GMU Forges High-Tech Ties

Alan Merten's selection as president of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., led to a collective sigh of relief in the Netplex. Why? He understands technology and he understands business.

Merten, who received the first master's degree in computer science in 1961 from Stanford University, said one of the reasons he got the job is because he's a technologist.

The former dean of Cornell University's graduate school of management -- who previously served as professor of information systems there and at the University of Florida -- has big shoes to fill.

Former GMU President George Johnson built a strong relationship with the Netplex during his 18-year term. He served as head of the Northern Virginia Roundtable, a role that led to some criticism from Virginia politicians, including Gov. George Allen.

Johnson's push for industry and university partnerships and professional ties with business leaders helped fuel high-tech's explosive growth in the region. He also helped put the university on the collegiate map.

Merten, 54, has wasted little time in reaching out to the Netplex since assuming his new role July 1. He has joined the boards of BTG Inc., Vienna, Va., Comshare Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich., and Indus Group Inc., San Francisco.

Merten talked with WT staff writer Tania Anderson about his role, the high-tech community and touchy issues like the Northern Virginia Roundtable.

WT: What role do you plan to play in the high-tech community?

MERTEN: I've been involved in high-tech for so long. I didn't have a burning desire to be a university president. The fact that GMU had a strong university culture and was in a community that had a strong and increasing technology orientation made this the smart thing to do.

I want to make sure that the university is a major user of technology and major teacher of technology. I want to play a role in general higher education in technology, particularly information technology.

The role I've played for the last 25 years is one where I have been at the boundary [of] three different issues: technology, business and education. Someone once referred to me as a translator. I explain to one of the three groups what the other two are doing.

I expect I am the only computer scientist who is president of a major, general purpose university. For a computer scientist to become a business school dean is strange. For a computer scientist who was a business school dean and then to become an university president is really weird.

WT: What kind of partnership do you envision between the high-tech community and the university?

MERTEN: At the highest level, I want us to recognize that we desperately need each other. GMU's faculty need to recognize that the source of our funds, innovation [and] students, more and more will be dependent on the business and technology community, as opposed to government grants.

I see a 'we're all in this together' type of relationship. We have different objectives, but we've got a lot of overlap in our objectives. My goal is to help people understand what the overlap is.

WT: Will you be more aggressive than George Johnson in developing the relationship between the university and the high-tech community?

MERTEN: In the 55 days since I've been here, I have seen more business people and been to more meetings and the technology councils; I've met with various CEOs and I've raised the issues to the Northern Virginia Roundtable. Joining the BTG board has given me access.

I plan on being in the face of the technology community so they get to know me.

WT: What kind of changes do you want to make in the current relationship?

MERTEN: I want the high-tech community to know what is going on at GMU. I want the faculty at GMU to know more about the needs of the technology community. Given that GMU has a technologist as a president, it's a lot easier to transmit information. I can give presidential attention to this matter.

[I will ] focus on the specific research we should be doing with the technology companies. What kind of executive programs should we be designing in conjunction with the high-tech program? For example, we have a new master's in technology management where we work closely with six to eight companies. Their employees will be the students in this program. I would like to see more of that happen -- where we design degree or non-degree programs that are tailored to the needs of subsets of companies.

Third, I would like the technology companies or the technology community to use me to help them communicate their message to others. I'm not one of them, but I speak their language.

WT: What are your plans with the Northern Virginia Roundtable?

MERTEN: Northern Virginia has several things that are unique or important. One thing I like is that there are existing groups of business leaders. That's unusual for a community to have these clusters.

My major goal is to clarify how the university can help the roundtable address the infrastructure needs of higher education and K-12 education; how we can help with transportation studies and health-care studies.

I also want to figure out how to use [the roundtable] to connect us to the companies represented by [its] members.

WT: How would you like the high-tech community to help GMU's financial footing?

MERTEN: Individual high-tech firms can support the work of our faculty, who have some research in a specific area.

Second, to work with the high-tech community on developing life-long education for their employees. To look at us as a supplier, the first resort. We're here, we can get there in a hurry, we've got the talent.

Third, in their corporate philanthropy, to give us gifts to do innovative, long-term things, as opposed to just more tactical things.

Fourth, to urge their employees, who are our alumni or our students, to be spokespersons for the university and supporters in general.

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