As we have for the past 12 years, my wife, Sally, and I had the opportunity to be in the City of Fairfax’s Fourth of July Parade. While I was sitting in the viewing stand, it occurred to me that I really love this country and I love it more when we are reaching out to others. I love to tell the American story, but I believe it is important to listen and talk, not just talk.
This summer, I had the chance to listen and talk on a 21-day trip that began in Munich, Germany, at a conference sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation and the Max Planck Institute and ended at a graduation ceremony in Kunming, China (see photo on page 7), with stops in Syria and the United Arab Emirates in between. It was a tiring, event-filled, but very satisfying three weeks.
All the activities were important to me personally, to the university, and maybe a little beyond. I felt like an ambassador in various fashions: American ideals, the American university, and the American university president. I was tired when it was over because there was no weekend; we did something every single day. When you are in Europe, the Middle East, and China, you are there because people want to learn from you, so you better get up and be willing and eager to talk with them.
They wanted to talk about Mason. The Mason culture of making things happen is a recognized trait of the university. People didn’t just want to know what we do, but how we do it. How has Mason succeeded in so many ways in such a short time, and how can they benefit from it? What can they learn from us?
I let them know that there are four things we do differently:
We are risk takers, and we are very entrepreneurial. Sometimes we start something, and we don’t know exactly what we’ll accomplish in the end.
We take advantage of where we are. In our case, Arlington, Prince William, Fairfax, and Ras Al Khaimah. We are in a neighborhood. Let’s contribute to that neighborhood, and let’s draw from it.
We focus. While we are entrepreneurial, we build on what we’ve got—our strengths, the strengths of our faculty.
We aren’t afraid to market ourselves and tell our story. That’s what I had been doing for 21 days.
There is a phrase that we use a lot in higher education, business, and government: think globally, act locally. What I realized somewhere along this trip was that you also have to think globally and act globally, and think locally and act locally.
Mason’s success from early on was because we thought locally and acted locally. We were involved in the community around us—the arts, the business community, and the technology community. By the nature of our faculty and programs and targets of opportunity, we have become global. But we don’t just think it, we do it.
As a result of this trip, I feel more obliged to tell our story than ever before. This obligation is going to influence where I speak and for whom I write. I also want to have more Mason events where we talk about the university’s connections to the rest of the world. We have all these international connections, international students, first-generation Americans. We need to share these experiences and perspectives more often and in more depth.
Alan G. Merten
President, George Mason University