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.
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