President’s Speech: February 3, 2017

“A Global University in the 21st Century”

Remarks to the Korean International Educators Association

February 3, 2017


Good morning, everyone.  My name is Steven Lee, president of George Mason University Korea. It is a pleasure being here with all of you. In fact, I have been looking forward to this time with you. All of us have much in-common. We are, for instance, citizens of a nation that these days has been experiencing much turmoil. What exactly is going on? How is this all going to play out? What will eventually emerge?  Will our elected officials be able to begin working together again in a way that helps further our nation’s economic advancement, addresses our social challenges, and strengthens our international ties?

As concerned citizens, I have no doubt our collective answer to these important questions is that we very much hope so. Our great nation has come too far to fall back from seeking ways to being progressive in its thinking and actions.  After all, ours is a nation of doers, great history, and courage. Our history is highlighted by numerous examples of contending with setback, tragedy, occupation and armed conflict and out of all that rising taller than ever.

I believe we will do so again now.  Our nation is that resilient. Our people are that strong. As educators, you and I are that forward-thinking. I say that about us not as a boast or to puff out our chests in some form of false bravado. Rather, I look at our collective history, being part of a profession that continues to distinguish itself by serving as a springboard for students and scholars to pursue valuable research, develop the ability to think critically, and identify creative ways to address whatever might be the ills of society on any given day.

This is who we are. This is what we are. And this truism leads me to address the primary focus of my remarks: the concept of the global university in the twenty-first century.

I begin by going back in time, hundreds of years ago and on up to the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries and the relationship between town and gown. By town, I mean our communities where citizens were conceived, raised, worked, lived and died. By gown, I speak of what today we call universities and colleges, places of high learning that go beyond traditional “book-learning” that focused primarily on reading, writing and, yes, arithmetic.

Those institutions of higher learning were viewed as entities separate from their communities. Young men would leave their homes and go to these schools and colleges to wrap themselves in classic literature, political and religious philosophy, and science. Four years later they would emerge, degree in-hand, to return to their communities as ones who were more enlightened than the general population. They had been exposed to Shakespeare; the economic philosophy of Adam Smith; the teachings of the ancient Greeks, including Aristotle and Plato; the more modern-day writings of Confucius, Kant, Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, Locke, Sartre, and Russell; the debate between socialists and federalists; and the art of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet and Matisse.

These educated men, products of their towns, had been transformed by the gowns. As a result of their education, they were now seen as the ones to take their communities toward better futures. In other words, they were viewed as being engineers in society’s quest to make progress or advance. These individuals represented the living link between town and gown. Without them, interaction between the two worlds was rare, something to be valued and the dream of struggling parents who wanted a world better for their sons. What the “gowns” offered was education, seen by the general population as the necessary ticket enabling their children to advance and make the world what they hoped would be “a better place.”

In many ways, of course, that perspective remains the same. Education remains a valuable commodity. Show me a young man or woman without a college degree on their resume and I will show you a person who will find job security, financial independence and overall fulfillment goals more difficult to reach than it is for those with that certificate of intellectual achievement. In today’s world, not just here in Korea, this is very much a reality.

Over the past half-century, the relationship between town and gown has evolved. No longer is there a separation between the two. That invisible yet prominent wall has been erased. I am proud to say the institution I represent – George Mason University – played a leading role in making that happen. I would like to take a few moments to tell you that story because I believe it is relevant to all of us here today.

In 1957, George Mason was initially created as a satellite extension of the University of Virginia, which is located in a scenic community called Charlottesville. Mason is approximately 100 miles north of Charlottesville. At the time, Mason consisted of 16 students. The original vision was that it would eventually become a small liberal arts college whose primary purpose was to serve as a place for residents of Northern Virginia to earn a college degree without having to contend with the burden or expense of traveling to the southern part of the state to pursue a higher degree.

As the founders envisioned, George Mason College – as it was then known – grew steadily to the point when in 1972, the General Assembly of Virginia voted unanimously to designate it as a free-standing, independent university. Despite that, folks at UVA and within the General Assembly remained content that Mason would maintain its role as a respectable, mid-size, liberal arts institution. Six years later, an English professor from Temple University in Philadelphia became Mason’s president. His name was George Johnson and he had different ideas about Mason’s future.

It was President Johnson’s vision that Mason could and should be something more than a mid-sized liberal arts college. But for that to happen, then the relationship between Mason and its surrounding region – town and gown – would have to change. The two, he realized, would need to become partners; agree to a permanent linkage where their future growth would forever be connected. With that unusual notion, Johnson initiated changing the town-gown dynamic.

Over the next six to twelve months, Johnson initiated meetings with business and community leaders asking them a simple, yet profound question: What academic programs could we be offering that would enable you to succeed? Out of that inquiry came discussions, collaborations, partnerships and, above all, growth. If you have ever traveled to Northern Virginia, which is situated just outside of Washington, D.C., then you know what I am talking about. For that part of the country, President Johnson’s idea was a game-changer.

One key result of his interactions was that Mason established three world-class academic disciplines around which all other programs of study evolved. These programs, based on input from the region’s business and community leaders, were high technology, public policy and the arts. Mason also became one of the fastest growing institutions of higher learning in the world. Today it boasts over 35,000 students.

In Spring, 2014, its growth extended to Songdo with the creation of George Mason University Korea. Based upon our history of revamping the traditional town-gown connection, we at Mason recognized that the concept of the Global University was and is very much in-keeping with our own history.

Traditionally and logically, for any college or university, the “town” is viewed as being that community in which the university is located. But here in the twenty-first century, that construct no longer applies. We exist in a world of globalization. Samsung, for instance, has outlets and stores literally around the world. Korea, itself, trades with nations on every continent. This is made possible, in large measure, by embracing the concept of “global” and recognizing how it relates to “town.” The existence of amazing technology on which all of us are so dependent contributes to this.  Cell phones, the Internet, Facebook, instant messaging, linked-in,  twitter, selfies, and skyping all represent tools, channels and programs that allow every one of us, including our universities, companies and organizations, to connect instantly with our counterparts  throughout the world.

What this means is a redefinition of “town.” For George Mason University Korea, our town is as much Incheon as it is New York, Montreal, or Melbourne. We currently enroll over 300 students. Yet in that growing population there are twenty-five nations that are represented. The home towns of those students are our home towns as well. Yes, our campus is situated in Songdo, but the technology of today also connects us directly with Israel, Switzerland, El Salvador and Zambia.

The same is true for the institutions with which we share the global university campus: University of Utah, Ghent University, and State University of New York.

It is a concept that reflects the world in which all of us dwell. Also, it reflects a reality that if we are to grow and succeed in helping as many students as possible fulfill their education dreams, then it must be matched by our actions and self-images – how we see ourselves. Yes, we are still “the gown,” but “the town” has changed dramatically. We are now global.