One of the features of George Mason which has always impressed me, from my first serious encounter during my interview process in fall 1999, has been its tremendous commitment to community service and outreach. This commitment has, I believe, persisted and even increased, even as the University enhances its global links and its research roles.
Commitment comes in many forms. Obviously we’ve long sought to provide artistic focus for the Northern Virginia region, adding to the longstanding opportunities provided by the Center for the Arts with the elegant Hylton Center in Prince William. As student performances have improved, we offer these as well as programs by external artists. We take seriously as well the role of athletics in helping to focus community interest.
Many academic units have a particular outreach mission. Health and Human Services has long served as a resource in nursing, and now it is expanding a public health role as well. Education and Human Development maintains active service to the various educational systems in the region, beyond its specific teacher training function. And we run a Governor’s School (in Prince William) and soon, we hope, a lab school. Individual faculty also reach out to teachers – as in the training we provide in world history every summer.
I’m impressed with other individual faculty efforts, from volunteer service in math education to research programs on the health of athletes. Engineering faculty have long worked with a community school, bringing opportunities in education that go beyond the norm. Our Confucius Institute has played a huge role in expanding teaching in Chinese language and culture.
Other outreach programs include the Vision Series lectures, which now has a regular community following for faculty lectures on all three of our main regional sites. Individual faculty, and the University as a whole, contribute greatly to the flourishing learning in retirement centers in the region.
There are challenges in all of this. Two are particularly obvious, and I won’t pretend I have full solutions to either one. First is the question of faculty reward. We do look for and reward service, of which community outreach can be a key part – but we have no specific formula here, and I’m sure some faculty feel shortchanged. Some service, of course, expands on more standard research and teaching roles, where the criteria are clearer. Second, we inevitably have many community segments who want us to do even more than we currently offer, and it’s always difficult to explain why we can’t respond to every request.
Still, on balance, the University’s community mission remains clear, and it’s enshrined as well in our new strategic plan. We know we help the region in many ways beyond formal teaching and research, and we want to. It’s one of the attractive features of the University’s self-definition.