern Virginia legislators--the biggest regional voting block in the assembly--with a no-lose issue, seeking increased funding for his school. It has been a cause that has united the delegation like no issue except the legislators' never-ending quest for Metro transit funds. Grouses Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton in astonishment: "Up there it's God, motherhood and George Mason."
Coming to George Mason after a decade in Philadelphia as dean of arts and sciences at Temple University, Johnson wasted no time cutting his teeth in Virginia politics. Even before his inaugration he went to Brault, seeking advice and the names of those whom he should meet. Johnson took the advice and made a whirlwind tour of the state to meet each person.
"He's a hell of a salesman," Barry says. "Most other university presidents are uncomfortable" with their legislative roles. "He's not. George seems to enjoy it."
Johnson made two to three trips a month to Richmond last year, according to his staff. Martha Turnage, his vice president for legislative affairs, is considered by some area legislators as one of Richmond's most visible lobbyists and certainly the most persistent among state-supported schools.
Persistence and presence are two of Johnson's trademarks. "I am very direct, sometimes to a fault," Johnson says. "There are time when I would be a little more tactful."
Says Barry: "There were times when I felt that George Jonson was not just stepping on my toes, but climbing right up my back."
At 6 feet 5 and of considerable bulk, 55-year-old Johnson is not a man easily missed. He can deliver a polished 20-minute speech off of the top of his head. And he is always, according to Barry, "inpeccably well-prepared."
"The guy's all over the place. He talks about George Mason to practically anyone who will listen," says Earle C. Williams, president of BDM International Corp. of McLean and chairman of advisory board to the George Mason Institute, the school's newly-formed liaison to the business community.
Johnson has found a particularly attentive ear in the Northern Virginia business community with his promises to support high-tech businesses and train the workers those companies will need if they locate in the region. In return he is hoping that the business community, a growing political force in Fairfax, will support his effort to win the $50 million high-tech center that Robb has indicated he wants in Northern Virginia.
When Johnson wanted support from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, Johnson just didn't go to the chamber and give a speech, he became an integral part of the organization, serving first as its secretary and then as a director.
"Everyone is in the same boat trying to get to the same place, so we might as well row together," says Suzanne Paciulli, the chamber's president.
More than a few people on campus were surprised recently, when Johnson and John T. (Til) Hazel, former George Mason rector and prominent Northern Virginia developer, filed with the county to develop townhouses not far from the university.
"Oh, is Til Hazel a partner in that?" said Johnson when asked about his role in the project. Hazel and five members of his family are listed as partners along with Johnson and others.
"It doesn't make any difference," said Johnson, who earns $73,000 a year. "There's no conflict. It's an investment."
Hazel and the George Mason University Foundation Inc., which he heads, have helped the school's growth, first by acquiring the Arlington site for what has become the university's law school, a fiercely-debated issue in Richmond on which Johnson ultimately emerged victorious despite the opposition of the state's powerful bar associations. In late June, the foundation, a nonprofit, fund-raising arm of the school, helped with another controversial purchase--that of a Fairfax estate valued at $1 million as a new residence for Johnson. The foundation was able to acquire the house and its surrounding 10 acres for $500,000, a price that university spokesmen call a bargain.
Some professors joke that Johnson had worn out his old, smaller house on the campus with his frequent entertaining.
People living near the university are upset with the school because of the large sports arena the legislature approved two years ago. Fairfax Supervisor Audrey Moore, who represents the area, says the residents believe that Johnson won approval for the facility without taking into account its impact on area's already crowded streets.
"What I've been doing for my constituents," Moore says, "is trying to work around the man."
Johnson's campus critics say they are troubled by Johnson's style and what they believe he has forfeited to gain growth. Says student John Harchek: "I think President Johnson has numerous priorities, and students aren't one of them."
"Some people might like his Machiavellian style of management," says Constance Bedell of Fairfax, a member of the school's board of visitors. "But I prefer a more humane touch."
Some professors, who decline to be named, saying they fear for their jobs, complain of crowded classrooms, an erosion of faculty members' influence over university policies, a departure from liberal arts in favor of high tech and what they call Johnson's increasing inaccessibility. "Morale," says a former vice president, "is pitifully low."
"As the place gets bigger and more complex," says Johnson. "it demands more of everybody involved. That creates a certain amount of anxiety among people who wonder whether they can keep up. Not everyone can.
"I say morale is just fine. But that doesn't mean there aren't some people who are demoralized by what's happening," he says. "Every process of change is a threat to someone. The beauty of an academic setting is that it has a long tradition for dealing with difference of opinion. It's not healthy without a difference of opinion."
Johnson's style of management "is clearly disruptive sometimes and sometimes upsetting but it does get everyone concerned with the big picture," says Joan Fisher, who recently tendered her resignation as vice president for development. She says that responsibility at the school "is not always clear."
Johnson's approach, she says, has "everyone from the president's wife to the vice presidents doing things that would normally not be expected of them." Fisher says she once had to pick up liquor for a university function and her secretary once had to vacuum an entire auditorium.
"He is not an administrator," says Ned Story, president-elect of the alumni association and a Johnson critic. "He is an idea man embattled by the complex bureaucracy of a young university."
"A university president has no natural constituency," says Randall Church, a Washington lawyer and a member of the board of visitors. Johnson's job, agrees Fisher, "is one of the most thankless jobs in society."
Johnson, who wrote his PhD dissertation on the realism and romance in the novels of Frank Norris, is philosophical when asked about his accomplishments at the school. "My usual line," he says, "is 'Always take credit for the sunshine because you're going to catch hell when it rains.' "