Mason’s Innovative DNA

George Mason University has always done big things. From our transition into an independent university in 1972, to the acquisition of the School of Law in 1979 and the opening of the Patriot Center in 1985, we’ve consistently demonstrated a willingness to forge into new territory. Through the years, Mason’s accomplishments have included Nobel Prizes, a #1 “School to Watch” ranking by U.S. News and World Report, and our recent R1 designation–all attesting to the intrepid spirit of this community of trail blazers and innovators who continually strive to make a difference and positively impact our university and beyond. This unfaltering determination has been a consistent thread underlying Mason’s history of growth and achievements. It is how the world has come to know us and it is who we are. It’s the Mason DNA.

Unlike institutions that originate from the idea of a single founder, Mason was conceived by a group of community leaders committed to building a regional university that could produce the talent and knowledge needed for a growing Northern Virginia region. Beginning in 1957 as an educational center that aimed to serve adult learners, returning veterans and Northern Virginians that needed college-level instruction, this community-supported effort would later evolve into a branch campus of the University of Virginia and then into the independent institution that we know today—the largest and most diverse public research university in Virginia, serving more than 36,000 students.

While much has changed since Mason’s inception, it’s remarkable how much remains the same. Guided by our deep-seated belief that education must be accessible, we remain committed to reducing barriers for talented individuals who wish to transform their lives through education.
Today, as throughout our history, we are responsive to growth and shifts within our society, and we continue to make bold moves that enable us to better serve the community of learners at the core of our mission.

Having spent my entire career in higher education, initially as a research professor teaching thousands of students over the years, I have witnessed both the transformative impact of college education and the difficulties faced by nontraditional students as they try to complete degrees. Unfortunately, a college degree remains out of reach for too many Americans – either because of cost, family obligations or obstacles created by a system that was not created to serve nontraditional students.

Currently, more than 30 million Americans have earned some college credit but never completed a degree. Many of them are working adults, single parents or from families where neither parent has earned a degree. There are many who started out at a two-year college, however only 17 percent of those who attend community college ultimately obtain a bachelor’s degree. And although 25 percent of students today take all or some of their college courses online, many colleges are still developing their online curriculum.

Mason has a strong track record of helping students overcome these barriers. Today, many of our students come from low-income backgrounds and are the first in their families to attend college. Many are veterans and transitioning military. A number are returning adults with some college credit but no degree. And many are bachelor degree holders who would like to pursue a graduate education but cannot afford to stop working to continue their studies.

In the past few years we have taken additional steps to better serve our nontraditional students. Through partnerships with Wiley and INTO, and initiatives such as the Online Virginia Network and ADVANCE, we are creating pathways to degree completion for any student, regardless of age, location or life circumstance.

For all our success, we know we can do more. While our current initiatives have allowed us to serve many more talented individuals than before, we have only scratched the surface of the national challenge.

In 2017, President Cabrera appointed me as the first Vice President of Academic Innovation & New Ventures, and asked that I build a team to help Mason identify new ways to deliver an educational experience that is both responsive to the unique needs of these student populations and helps to ensure the sustainability of our university in the long term. My team’s work will be rooted in partnerships with other higher ed institutions, service providers, employers, and other interested stakeholders that add value to the Mason experience and put more students on a path to success. Our ventures will be designed in collaboration with faculty and staff across the university, who are at the front lines of Mason’s efforts and have an intimate understanding of what students need.

Just as our predecessors learned many years ago, success is rarely attained by the efforts of one; it is most often achieved through the work of many. Reaching our goals will demand that we harness that creative spirit that has made Mason great- the Mason DNA. We need it now more than ever as we collectively strive to positively impact our students, our community and our world. Let’s get started!

Michelle Marks
Vice President for Academic Innovation & New Ventures
George Mason University

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