Nineteen years ago, Michael J. McDermott considered rival offers to teach philosophy: a department chairmanship at an established Catholic women's college and a part-time lecturer's position at a state college only nine years old.
McDermott, 52, took the lectureship and is now the registrar at the same school, Virginia's fastest-growing state-supported institution of higher education -- George Mason University in Fairfax.
From 17 students in a converted elementary school building at Baileys Crossroads 28 years ago, George Mason has ballooned to 17,000 full- and part-time students at the 583-acre campus in Fairfax and a 10-acre law school in Arlington. In the past decade alone, its 15 graduate programs have more than doubled. Enrollment rose 9.9 percent this fall.
A few years ago, at academic conventions, a mention that he worked at George Mason would provoke a "You work where?" McDermott said. "I haven't heard anything like that now for a good three or four years."
President George W. Johnson compares the school to Northern Virginia itself: "We're living in the future here." Northern Virginia is "economically hot right now," he said.
George Mason's rise is a textbook example of how a once-obscure university can push itself toward prominence by finding a need and filling it. It became situated in a fast-growing region that did not have a major state university, and it tailored its economics and engineering programs to the Washington area's booming high-tech industry.
It illustrates the problems that can be created by the swift rise of such an institution -- from severe crowding and concerns about unequal academic quality to low morale among faculty members who fear that liberal arts departments are being slighted in the push to enhance the school's high-technology studies.
George Mason's phenomenal growth has been nurtured by its unique niche in the Washington suburbs. As other universities nationwide face a dwindling population of 18-year-olds, George Mason is blessed by favorable demographics provided by Northern Virginia high school graduates, about 80 percent of whom go on to college, and the university has been successful in attracting older students as well.
Defying trends during an era of tightening budgets, Johnson has been successful at luring faculty stars with high salaries, paid in part by the many high-tech local industries. The school is courting business ties with a foundation funded with corporate donations -- the George Mason Institute of Science and Technology.
The campus has grown from four buildings to 53 since it opened in 1964, including the 10,000-seat Patriot Center athletic and entertainment arena, and university officials expect that 1 million square feet will be added in the next two decades -- without the help of the traditional base of college alumni support.
But such progress exacts a price. Dormitories and some classes are crowded, with students doubling up in dormitory space or living off campus. And 85,000 square feet of classroom and office space -- including McDermott's desk -- is in temporary trailers. Neighbors are upset that the fast growth and the draw of big-name entertainment at the Patriot Center have created traffic havoc on formerly quiet surrounding streets.
While tuition is low -- $1,608 for state residents -- living costs are the highest for any state-supported university: an average $3,854 for a year's room and board because of the Northern Virginia location.
Some faculty members complain that their departments are thrown into the shadows by the university's emphasis on selected bright spots. Anthony F. Palmieri, an associate professor of English at George Mason, said some faculty members resent the $100,000 salaries paid to star professors. Others, he said, are concerned that the emphasis has been on high-tech to the detriment of the liberal arts -- although Johnson promises to change that.
Palmieri said he believes that instead of going for growth, the school should raise entrance standards. Although average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of George Mason freshmen have risen steadily, "the quality of students coming in should be higher."
"Classes are jammed, and they keep raising the number of students who are permitted in classes, especially writing classes," said Palmieri. Freshman composition courses, which used to enroll 25 students, now enroll 28 -- and should have no more than 20, he said.
Johnson acknowledges the crowding and says that, academically, "we have an enormous amount of filling-in to do" in some departments.
At the center of things is Johnson, who when asked to characterize himself, chooses words such as "energetic" and "impatient." Former dean of arts and sciences at Temple University, Johnson is a skilled lobbyist who flies around the state to sweet-talk legislators and corporate donors. When the university threw a party to celebrate the opening of the Patriot Center in October, state legislators were among Johnson's guests.
Not all admire his style, however. A faculty survey last year concluded that morale and Johnson's campus reputation were equally low. The poll gave him high marks for financial management but flunking grades for his relationship with professors. Said Esther Elstun, president of the school's chapter of the American Association of University Professors: "All of us need a certain amount of ego gratification, but our present president seems to need more of it than most individuals do." She said Johnson seems too eager to take credit for growth that began before he arrived in 1978.
Johnson's answer to faculty discontent is: "We have a new generation of faculty coming every year. Time will take care of it."
Johnson's ambitions have been aided by powerful Northern Virginia developer John T. (Til) Hazel, who was the school's second rector and helped George Mason make connections with the local business community. As rector, Hazel persuaded the university to use contributions to buy a house worth $1 million for the school's president, despite some criticism that the purchase was too extravagant.
Another move aided by Hazel was the acquisition of a law school. Twice defeated in Richmond in attempts to add a law school, George Mason finally bought one: In 1978, it purchased the International School of Law, an unaccredited private school in Arlington. Hazel lobbied hard in the General Assembly for approval.
The legislature approved the deal the following year. State Sen. Dudley (Buzz) Emick (D-Botetourt) still criticizes the university for that move, wondering about the need for the law school. Johnson says George Mason was responding to the wishes of local lawyers.
Officials at other state-funded universities, reluctant to criticize Johnson or George Mason in public, privately say they are envious of the enormous legislative support the school has received at a time when other, state-supported schools are worried about budget cutbacks.
The evolution of George Mason from a tiny commuter school to full-fledged university is echoed in its architecture. The four original buildings, modeled after those at George Mason's former parent, the University of Virginia, are in the elegant style and the same square "Jefferson brick" used in Charlottesville. Later structures employ regular rectangular brick and look like those at any other institution. One edge of campus is quiet and thick with trees, another is bustling and jammed with parked cars. Construction trailers alongside mounds of dirt pop up disconcertingly between finished buildings.
George Mason undergraduates are for the most part still commuters -- only 1,450 live on campus -- and all but 12 percent are from Virginia. The school's commuter population makes for sparse campus life, and the current students are so serious that the student union study lounge hours are being extended. The average age of undergraduates is 26.
Johnson calls George much corruption, he said. He is emphasizing basketball instead.
Barry Dorsey of the state council, which must approve the university's programs, said George Mason has "developed into a very fine institution." Now, he said, it "has to make some hard decisions about its growth."