Marshal McDermontt Hangs Up
By Diane Britton
On graduation day, when University Marshal Michael J. McDermott Jr. announces, "Commencement exercises for the class of 2000 of George Mason University are now begun," he will be announcing the end of a career marked as much by creativity and enthusiasm as by longevity. For McDermott, who has served in so many capacities at George Mason, is retiring in June after 34 years. Through those years, he has been a key player in shaping the course of the institution and its curriculum.
By Diane Britton
Hired in 1966 as a three-quarter-time lecturer in philosophy for the "princely sum" of $5,800 a year, McDermott had the idea that he would stay only long enough to gain the college teaching experience that would allow him to join the U.S. Foreign Service, as his father had done. But McDermott found that he "got caught up in the place very fast." By his second year at Mason, he was a full-time acting assistant professor, and his salary soared to $8,000. The 196768 academic year also saw the college offering its first four-year degrees--the bachelor of arts in biology, English, history, and business and public administration--and staging its first Commencement. In preparation for that ceremony, the newly appointed marshal, James Jackson, asked McDermott to serve as assistant marshal because his Jesuit training made him "good at ritual things."
Mindful that they all were building traditions for the college, McDermott surveyed the seniors to discover what they wanted in a commencement ceremony. Did they want to wear the traditional regalia, for instance? Contrary to his expectations, the seniors of 1968 not only wanted all the trappings of a traditional ceremony, they even wanted to require that everyone wear black shoes! So much for the image of the nonconformist student of the 1960s.
He later became the head marshal, which demonstrated to the new president, Lorin Thompson, that McDermott had enough administrative skills with students to be George Mason University's first registrar. Thus began a 17-year tenure as the Chief Academic Services Officer, during which he and Robert Krug, then dean of the college and future president of the university, pulled Mason and its academic operations into the computer age.
Even before he became registrar, he had been parliamentarian of the faculty and first president of the American Association of University Professors chapter at George Mason, and had been tapped by Krug to work on the college's first accreditation process when it became a degree-granting institution. He therefore was ideally positioned to help draw up new degree programs and define the general education requirements. He considers his work in "shaping and trying to ensure the validity of our general education program" as his greatest source of satisfaction at Mason.
Throughout all his administrative work, he still taught one course a semester. "The tradition of the University of Virginia that we carried on at George Mason, both as a college and as a university, was that academic administrators continued to teach," he says. "In doing so, it kept me always conscious of why the administrative structure of the university existed, why we had to make the resources available, and why we had to be accountable for the way we spent them, so that the academic life of the university could flourish."
So teach he did. McDermott has taught introductory and junior-level logic courses, as well as early Western Christian thought and political philosophy. "My students have taught me much," he says. "Mostly, they have taught me not to underestimate them, and to focus on the strengths they all have.... The students I am most grateful for are those who caused me the most trouble."
But in the meantime,
the professor has one last task to perform. The man who helped shape the
educational programs of the students will be there to celebrate their
achievements as they graduate. No doubt, the "very well-dressed usher"
carrying the mace will make this last ceremony a fitting cap to his career.