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When George Mason University President Alan G. Merten travels, he packs 50 to 60 kelly green, light-up rubber balls with the university’s logo emblazoned on the side.

Perhaps a bit out of character for a 71-year-old academian, but the toys serve a purpose.

“What we have here is a green ball. When you bounce it, it lights up,” said Merten, dressed in a yellow-and-green, checkered button down shirt with a Mason pin on his jacket lapel. “But here’s what happens — I can give it to a president of another university or I can give it to the student who is driving me around and they both start bouncing it and get a kick out of it. It’s a hell of a lot easier for me to travel around with 50 or 60 of those balls rather than five or six clocks. And, those clocks will get put away. But those balls will stay on their desks.”

Gimmicky? Maybe. Effective? Absolutely.

Merten’s 16-year run as Mason’s omnipresent president ends in a few short weeks. He’ll be succeeded by Angel Cabrera, 44, who comes to Fairfax after serving eight years as president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona.

Although much of Merten’s legacy at Mason will be stacked up in stones — a brick-by-brick comparison that those who follow him will have to compete with — Merten might best be remembered for transforming Mason from a local school with a “commuter college” reputation into an nationally-known brand, which is respected from coast to coast.

“George Mason is no longer an unknown. It’s no longer a sleepy school in Fairfax,” said Senior Vice President Morrie Scherrens, who has spent the past 35 years at Mason working under Merten and his predecessor, Dr. George Johnson.

“They were the right presidents at the right time,” Scherrens said. “When Dr. Johnson came here [in 1978] we were 10,000 students and when he left, we were 20,000. We were often confused as a community college at that time. Dr. Johnson was really about making us a regional power. Alan has really taken the areas we have strength in and built on that. We’ve become a national player.”

Since Merten took the reigns in 1996, Mason has gone from a commuter to residential campus, adding about 3,500 beds. The number of on-campus facilities rose from 125 to 168, and student enrollment increased from 24,200 to 33,300. Faculty and staff more than doubled from 4,400 to 9,600.

“You could measure [Merten’s] legacy in that footprint. All that construction happened under him,” said Ernst Volgenau, George Mason’s Board of Visitors Rector. “Mason has changed so much since he first came. It’s like a completely different university.”

While construction on campus has become the norm and the most visible change under Merten’s leadership, program offerings and funding — both for research and general operations — have swelled.

“University presidents have increasingly been measured by their ability to raise funds,” said Provost Peter N. Stearns. “He deserves great credit for this and organizing the first capital campaign that the university has seen.”

Research funding at Mason also rose from $30 million to $130 million during Merten’s tenure. Mason’s overall budget has gone from $220 million in 1996 to $880 million today.

“My expectation was to create order from the chaos without killing the entrepreneurial spirit,” Merten said. “George Mason was a young university when I got here. My expectation was that we were going to do something faster and better. … George Mason was an aggressive university that dealt with students of all ages, all ethnicities, all perspectives. … We were known for being nontraditional. Now if you look at other universities, they are looking more like us and we’re beginning to look more like them. … We used to say people would ‘go away to college.’ Higher education was changing. George Mason was just ahead of everyone else.”

Merten, who originally is from Milwaukee, was the first in his family to go to college. The son of a shoe repairman with two years of high school, Merten recalled his inauguration in 1997 and his parents’ reaction.

“I think my parents, even when I was inaugurated — especially my father — didn’t really get it,” Merten said. “Here he felt like he had just dropped me off at college, and now I’m running it.”

Fellow educators attribute Merten’s success to his ability to communicate the needs of higher education to state legislators despite cuts in per-student spending in higher education funding during the past decades.

“He’s a president’s president. It’s not unusual for presidents in Virginia to ask Alan to speak on our behalf,” Northern Virginia Community College President Robert G. Templin said.

Templin and Merten’s collaboration resulted in the creation of the Pathway to the Baccalaureate program in 2005, which allows an easier transfer of students from NVCC to Mason. Both presidents have seen the role of their institution change during the past decade.

“There’s a broad expectation in the area that GMU would serve the region. But our population is growing so quickly that if Mason was trying to do that on its own, it would be impossible... What is so incredibly difficult is knowing how to respond to ever-increasing expectations with reduced resources. It’s something both the college and the university have had to navigate. He has navigated it brilliantly.”

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale called Mason a major contributor to educational advancements in the region.

“Alan Merten’s energy and vision are responsible for George Mason University’s ascendance to a major state university,” he said. “Working together, we have been able to offer additional advancement opportunities for high school students in the form of dual enrollment and have relied on GMU to provide top-notch undergraduate and postgraduate teacher education that benefits the entire region.”

In choosing Merten’s replacement, Mason’s leadership was looking for someone with the skills and vision to pick up on Merten’s legacy, Volgenau said.

“We wanted a president who could take the university from the great place that Dr. Merten had taken it to the next level,” he said. “Students should recognize that a president has a great number of responsibilities that they may not see … It’s a big job.”

Merten has made being visible and available to students part of his daily role on campus. At basketball games, Merten sits at center court where — when recognized by students — his name is chanted by fans, something he said “grabs at my throat.” He also has been put in charge of the T-shirt cannon at games, a presidential perk.

When freshmen arrive at school in the fall, Merten is there at the curb to greet them and help them find their way.

“I have parents say, ‘You mean I’ve been on campus for just a few minutes and I’ve already met the president?’” he said, adding this is an important connection presidents should make.

Getting the word out means being accessible, Merten said.

“Tell the George Mason story,” is a common phrase heard by graduating students and staff alike. And although the university strives to serve its diverse student body, the school can contribute much of its success to Merten.“We created a brand, a George Mason brand. And after a while, people started to come to us.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com