Negotiating from Strength: George Mason Supporters Herald New Leader Pledged to Excellence, Efficiency

By Bowman, Rex | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Negotiating from Strength: George Mason Supporters Herald New Leader Pledged to Excellence, Efficiency


Bowman, Rex, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The next time George Mason University officials travel to Richmond to ask state leaders for money, the school will receive it not because officials begged but because the school deserves it, says Constance Bedell, a member of GMU's board of visitors.

"The days of whining for money are over," says Miss Bedell, a board appointee of Gov. George Allen's.

Other board members agree. After nearly a year of rancorous debate over its future and direction, board members have at last united, bound together by the belief that the 24,000-student school's glory days are ahead, and that they have hired the right person to lead GMU to that glory: Alan G. Merten.

Though great expectations accompany Mr. Merten's arrival at GMU - his first day as president is today - his plan is simple. The former dean of Cornell University's Graduate School of Management intends to make GMU an institution so well respected that its alumni, giant businesses and the state will gladly give it money.

"To get more public money, you've got to show the state you're already using what you have efficiently," Mr. Merten says. "The state needs to know you're trying to get more private money, and private donors need to know you're trying to get more public money."

Mr. Merten, 54, arrives following a rocky year for GMU. Critics, including board members , challenged the university's involvement with local business powerhouses in trying to win more political influence in Richmond. Outgoing president George Johnson, who spent 17 years as GMU's top executive, was caught on tape at meetings of the Northern Virginia Business Roundtable, plotting to bring more state dollars to the area to pay for roads and public schools.

Critics charged the school with abandoning education for politics. Meanwhile, GMU students complained that an effort to restructure the business college created crowded classrooms.

Even the search for Mr. Johnson's replacement became a cause for contention as some board members pushed to give the job to former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles.

But overshadowing those problems Over its 25-year history, GMU has created academic divisions to serve high-tech businesses and government in the area, and to lure students who seek employment in those two fields. GMU houses the institutes of computational sciences and informatics, conflict analysis and resolution, and graduate and professional business studies, as well as the schools of business administration, information technology and engineering, law, and public policy.

These academic subjects are seemingly perfect, yet critics charge that GMU has not pursued "academic excellence" and that too many inferior students are admitted while too few students actually graduate.

"The reason I voted for Alan Merten is that he talked about academic excellence," says Miss Bedell. "He says no university becomes great because of the amount of public money it receives. They're great because of their reputation for academic excellence and the support of their alumni. When he said that I said, `Bingo! This is the man for me.'"

Board members who had been at odds unified and embraced Mr. Merten.

Board member James Hazel, also an Allen appointee, says "Everybody said, `We want Dr. Alan Merten.' It's very clearly a new era, and he's going to put his mark on it."

A trim gray-haired man who walks five miles a day when he's on vacation and works out on an exercise machine five days a week when he's not, Mr. Merten is friendly but not funny, given to reading World War II-era history books, fond of traveling the globe, and insistent that those around him provide endless data but not mindless details.

"People have told me that when someone comes into my office and starts getting lost in giving me details, I stand up," he says. "I hadn't noticed it, but it's true. …

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