When You Ask a College President What He Really Wants

The Washington Post has an obit today on “Alan G. Merten, president who expanded George Mason University’s reach.” It said, “With an emphasis in information technology, engineering, business administration and public policy, Dr. Merten helped propel George Mason to national prominence.”

It also said, “Faculty member Vernon Smith won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, but the university was never in the spotlight more than when its men’s basketball team reached the Final Four in the 2006 NCAA tournament.”

Not long after Merten was named George Mason’s president in 1996, I invited him to have lunch at The Washingtonian magazine. We liked to bring in outsiders for off-the-record discussions on how they did their jobs and how they saw the nation’s capital changing.

Merten gave us his wisdom on how the Northern Virginia suburbs were changing and what role he saw for George Mason in the future. Toward the end of the lunch, I asked, “What’s the most important thing you hope to accomplish at George Mason?”

His answer: “To not have a football team.”

His philosophy was that a basketball team needs only seven or eight scholarships a year and doesn’t need a large stadium, while football was much more likely to impact a university in a negative way. The same is true of Georgetown University in neighboring DC, which got national prominence with its basketball teams but never wanted the headaches or costs of big-time college football.

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