ĎIs GMU Big Enough for Buchanan?í

By J. Wade Gilley

On the day we brought Jim Buchananís potential appointment before a George Mason University Board of Visitors committee, a member of that board declared, "The question isnít whether Jim Buchanan is big enough for George Mason but rather whether or not George Mason is big enough for Buchanan!"

This comment came at the end of a series of discussions extending over many months regarding the movement of Virginia Tech University Professor James Buchanan and his Center for the Study of Public Choice to George Mason University. It was at that meeting that the universityís Board of Visitors approved the appointment of Dr. Buchanan, his long time colleague, Gordon Tullock, and other faculty members to be tenured faculty at George Mason University. (At George Mason, following a long term precedent acquired from the University of Virginia, the governing board made appointments with tenure and was thus involved in the biggest academic development in the universityís history.)

George Mason began as a University of Virginia center in the 1950s, became a free standing university with authority to offer masterís degrees on April 19, 1972 and gained approval to offer two doctoral degrees, education and economics, in 1979. In 1983 the faculty consisted primarily of two groups: a pre-1972 undergraduate liberal arts coterie with a misconceived University of Virginia mind set and a contentious 1972 to 1978 pre-George Johnson circle. One yearned for the slow paced undergraduate branch college days when one could be a University of Virginia faculty member without having to measure up. The other, recruited from the 1960s graduate cohort, was contentious about governance. The faculty generally considered themselves to be underpaid and overworked -- not an unusual circumstance then or now in American higher education.

With the approval to offer a doctorate in economics, Mason was challenged to improve its faculty. Some had been appointed -- Walter Williams, Jim Bennett, Manuel Johnson and Karen Vaughan come to mind -- but more with substantial experience in teaching doctoral students and supervising dissertations were essential. The possibility of Buchanan and his colleagues joining Mason at this time was a godsend. Not only were they world class but their brand of economics -- Public Choice -- was clearly in vogue in Ronald Reaganís Washington, D. C.

A hurdle to be overcome was the question of compensation. At Virginia Tech Buchananís salary was almost twice that of the highest paid full professor at George Mason and the issue of faculty salaries was among the most contentious in a faculty substantially unnerved by the thought of the university moving to a new level and looking for issues. To get Buchanan and company was a huge coup for the university -- but would the governance structure survive the shock? George Johnson was ready to forge ahead but the provost was anxious, reluctant to make a recommendation to the board committee. Karen Vaughan and the economics faculty were committed, but how to explain the differential in pay to the faculty at large with salaries such a subject of contention?

In the discussions, the provost and others began moving down the path of not how much the university could afford to pay but rather was Buchanan worth that much to Mason?

That was when a long time member of the board -- and some would say founder of George Mason as a university -- John T. "Til" Hazel spoke up, "The question isnít whether Jim Buchanan is big enough for George Mason but rather whether or not George Mason is big enough for Buchanan!"

Buchanan was appointed and the rest is history.

As the administrator (senior vice president) designated by Johnson to handle the recruitment of Buchanan and company in 1982, I had worked on most of the details, including the question of compensation. In that process, as a novice in the field of economics and the appointment of high priced professors, I proceeded cautiously but with ever rising hopes. For example, after deciding to talk to some noted economists about Buchanan I discovered that it was universally expected that he (and perhaps his colleague, Gordon Tullock) would one day receive the Nobel Prize for Economics as the founder of the Public Choice school of thought. And Buchanan had very strong support from corporations and foundations, raising the possibility of Mason gaining support for its emerging economics doctorate. (Since that time Mason has received literally millions of dollars of support from individuals, foundations and corporations attracted to the university by Buchananís presence.)

After Buchananís move to Mason the university attempted to draw attention to the success of the young institution in attracting world class faculty in economics and information technology and engineering. But it was difficult to convince the media that Masonís faculty profile was on the rise. We routinely received comments from reporters such as, "Everybody has faculty with degrees from Harvard or Yale."

In what some thought was an act of desperation, I took two initiatives. First, in the spring of 1985 we placed three-quarter-page advertisements in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post (every other week for six weeks) modeled after public policy ads routinely placed by the Mobil Corporation. The first one carried the title, "What do Harvard, Chicago, UCLA, MIT, Columbia and George Mason have in Common?"

The commonality was that the six universities each had on their faculties three or more of the economists profiled in Baugís book "The Greatest Economists since Keynes."

About the same time, while a Post reporter was visiting, I announced that Mason had recruited six faculty members (from places such as Virginia, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Illinois) and had paid them more than $100,000 each (remember this was 1985). At that time there was a pattern emerging of universities "buying" prominent faculty and $100,000 was more than most university presidents were being paid in 1985.

The Post reporter said, "Wow! They must be good if youíre paying them that much." That led to a major story in the Post, which was rerun in many daily papers across the nation over several weeks.

The "Mobil Ad," as George Johnson characterized it, was clipped by the bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal in the spring of 1985 and during the congressional recess in August that year a WSJ reporter was assigned to check out the Mason Economics Department. The visit by David Shribman (now the Washington D. C. bureau chief for the Boston Globe) to Fairfax that summer led to a front page, 53 column-inch article in the Wall Street Journal on the emergence of George Mason University on the national scene. We were told that the article was syndicated by the WSJ and appeared in dozens of daily newspapers across the nation in the following weeks. It was followed by major articles by many national newspapers and journals.

Then in August of the following year, 1986, I was awakened early one morning by a telephone call from Helen Ackerman who excitedly told me that Buchanan had won the Nobel Prize.

In the weeks that followed, Mason continued to receive an enormous amount of national and international publicity. With its profile soaring, the university became known in higher education circles as "The George Mason Miracle."

In the period prior to Buchanan, George Mason was receiving about 7,000 student applications for about 5,000 spaces -- freshmen, transfers, graduate students and law students. In the fall of 1987, Mason received more than 22,000 applications for some 5,800 new student spaces.

The proof of a pudding is in the eating -- or so it is said. And that was true at George Mason. Clearly, Jim Buchanan was too big for Mason in 1983 and that fact was proven again and again. But fortunately, people such as Til Hazel and George Johnson knew that and, being entrepreneurs of the first order, they seized that opportunity and others to make George Mason "The Miracle of the 1980s" in American higher education.

But it couldnít have been done without Jim Buchanan and his colleagues.


J. Wade Gilley, president of Marshall University from 1991 to 1999 became president of the University of Tennessee on August 1, 1999. He was senior vice president of George Mason University from 1982 to 1991.