George Mason University facilities

Graphic shows Virginia localities sending students to George Mason University. The darker the shade, the more students. (George Mason University)

George Mason University’s effort to guide long-term planning so its future facilities align with the needs of its academic programs now has a number of concrete proposals on the table.

Whether any of them will remain recognizable by the time the planning process is complete remains an open question.

“You really shouldn’t take anything we see today as the final word – we’re not yet at the stage where we want to pick the answer,” said Gregory Janks, a consultant engaged by Mason to convene the master-planning process for facilities that kicked off at the start of 2020 and is expected to run through late 2021.

Janks was speaking at a Dec. 8 online community session, the fourth in recent months focused on information sharing and gathering responses.

“We’re anxious to hear feedback,” said Carol Kissal, senior vice president for finance and administration at the university.

But before heading into what proved to be a spirited Q&A session, Janks laid out three proposals for shifting programs (along with students and faculty) among George Mason’s Fairfax and Arlington campuses and its “SciTech” campus in Prince William County.

In brief:

• Scenario 1 would move engineering and health-sciences programming primarily to the SciTech campus, ballooning its student body more than six-fold (from 990 current full-time-equivalent slots to more than 6,365). The Fairfax campus, by far the university’s largest, would decline slightly in student population.

• Scenario 2 would consolidate engineering and graduate-level business-administration programs at the Arlington campus, which would bring that campus from a current 1,275 full-time-equivalent student body to about 11,000 while doubling students at the SciTech campus. The Fairfax campus would remain at roughly its current population.

• Scenario 3 would focus on rejuvenating the Fairfax campus, particularly for undergraduate instruction, while moving research facilities (and a proposed but not yet approved medical school) to Prince William and pushing some additional graduate programs to Arlington.

Middle children may often be the forgotten ones in families, but the second of the three options proposed by Janks clearly was the eye-opener, as it would see the largely landlocked Arlington campus explode in student population.

Janks acknowledged it was a “bold, big idea” – not to mention a pricey one – that would allow the university to “plant the flag and say ‘Arlington belongs to Mason.’”

“It’s not going to be cheap,” he said of that option. “This is going to be far and away the most expensive scenario to explore.”

The current stage of the planning process will run another month or two. By January or February, the consultants aim to have a handful of more developed scenarios for final consideration, aiming to have the university settle on an overall strategic direction in the spring.

Acknowledging that there are some “crazy ideas” embedded in the existing proposals, Janks said the desire is to leave no stone unturned before moving forward with a final recommendation.

“Where we end up will probably be a hybrid across scenarios,” he said. “We’re not trying to do anything that will make people’s lives miserable. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.”

The proposals drew discussion and, in some cases, dissent from the roughly 250 people participating in the online forum. At least one thought the fix was in: “It feels as those these scenarios . . . are driven by the administration,” the respondent posted anonymously in a feedback section.

Others had specific questions on issues ranging from sports to student life to transportation.

Andrew Ramsay, who participated in the forum, urged university officials to “avoid too much fragmentation” among campuses. He urged officials to zero in on the largely underutilized SciTech campus and provide it with a major identity (such as medical programs) in order to develop “a center of gravity” to build on.

The master-planning efforts come as Mason has emerged from a decade of healthy student-body growth, a rate that is likely to slow in coming years. The impact of the COVID pandemic, which has forced many students to get their educations from behind a computer screen at home, also holds long-term implications that are not fully fleshed out.

Though the largest public four-year institution of higher education in the commonwealth George Mason is heavily dependent on a catchment area of 18 Virginia counties and cities in the northern part of the commonwealth, which provide more than half its incoming freshmen and about 96 percent of students transferring from community colleges. About 75 percent of Mason graduates in recent years have been from Northern Virginia.

That heavy concentration of Northern Virginians gives the university opportunities to expand its reach outside the local area and into the 115 other localities of the commonwealth, where Mason matriculants would still get the benefit of in-state tuition.

Many downstate counties have just a handful of students currently attending Mason, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, with some, particularly in far southwest Virginia, having none at all.

But the challenge for university officials could be that, outside Northern Virginia, much of the commonwealth is seeing declining population, which could send the university scurrying for out-of-state and international students if its program-expansion plans require an ever-increasing student body to fill the available slots.

• • •

For information on the planning process, see the Website at shorturl.at/djnW1.

[Sun Gazette Newspapers provides content to, but otherwise is unaffiliated with, InsideNoVa or Rappahannock Media LLC.]

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