University pays visit to NCI

March 10, 2011

By AMANDA BUCK - Bulletin Staff Writer

Two George Mason University officials who visited the New College Institute on Wednesday came away excited and energized about the institute’s future.

"You can just see a college town emerging” in uptown Martinsville, said Rick Davis, George Mason’s associate provost for undergraduate education. “It’s like a college town in the rough.”

“If you close your eyes, I can see a college town in 10 years,” said Shirley S. Travis, dean of the university’s College of Health and Human Services. “... You can really see the potential (and) what this could look like.”

Travis and Davis were part of a five-member delegation that spent Wednesday meeting with local officials, educators, and civic and business leaders about George Mason’s interest in possibly making the New College a branch campus. The Fairfax-based university is one of five Virginia universities that have expressed interest in that possibility and the second to send a team to the area.

Travis described Wednesday’s event as a chance for the New College and its supporters to get to know more about George Mason and vice versa.

“I think it’s a date,” she said. “They want to know a little bit more about us ... (and) we’re here to learn about their vision” for the future.

Established five years ago, the New College partners with numerous universities to offer courses toward master’s degrees and the second two years of bachelor’s degrees at its uptown campus. It has about 400 students.

A commission that studied the institute’s future recently recommended that it become a branch of an existing state university. In addition to George Mason, other schools that have expressed interest in exploring the possibility of making NCI a branch are Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion, Radford and Virginia State universities.

Travis said she and others in the group were beginning to share local officials’ vision, which she described as 3,000 or 4,000 students living, studying and having fun within uptown Martinsville. That could lead to more development uptown as loft apartments, restaurants, coffee shops and more open to meet students’ needs, she said.

“I think we talked about a couple of things simultaneously,” Travis said. The first is a university community that eventually would become a destination for students from around the state, and the second is NCI’s role in work force development.

Given state funding constraints and other economic realities, “for a state university to do all this alone is just not going to happen,” she said. But if business and civic leaders are willing to partner with a university, it could work, she said.

She said her team also was told about financial support provided by The Harvest Foundation and the availability of scholarships for New College students.

Harvest, which formed the commission that explored how NCI should evolve, matches state funding for the New College dollar for dollar. It has pledged to do so up to $50 million.

Resources such as the Harvest Foundation; facilities that are part of NCI as well as buildings uptown into which the institute might be able to expand; community resources, such as the Virginia Museum of Natural History; and additional community support mean many elements already are in place, Davis said.

“The resources to begin the project are here. ... There’s a lot of things in place to make this work,” he said.

George Mason understands the path New College would like to follow because it evolved in a somewhat similar way, Davis said. Founded in 1957 as a two-year branch campus of the University of Virginia, it began in an elementary school on the edge of the D.C. suburbs, he said.

By the early 1960s, “a group of local leaders — some politicians, some business leaders — said, ‘We really should raise this up, make it a university,’” Davis said.

They created a four-year campus that “rather quickly grew to be the largest (university) in the commonwealth,” he said.

George Mason now has 32,000 students at branch campuses in Prince William, Loudoun and Arlington counties. Each branch is tailored to its community, Travis said.

It is too soon to say what degree programs would best fit NCI if it were to become a branch of George Mason, Travis said, but she said flexibility and innovation are keys to George Mason’s work.

The university offers programs for various kinds of students, from those just graduating from high school to adults pursuing graduate degrees while working full time and supporting families, she said. Several programs are designed to maximize time and efficiency, such as an RN to MSN program that allows students to bypass a bachelor’s degree and go straight to a master’s degree, cutting out a couple of semesters of study, she said.

Two new programs allow students to go from a bachelor’s degree to a Ph.D., Travis said.

Those are “very innovative programs” that provide ways “to get people where they need to be as quickly and efficiently as possible,” she said.

Both she and Davis pointed out local officials’ desire to make the New College an engine for economic and cultural change in the area.

“There has been a rare unanimity of purpose expressed — not just purpose, but passion,” Davis said.

“There’s an aspiration for something that goes beyond degrees,” he said. Those he spoke with would like to see “a cultural shift in the community.”

Neither Davis nor Travis speculated on George Mason’s possible role in the New College’s future. Davis, however, said that after what the group heard Wednesday, “we are more interested” in the possibility of making NCI a branch than they were before the visit.

He noted that the other universities that have expressed interest also have much to offer.

The next step, Davis said, will be for the group to report to senior administration at George Mason, to “give them the lay of the land.” They also will gather more data, he said.

“I think certainly — speaking for our team — I think we have come away deeply impressed and affected by the experience,” Davis said.


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