About 13 years ago, I was getting ready to give a talk on activities at Mason. I was meeting with then-vice president of university relations Helen Ackerman, MA English ’86, and we were talking about what universities do. What we came up with was the old faithful, that is, teaching, research, and service, and we both said it at the same time: “Gosh, that’s worn out.” But if it is worn out, then what is the business of the university? In particular, what is the purpose of Mason? So we took each of the three by itself.
Teaching. The truth is we are not in the teaching business; we are in the learning business. And learning should occur in traditional and nontraditional ways—not just for our students, but for anyone who touches the university. Part of the learning is, of course, going to be a direct result of teaching, but this learning also applies to clubs, organizations, and even Concert Hall events. By the nature of our students’ ages and our geography, our students probably learn as much from each other as they do in the classroom.
Research. Instead of just research, we decided that research in partnership is what distinguishes Mason. Yes, we have outstanding faculty who work by themselves, but in my view, many of our successes have come from faculty working in teams with others from inside and outside the university. I am thinking of our defense contractors, NASA, the Smithsonian Institution, and Inova Health System, among many others.
Service. Now this category really sounded bland, so we decided to replace it with “community driven.” Now, the first time I used the PowerPoint presentation to discuss this new view of our mission, there was a typo: the slide said “community driver.” This slip was brilliant—we are community driven and a community driver. Whoever was behind that keystroke gave us something we almost missed ourselves. We are driven by the community we are in, and we drive the community.
Because of our youth, the silos and the walls that normally exist between the different disciplines and the different aspects of the university are significantly fewer at Mason. For a long time, we didn’t have the track record or the resources, so if we really wanted to do something, we had to do it with somebody else. As a result, a porous membrane exists between Mason units and between the outside world and us.
The new Engineering Building is a good example of this synergy. A wing of the building is corporate lease space. There will be people walking its hallways who are not Mason employees, people with whom our faculty and students will work. Many universities build science and engineering buildings and research parks. What we did here was build an engineering building with a research park.
Over the next year, we are opening a number of like facilities. We are opening atriums for receptions and conferences. Now we have people talking about innovative uses of our facilities that go way beyond where we have been before. Sometimes I don’t know where the university ends and the outside begins. But I do know a lot of university presidents who would trade places with me in a heartbeat.
Alan G. Merten
President, George Mason University