While Northern Virginia's arts lovers ready their finery for Saturday night's gala opening of the George Mason University Center for the Arts, many on campus are ambivalent about such a facility at a time when the university is facing deep funding cuts.

Some of the school's faculty and 20,000 students echo GMU President George W. Johnson's enthusiasm for the $12 million concert hall, hoping it will add a touch of culture to the young, state-supported commuter campus south of Fairfax City.

Others, however, bristle at the sight of the majestic hall and nearby man-made pond at a time when GMU faces hiring freezes, canceled courses and extinguished parking lot lights.

In response to Virginia's fiscal crisis, GMU, like the state's other 14 public universities, is slashing $8.3 million, or 11 percent, from its operating budget, in part by canceling faculty pay raises, trimming funds for books, equipment and maintenance and eliminating 115 positions.

In addition, university officials this week began turning off lights in outlying parking lots between 12:30 and 6 a.m. to save $25,000. While university police will provide escorts, some students believe the university has issued an open invitation to crime.

"Something isn't right," said Colin Bucknor, a 28-year-old senior from Burke majoring in international studies, who is frustrated that some of the courses he wanted to take have been canceled in the budget crunch. "The priorities are in the wrong place."

"I understand George Johnson's trying to put us on the map, but there are other ways to do it," said Scott Grummon, 26, who is pursuing a master's degree in conflict management.

Arts center skeptics often point to a group of freshmen forced to sleep in study lounges this fall because dormitory construction is behind schedule. While their plight is unrelated to the arts center, some link the two as symbolic of university priorities.

"There's 175 kids that walk around with no place to sleep . . . and we're putting all this money into the arts center," said Mary Kruck, 31, of Springfield, who is pursuing a master's degree in English and teaching undergraduate composition. "They're going, 'Why do we need a pond when we don't have a place to live?' "

Other students, though, are excited by the opportunities, especially because 500 seats at every performance will be reserved free for them.

"I'd be willing to sit through an opera to see if I like it for free," said senior Maureen Reilly, 21, of Arlington. "I'm not sure I would go if I had to pay to find out I didn't like it."

Elizabeth "Pichi" McClure, 24, who lives in Alexandria, transferred after studying drama at Catholic University, and sees it adding a new dimension to George Mason. "There's not a real flavor of culture at this school," she said.

That's exactly what Johnson hoped to correct when he and supporters in the business community set out to build the new center, funded by university money and a state bond. In addition to the new 2,000-seat concert hall, the $32 million, three-building complex includes classrooms, offices, studios, gallery space and a smaller theater, which were completed earlier.

Most students interviewed believe the concert hall, which came in $2 million over budget, was built more for the community than for them. However, many said they will enjoy the university's heightened prestige and their easy access to performances by artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Itzhak Perlman, Count Basie and Roberta Flack.

Amid all the belt-tightening tension, the festive mood surrounding the opening of the arts center rankles some students. The pond, in particular, which cost thousands to construct, has become a widely ridiculed sore point, even though university officials said it is necessary to handle runoff from new parking lots.

"They could've got students to go out there and we could've dug it cheaper," said Josh Langford, 20, a junior from New Jersey.

Many believe that, had the timing been different, the reception for the center would have been warmer.

"If it had been last year," said Kruck, "everybody would've been {saying} 'Hip, hip, hooray!' "