Dr. Merten, whose background was in computer science and business administration, became president of George Mason in 1996, when the university was less than 40 years old. He built on the progress of his immediate predecessor, George W. Johnson, who led GMU’s transformation from a suburban commuter school to a full-fledged university with ambitions of greatness.
When he took over the presidency, Dr. Merten said it “was like this small entrepreneurial company that now had to become better organized.”
With an emphasis in information technology, engineering, business administration and public policy, Dr. Merten helped propel George Mason to national prominence and higher rankings in annual ratings by U.S. News & World Report and other services.
Dr. Merten reorganized some departments and colleges, drawing pushback from faculty and students, who sometimes complained that he emphasized science and technology over the liberal arts and that he acceded too readily to a powerful and politically conservative board of visitors.
Over the years, as the university became more selective in its admissions, enrollment continued to climb at GMU’s three Northern Virginia campuses, from 24,000 in 1996 to more than 33,000 when Dr. Merten retired in 2012. (GMU currently has about 37,000 students, giving it the largest on-campus enrollment of any four-year university in Virginia.)
The number of faculty and staff members increased from 4,400 to 9,600. Thousands of dormitory rooms were added, creating more of the feel of a traditional residential campus. Despite ever-shrinking allocations from the state, Dr. Merten quadrupled the university’s annual budget from $220 million in 1996 to $880 million when he left.
During his tenure, more than 20 major buildings went up on George Mason’s campuses, including a performing arts center in Manassas and showcase structures in Arlington and on the main Fairfax County campus.
Research grants rose from $28 million to more than $100 million under Dr. Merten’s watch, and the number of degree-granting programs doubled to almost 200.
“The George Mason story is a story of making things happen faster than universities normally do things,” Dr. Merten told The Washington Post in 2011. “We have an approach that says, ‘Do something in a hurry and then correct it, because it’s never going to be perfect.’ ”
Faculty member Vernon Smith won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, but the university was never in the spotlight more than when its men’s basketball team reached the Final Four in the 2006 NCAA tournament.
During the Patriots’ Cinderella run, many sports fans and basketball announcers learned about George Mason for the first time. According to then-Coach Jim Larranaga, Dr. Merten had planned for the team’s success for a decade.
“The first time we met, when I was interviewing for the men’s basketball coaching job in 1997,” Larranaga said in an interview, “he said something to me that made a lasting impression. He said, ‘The men’s basketball team is the marketing arm of the university. I’m trying to make it the best and biggest university in the state, and I need you to build a winner.’ He told me about his vision for the university and how the basketball program could be a big part of that.”
As underdog George Mason defeated Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State, enthusiasm grew on the campus. Dr. Merten, who became close friends with Larranaga, organized campus celebrations that grew more spirited with each victory. After George Mason reached the Final Four, the team was greeted on campus by thousands of students and a fireworks display.
“I said, ‘Did you orchestrate the fireworks?’ ” recalled Larranaga, now the head coach at the University of Miami. “ ‘You didn’t know until a couple of hours ago that we were even going to win.’ He said: ‘I ordered them a week ago. We were going to have them anyway, win or lose.’
“When you have a president who shows that much foresight and leadership skills, they are one of a kind. And it wasn’t just basketball. He had total focus on what the future of what George Mason University was going to be.”
In the tournament, George Mason lost to eventual national champion Florida, but the publicity led to a 25 percent increase in enrollment applications and an uptick in alumni donations.
“We used the athletic megaphone to tell the George Mason story every day for a month,” Dr. Merten later told The Post.
Alan Gilbert Merten was born Dec. 27, 1941, in Milwaukee. His father repaired shoes, and his mother was a homemaker.
The first member of his family to attend college, Dr. Merten graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1963 and received a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford University a year later.
He then served in the Air Force, including stints at the Pentagon and as a social aide at the White House during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He received a doctorate in computer science from the University of Wisconsin in 1970.
He was a professor and administrator at the University of Michigan from 1970 to 1986, and then he spent three years at the University of Florida before becoming dean at Cornell University’s school of management in 1989.
At George Mason, Dr. Merten faced criticism in 2004 for rescinding a speaking invitation to provocative filmmaker Michael Moore after objections from some members of the Virginia legislature. Still, Dr. Merten was generally well liked on the GMU campus, where he ate with students in the dining hall and attended concerts, dance recitals and sporting events.
A university building was renamed in his honor in 2014. He and his wife, a retired nurse, endowed four scholarships at GMU and settled in Florida.
Survivors include his wife of 53 years, the former Sally Otto, of Bonita Springs, Fla.; two children, Eric Merten of Sterling, Va., and Melissa Belleville of Rye, N.Y.; a sister; a brother; and four grandsons.
When the George Mason Patriots were making their unlikely run in the 2006 NCAA tournament, Larranaga said, Dr. Merten was at almost every game. After George Mason upset Connecticut in overtime, 86-84, to win a berth in the Final Four, Larranaga invited Dr. Merten to join the team on the court in the postgame celebration.
“He was up there on the ladder,” Larranaga said, “with the scissors, getting a piece of the net.”
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