The Mason Spirit

Sometimes It Hurts to Be Right

By Daniel Walsch

A recent study by the Virginia General Assembly corroborated George Mason University's long-standing claim that it is seriously underfunded by the state. The study, conducted by the General Assembly's joint Subcommittee on Higher Education Funding Policy, found that adequate funding of the university's operating budget would require an additional $20 million per year.

In percentage terms, according to the report, the $20 million means that George Mason's budget is approximately 11 percent below what it described as an "adequate threshold."

At the time of the report's release in December 2000, George Mason's funding level was $184.4 million. Ideally, its operating budget should have been $204.5 million. Only one other Virginia institution, James Madison University, suffered a greater "range of variance"--nearly $25 million--at the time, according to the report. Collectively, Virginia's public colleges and universities are underfunded by approximately $200 million.

The subcommittee's report, which was two years in the making, was designed to help elected officials better determine the level of funding each institution of higher learning needs to deliver its academic programs. The report also was designed to generate greater awareness among elected officials of where the colleges and universities were at that moment, more substantive discussion among state government officials on the challenges facing these institutions, and, ultimately, possible action on their part to address the needs of George Mason and Virginia's other four- and two-year colleges and universities. Unfortunately, the report's findings were soon overshadowed in Richmond by the unprecedented budget impasse.

The failure to reach an agreement or compromise resulted in a budget for the 2001-02 fiscal year that failed to address the demonstrated operating needs for higher education. In addition, for George Mason, the impasse brought plans for a $40 million academic building in Arlington and a $20 million academic building in Prince William to a screeching halt. At an August 21 press conference, Gov. James Gilmore released funds to pay for George Mason's $15 million building, which will be located at the Fairfax Campus.

In addition, for all of Virginia's colleges and universities, faculty and staff will not receive salary raises for the 2001-02 fiscal year.

On the heels of the budget impasse, the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) released a report projecting systemwide enrollment growth over the next decade of more than 38,000 students. George Mason is one of three institutions most likely to handle or enroll this significant influx of students, SCHEV reported.

Despite the recent setbacks, President Merten views the 2001-02 year as one of "challenges and opportunities." Continuing to recruit top-quality leaders and build high-level faculty; expanding faculty research support, particularly in such areas as information systems security, intelligent transportation, and cognitive sciences; and proceeding with additional partnership initiatives throughout Northern Virginia will be among the university's top goals for this academic year, he says.

"With each setback, there is opportunity. With each disappointment, there is challenge. With each roadblock, there is another call to arms that enables us to forge stronger alliances and more lasting commitments from supporters and people and entities that share our vision," he says.