George Mason University's governing board voted yesterday to strip a four-year-old school within GMU of its autonomy, concluding that its curriculum was not rigorous enough and overruling a faculty panel that had said the school should remain independent for at least five more years.
By a vote of 14 to 2, the Board of Visitors decided to fold New Century College into GMU's College of Arts and Sciences. New Century will retain its name and faculty but will no longer have its own budget. Students and professors who spoke in support of the school before the vote said the board's action effectively kills the program.
The future of New Century has been a divisive issue on the GMU campus in Fairfax County for several weeks. Students in the school take courses from teams of teachers across several disciplines and can design their own degree programs.
New Century's critics, including GMU trustees and some professors, said the program was not holding students to a high enough standard. They complained, for example, that papers written by New Century students showed they had poor writing skills and failed to grasp obvious arguments.
Other faculty members, as well as some Fairfax County business leaders, praised New Century as a visionary curriculum. Some of the school's supporters also maintained that prominent conservatives on the GMU board wanted to kill the program because they saw it as having leftist leanings. Board members denied that allegation, but the debate before yesterday's vote at times had strong political overtones.
Walter E. Williams, chairman of GMU's Economics Department, told the trustees that New Century has given up on "fundamental academic discipline" in favor of the "ideological fashion of the day with programs like peace studies, feminist studies and ethnic studies." He said the program is an example of the "increasing academic decline and dishonesty" plaguing American higher education.
John O'Connor, the dean of New Century, conceded that the program is not perfect. But he said no evidence was presented to show that its students are any less prepared than those in other GMU schools. He noted that several of his students have won prestigious academic awards and gone on to highly regarded jobs and graduate programs.
A faculty panel headed by Gary R. Galluzzo, dean of GMU's Graduate School of Education, had recommended that New Century's status remain unchanged for at least five years. But a committee of the Board of Visitors voted last month to abolish the school as a separate entity, setting the stage for yesterday's vote by the full board.
A majority of the trustees said folding New Century into the College of Arts and Sciences will allow the program's best features to survive while addressing its weaknesses. Arts and Sciences Dean Daniele C. Struppa said he is committed to ensuring that New Century retain its identity.
Trustees William Kristol and James Hazel voted against the change, saying New Century should be given another year or two to prove itself. "The main purpose in a job like this is to do no harm, and I'm not convinced that in doing away with New Century College that we have not done harm to a worthwhile program," said Kristol, who is editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard.
The GMU board includes several well-known conservatives appointed by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) or former Republican governor George Allen. In addition to Kristol, they include former U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese, former Reagan budget director James C. Miller III and Edwin J. Feulner Jr., president of the Heritage Foundation.
Several GMU professors have complained that the New Century issue is part of a pattern in which GMU trustees are making academic decisions that should be left to the faculty.
Earle C. Williams, a retired Fairfax business executive who has a long history of involvement with GMU, including stints on its foundation board and business advisory council, said New Century was a model that could have made GMU a standout among the state's universities. He said the board's action reflects a lack of vision for the university's future.
"There was a time I thought GMU had the potential for being a beacon, something different -- leading the charge into the 21st Century," Williams said. "It seems not what the trustees have in mind."