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George Mason--Wasn't He President or Something?

This is it--it may not be fair and in fact it may be downright anti-intellectual, but this weekend is George Mason University's big shot to show the world and especially Virginia that it is a serious institution of higher learning, worthy of every bit as much state support as the legendary University of Virginia receives and every bit as much respect as the nation's top state universities.

Mason President Alan Merten has been his school's great evangelist and salesman for years, and he's had all manner of evidence to make his case: Nobel laureates, an extraordinary faculty lured here from the best colleges in the land, status as Virginia's largest university (sorry, Charlottesville), and a building boom that helped turn Mason from a commuter school into an interesting blend of residential and commuter education.

But let's be real. As George Washington University President Stephen Trachtenberg has long argued, you can make all the big strides you want to in academics, and many of your customers will appreciate that, but if you're looking to bump your institution up in class, it helps big time to have a major team make the national scene. (This is the argument that college presidents make when they are confronted with the embarrassing truth about the huge resources pumped into sports and the ethical corner-cutting entailed in that endeavor.)

This week, the national press has descended on Mason's Fairfax campus as if the place was born whole out of Jim Larranaga's gym. So we had the L.A. Times doing the good old reporter trick of going on campus to ask GMU students just who George Mason was, and of course some kids hadn't a clue. Figured he was one of those minor presidents, like Frankie Pierce or Benjie Harrison. And then the Wichita Eagle came along with the fun ritual piece about how George Mason was no Thomas Jefferson or George Washington or even James Madison.

In fact, Mason evolved from UVa, which launched GMU as its northern Virginia branch back in 1957. Mason became a state institution in its own right in 1972 and has fought ever since to be taken seriously. This is not just a matter of local pride. It's a fundamental question of funding, and if you hang out in Richmond at the state legislature, you quickly realize that there are powerful cliques among the lawmakers who went to UVa and those who graduated from Virginia Tech and those who call William & Mary their alma mater. But there's not nearly that large or vocal a contingent from Mason, mostly because of its youth as a college. Result: President Merten has to cajole and squawk a whole lot louder than his colleagues from other colleges to get anywhere near the same resources.

Why should any prospective student, parent, taxpayer or state legislator give a hoot how well the Patriots do on Sunday against the presumptive #1 team in the nation? Why would anyone choose to go to Mason or to give it money just because a handful of splendid athletes put on a terrific show for a few days in March?

Well, of course they shouldn't. The old line about how bigtime sports bring in big money to colleges was definitively proven to be a whole load of hokum in William Bowen's "Game of Life."

But of course making it to the Elite Eight excites the nation and the alumni and the students and even the oh-so-jaded faculty, who ordinarily sneer at their institutions' participation in something as tawdry as big-time college sports.

Mason's student newspaper, the Broadside, is unapologetically and unquestioningly gung-ho for the Patriots, and in the moment, I suppose that's fine. But you'd think a school like Mason, which has had to fight so hard to win a little respect, would want to make the point that hey, sports is cool and it's grand that everyone gets juiced about the big game, but what we're really all about is those Nobel-winning economists and the great programs in biodefense and info technology and the 30,000 students who are the most diverse gathering of collegians of any institution in the nation (you can look it up.). Ah, well, let's shoot some hoops. Go Pats.

By Marc Fisher |  March 25, 2006; 6:56 PM ET
Previous: Plagiarists I Have Known | Next: Mason. Indy. Whudathunkit?


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Gosh, Marc, shouldn't we have gotten a "Glad to be back. I missed you" and a "Wasn't John Kelly great?" before we started in on the absurdities of life? Not that I don't appreciate your talent for pointing out the absurdities of life, but, still, it's the weekend and everything. It'd be OK to take a lighter approach for a day or so.

Posted by: THS | March 25, 2006 8:19 PM

Absolutely. I'm saving the big ceremony honoring the great Mr. Kelly for Monday morning, when the rest of our crowd returns. For now, it's just the devoted few who are checking in on the weekend...

Posted by: Fisher | March 25, 2006 8:48 PM

As a Wahoo it pains me to say this, but I believe that both Virginia Tech and VCU -- along with GMU -- are larger than The University (and have been for many years).

Posted by: Cavalier | March 25, 2006 11:11 PM

As a Northern Virginia native, and proud Mason Grad, I just love that a little game with an orange ball will finally make people notice the amazing college i went to. Finally, people will stop saying, "Mason? I've never heard of that one." Now they will finally say, "Mason? Nice school!"

Posted by: ea | March 25, 2006 11:14 PM

Good basketball team equals good school, never heard that one before. I guess this means some of the best high schools in the nation are in the inner city because thats where all the good basketball teams are?

Posted by: DC | March 26, 2006 2:40 AM

Unfortunately, the culture both in and surrounding GMU will result in its always being regarded as a fallback or the 13th grade. The average GMU student leads a life outside of University--the campus dies at night in the manner of a downtown business district. And apparently the curve-killing continuing Ed students still dominate in many of the optional courses. I was treated like a second-class citizen in my senior year there, having to compete with Sophs to get a seat in critical, core classes I needed to graduate on time, so understand that my viewpoint is colored. I will give GMU not a penny, and will encourage my children to vie for UVA or Tech--"real" schools.

Posted by: GMU Alum | March 26, 2006 5:28 AM

Marc, you should have said "sorry Blacksburg," not "sorry Charlottesville," as Virginia Tech, not UVA (not even by a long shot) WAS the biggest school in Virginia. Shows the dominance of UVA as THE Virginia school in the elitist (yeah I said it) Washington media. More Northern Virginia Students go to Mason, Tech, and maybe even JMU than UVA (unless you went to my High School, TJ, where 28% of our class went to UVA). Anyway, many people running shop down in Blacksburg still haven't realized that they aren't the largest school in the state. It's a general lack of knowledge of anything Northern Virginia that permeates much of the rest of the state, including the legislature. This basketball success can only help change that. Mason is getting more and more students from other parts of Virginia and out of state, and more and more students live on campus. Still a commuter school, but now at least they can build some school pride and maybe oneday lessen the boredom that is Fairfax City at night. As a VT alum, I'll be watching this game with as much angst as Virginia Tech-Miami in Blacksburg, even though the outcome is probably, unfortunately, set in stone.

Posted by: McLeanVTalum | March 26, 2006 9:51 AM

You're calling a school where the average high school GPA of incoming freshmen is now above a 3.6 the "13th grade." Do you know how much this university changes from year to year? I barely even recognize it from my freshman year. The school doesn't shut down at night anymore. 10,000 students either live on campus, or within walking distance to the school. I'm sure it was a lame commuter college when YOU went there, but that says more about you then Mason. Wise up. Time's have changed.

Posted by: "13th Grade" | March 26, 2006 11:45 AM

I'm sorry to hear that gmualum is so bitter. My friends and I figured out how to get ahead of the sophomores for required courses and graduated on time with no trouble at all. And we did it while keeping our jobs and earning respectable GPAs. While there wasn't an active night life on campus, there were a few good parties each year. After graduating, I found that the study habits that had gotten me B's at George Mason earned me B's and A's in grad school at William and Mary and straight A's in doctoral work at Maryland.
I'm a college faculty member, and I think a "real" school, to use gmugrad's language, is one that prepares students for what comes next, whatever it is. GMU has been doing that for years, despite lack of financial support from the legislature.

Posted by: gmugrad73 | March 26, 2006 5:36 PM

Oh, and it has a top-tier law school to boot. George Mason doesn't have to apologize to anyone for its success - as an academic institution or on the basketball court.

Posted by: Anthony | March 26, 2006 6:01 PM

I don't follow basketball at any level, but I think it's great the the school is getting some free pub. Go Pats!

Posted by: GMU Law alum | March 26, 2006 6:29 PM

My heart is still pumping at break neck speed. GMU's win over UConn is probably the greatest shocker in college sports history. What will we call GMU's next win? Greatest shocker part II?

Posted by: Rommey | March 26, 2006 7:11 PM

GMU may not have great architecture, long tradition and national recognition, but it definitely has academic excellence, great faculty members, great graduate programs, and now the GREATEST BASKETBALL TEAM.
I personally chose GMU's School of Public Policy over SAIS (JHU), which was packed with academic arrogance, but little substance.
Proud to be a GMU graduate student. I will always be a loyal alumni.

Posted by: Mikra | March 26, 2006 8:55 PM

Forget basketball; I can't believe that Mason is getting this kind of treatment. This is absolutely a phenomenal and leading research university.

Law School--top 40 in the nation
Public Policy-- top 40
Microbiology-- groundbreaking department
IT--one of the finest in the nation
Political Economy--TOP 8 in the WORLD (

I don't know what more people want from a 34 year old school.

I have no idea why this school doesn't get the recognition it deserves..

Posted by: John | March 26, 2006 9:11 PM

It is very dissapointing to see that only after GMU basketball team won so big, teh school gets the attention that it deserved long ago. I never went to GMU, but I've read and heard great stories from those who did.

Posted by: Gina | March 26, 2006 9:18 PM

Marc - I'm thrilled for GMU, but they will never be the top university in Virginia. That honor has been William & Mary's since 1693!


Steve Walker, W&M Class of 1984

Posted by: Steve Walker | March 26, 2006 9:34 PM

Yes, Mason WAS a commuter school but I challenge any one to go there now and call it that.

Posted by: Brent Parrish | March 26, 2006 10:38 PM

Congratulations to "Gamoo"! They deserve support and none of this BS (pardon the pun) rhetoric about how scholarly the University is(those who have gone there realize how great the education is)...let's just embrace this machine, who upset everyone along the way, INCLUDING UCONN(!!) and ENJOY and SUPPORT GMU!
This University has come such a long way, from Ricky Dillard and Carlos Yates days to the present day, the Patriots have come a hell of a long way, and for them to be here in the Final Four as a Mid-Major...why are we talking about anything more than a beautiful and gracious miracle?!!
Enjoy this week, enjoy the games, and for all of the Cinderalla's and all of the Average Joe's, hook up with this great feeling of the underdog doing the damage and TAKING IT ALL THE WAY!
Go Patriots!

Posted by: Alan Herman | March 26, 2006 10:39 PM

the commuter school thing cracks me up. mason has 4,000 on campus, which is 75% of duke's entire enrollment. at least 4,000 more live just off campus. i lived both on and off when i went there in the 80s. good thing no one told us of our lowly status then or we might not have had so much fun. after 2 years i rushed a 100 man fraternity and moved off campus. there's no greek housing on campus so you have to set foot off campus for that aspect. i served on an active student gov't and worked my way into the business school - you have to apply after your first 2 years. it was great to be part of a crowd of 9,000 at the patriot center for the mason-madison game this year. that was our biggest rivalry in my day. now i can't wait to play hofstra again next year. wait, no, i can't wait to play florida even worse. friday night at the verizon center was like a class reunion. go mason!

Posted by: GMU SigEp | March 26, 2006 10:47 PM

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