This was a momentous week in the history of our university.
Having just become a university in the seventies and a doctoral-granting institution in the nineties, one of our strategic goals for this decade was to become a tier-one research university. That aspiration was met earlier this week, when the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education released its new listings including George Mason in the “Highest Research Activity” (R1) category.
To put it in perspective, there are 335 institutions considered as doctoral, research universities in the Carnegie Classification: 115 of them are R1, 107 are R2 and 113 are R3. Until now Mason was a solid R2, a remarkable achievement for a young university like ours.
During our inclusive strategic planning process in 2012-13, a strong consensus emerged among our faculty and leaders in our community that we needed to continue to strengthen our research, both as a continuation of the growth trajectory of our university and as a fulfillment of our public mission to act as an engine of innovation for our region and state. Achieving R1 status, we decided, would be an aspirational, yet tangible objective to mark our progress.
Thanks to the work of faculty, students and staff, the investments made by the state and federal agencies, and the support of business leaders in our community, we made it!
To be clear, achieving R1 status does not mean that we are a better university than we were. What it means is that, based on a set of criteria (research expenditures across disciplines, size of research staff and doctoral conferrals), we are now considered one of the most research-intensive universities in the country.
Compared to all research universities we do well on almost all criteria. When compared to R1 institutions only, however, we are the proverbial “new kid on the block”. We do relatively well in the social sciences but lag behind in science and technology, and we are at the bottom of the pack in research staff. So while we deservedly celebrate having passed the high bar for the first time, we must recognize that we cleared it by a narrow margin and that we will need to continue to work hard and smart to remain in this group going forward.
But back to the celebration: the news of George Mason University’s emergence as one of the most research-active universities in the country is very important for our region and for Virginia. As I have discussed before, the knowledge economy of the twenty-first century has created a strong link between research and economic competitiveness. The most competitive economies in the world (Switzerland, the Nordic Countries, the United States) happen to also be leaders in the number of top research universities per capita.
Virginia has four universities consistently ranked among the top 300 research universities in the world, all four now, R1 institutions (the other three are University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and VCU). With a population of 8.3 million, having four research institutions at this level equips us well to build a knowledge economy that can compete with the most innovative regions and nations in the world. It is essential that we continue to invest and strengthen our position.
For Mason, earning this highest classification announces to the scientific community, funding organizations and industry partners that we have the capacity and the commitment to play a leading role in tackling some of the most pressing challenges of our time and to drive innovation and prosperity in our state and region.
Mason Nation: Welcome to the Division 1 of research universities. Let’s play!