Welcome to George Mason University

The value of a college degree has more than tripled in 30 years

Posted: September 12, 2014 at 5:10 pm

By Ángel Cabrera and Kirk Heffelmire

Don’t let the critics fool you: the economic value of a college degree is not declining but growing–even as tuition continues to rise.

The higher-ed doomsday genre is alive and well (the most recent example, Academically Adrift).  And yet, while questions persist about the value of a college experience, employer demand for what colleges and universities produce is on the rise.  It goes without saying that employment outcomes do not capture all the value a college degree is intended to deliver.  But they are an important element.  And since tuition is expressed in dollar terms, we owe it to everyone to show that a college degree is a good investment in economic terms.

Recent research from economists at the New York Federal Reserve add to the overwhelming body of data showing that a bachelor’s degree is a pretty safe and wise investment. In fact, the return on the investment on a bachelor’s degree is at a 30-year high.  The net preset value of a bachelor’s degree is more than $270,000 vs. $80,000 in 1980 (expressed in 2013 dollars).  These figures are calculated by considering tuition expenses, the wages foregone by studying instead of working, and the income premium earned across a working career with a college degree as opposed to only a high school diploma, all discounted to today’s value. (By the way, the researchers note that the value has gone up despite the increases in tuition, not so much because college graduates are doing better but because those without a college degree are doing worse).

Like any investment, higher ed too carries its risks.  Perhaps admissions brochures should include clear disclaimers detailing the major factors that can increase risk and reduce return.

For example, the value of a degree declines substantially the longer a student stays in school beyond four years.  In addition to the obvious additional tuition payments and foregone wages, the delay in gaining early career experience puts you on a disadvantaged wage trajectory over the duration of your working life.  Researchers have found that every additional year you stay in college beyond the customary four will cost you $65,000 in net present value.  Graduate in six or seven years and the value of your investment will erode very fast.

These are not certain outcomes but statistical estimates.  The actual value of a degree for each individual will vary.  For example, the the cited research estimates that up to 25% of college graduates may not see a monetary return on their investment whatsoever.  A bachelor’s degree is not a zero-risk investment. It is entirely possible for a high school graduate to out earn a college graduate, even if the odds are against them.

An economic recession like the one we just experienced hurts everyone’s employment, college graduate or not. However, the researchers illustrate that, even then, the statistical value of a degree is undisputed. The unemployment rate for recent college graduates has fallen since the recession and is less than half the rate for comparable workers without a degree. There is evidence that many college graduates are underemployed, meaning they have jobs that may not require their full qualifications. However, among the underemployed college graduates most have found relatively high-paying jobs.

So here’s our advice.  If you have the potential and can find the way to finance it, research your options, look at the data, choose a solid college with good outcomes, go to college and graduate as soon as possible. The returns on this investment are by no means guaranteed.  But this will be one of the surest, safest investments you will make in your lifetime.

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Higher ed on the global agenda

Posted: September 10, 2014 at 11:04 am

It’s comforting to see higher ed every once in a while make it to the global agenda.  That’s what happened in Spain last week at the U.S.-Spain Council, the annual summit of business and government leaders from both sides of the Atlantic.  Thanks to Senator Tim Kaine, who chairs the Council, I was invited to discuss what universities can do to drive competitiveness and how international academic engagement can help universities deliver on their mission.

With the help of Mason doctoral student Kirk Heffelmire we pulled the most recent data and re-ran the regression analysis between the number of top research universities nations have on a per-capita basis and their competitiveness (as we have done here before).  Competitiveness data come from World Economic Forum and research university rankings, from Shanghai Jiao Tong’s Academic Ranking of World Universities.

As you can see, the outcome has remained the same.   The number of research universities a country has among the top 300 in the world, when divided by its population, predicts 47% of the variance in national competitiveness. The United States, though still the leader in terms of absolute number of top research universities, is surpassed by Switzerland, Sweden and other 12 developed countries on a per capita basis.  Spain, meanwhile, continues to perform relatively poorly both in absolute numbers (only one university in the top 200 and four in the top 300) and per capita.

Slide04Economic competitiveness is determined by a number of factors: from macroeconomic stability to infrastructure and institutional strength, from market size and efficiency to basic education and health.  Increasingly though, competitiveness is linked to innovation and productivity, that is, to the ability to generate new ideas, new products and services, or new ways to doing more with less.  And that’s where universities come in.

As I’ve argued before, research universities excel at attracting and developing innovative talent. In fact, no other institution does a better job at it. The Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist without Stanford, and Cambridge would not be what it is without Harvard and MIT.  Talent breeds talent and talent attracts talent.

One of the ways in which universities can accelerate their research output is by cultivating personal relationships with world-class research organizations.  So it was great that Spain’s brand new King Felipe VI, an Honorary Fulbright Scholar himself during his time at Georgetown, mentioned Fulbright as an initiative that has contributed to strengthen Spain-U.S. ties as well as to elevate the research capabilities of many Spanish universities (and a program that will receive the Prince of Asturias award for International Cooperation this year). A number of Fulbright alumni were in attendance, so we marked the occasion with a semi-selfie with His Majesty and Senator Kaine!


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Philanthropy and academic integrity

Posted: September 5, 2014 at 8:00 am

Every once in a while I receive questions about gifts the university has received, about the intentions and motivations of our donors, their ideology, their backgrounds, and even their citizenship.

Our donors, just like our faculty, students and staff, come from all over the world; they have different backgrounds and experiences, different faiths and ideologies, different personal stories and views of the world.  Some care about access and fund scholarships for students of certain characteristics that matter to them: low-income, high-potential, certain geographic origin, etc.  Others focus on research and dedicate their contributions to supporting the work of our faculty, whether in game design, biomedical research, Islamic studies, climate change, values-based leadership, law, civil engineering or economics.  Others support our athletics program, or they help us build new facilities.  Some make contributions to be used at the discretion of a dean or even the president (which is much appreciated!).

The notion of diversity and inclusion that is so central to our mission applies to our donors, too.

Philanthropy has become an important resource for our university and is bound to become even more so in the future.  Quite bluntly, as public funding of universities continues to decline, we would not be able to deliver on our mission of excellence and access without the support of individuals and organizations who believe in us and bet on us.  Many of our students would not be studying at Mason, or perhaps anywhere else. Many of our best faculty would not be working at Mason or would see their productivity diminished. And many of our modern facilities would only exist in the imagination of our deans.

Since I arrived at Mason, fundraising has occupied a big part of my time and the time of many of my colleagues.  Fortunately, our new vision and plans for the future have so far resonated with our community. Our donors have responded with two years of record donations. Our endowment has grown by almost 30 percent.  I can only hope that we can sustain these trends in the future!

Can the growing importance of private philanthropy compromise our academic independence?  The answer is that our donors, no matter how generous, are not allowed to choose the student who receives the scholarship, the professor who is hired, or the scholarship a faculty member produces.  They know that these rules are an essential part of our academic integrity.  If these rules are not acceptable, we simply don’t accept the gift. Academic freedom is never for sale. Period.

We do not ask donors to disclose their ideology nor do we judge their personal motivations. We thank them and let them know that they are helping to expand and preserve the academic freedom of our vibrant university.

We would not jeopardize the integrity of our academic programs or forfeit our ability to make our own decisions. That would only hinder our mission, not enhance it. The one promise we make to all donors is to be careful stewards of their gifts and spend their money wisely and according to our agreement.

Support for George Mason is an investment in academic freedom. And that is a gift not only to this university, but to us all.


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Update on the Virginia State Budget

Posted: September 2, 2014 at 8:45 am

A letter to the Mason community, Sep. 2, 2014

Dear Patriot,

Recently, the Commonwealth of Virginia announced a tax revenue shortfall for the 2014-16 biennium of $2.4 billion and asked state agency heads to produce budget savings plans for fiscal year 2015 (which started July 1, 2014) equal to 5 percent of the institution’s adjusted legislative general fund appropriation and 7 percent for fiscal 2016.

Last week the state confirmed that colleges and universities need to respond and produce similar plans by September 19. In devising the plans, we have been asked to emphasize recurring rather than one-time savings. The only exemption to these cuts in higher education will be state financial aid. The state also discouraged colleges and universities from submitting reduction strategies that include mid-year tuition increases.

In order to meet these challenges, I have asked deans and unit leaders to produce budget savings proposals of at least 2.5 percent of their E&G budget and that each central unit produce proposals of at least 3 percent. The proposals are to be completed and submitted to the Provost and Senior Vice President of Finance and Administration no later than September 11.

In producing these plans it is important that we protect the core academic mission and that we think of creative ways to increase efficiency while emphasizing the core priorities in the university’s strategic plan.

Beyond the immediate budget challenge, this reduction in state support further highlights the need for state universities to reconsider elements of their traditional financial models. George Mason University is no exception. In the years ahead we will need to become even more self-sufficient and find creative ways to deliver on our mission with less public support.

The budget model redesign that we initiated last year takes on a new level of urgency, as do our efforts to revamp enrollment processes throughout the university, generate incremental revenue through new programs, public-private partnerships, increased fund-raising, and better use of our current assets.

Provost David Wu and Senior Vice President J.J. Davis will hold a budget forum town hall at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 4, in Dewberry Hall North in the Johnson Center. During the forum both David and J.J. will be prepared to provide additional information and answer any questions you may have. The budget forum will also be accessible as follows:

    •    Prince William—Bull  Run 254

    •    Arlington—Founders Hall B119

    •    Front Royal—Academic  219

    •    Loudoun—Signal Hill 101

While I recognize that this process will generate its share of challenges, ultimately the actions outlined above will help us build a stronger, more vibrant, more successful George Mason for the future.

Ángel Cabrera


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Highlights from Opening Convocation

Posted: August 27, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Kudos to Professor Wendi Manuel-Scott for an inspiring, energizing, thought-provoking and profound lecture during New Student Convocation. If you haven’t heard it already, these may well be the best 14 minutes you will spend today:

My remarks once again focused on the university’s namesake, George Mason—who he was, why he matters and his influence on the university today. You can read last year’s version here.

Then I offered my Top 10 recommendations for new students:

  • Keep an open mind. Learning happens not when we prove to others that we’re right but when we realize that we may not be.
  • Pick the brains of our outstanding faculty. Don’t assume they are too busy to care about you. You are their first priority.
  • Study abroad if you can.
  • Don’t wait until your senior year to start looking for a job. Find ways to engage with employers and organizations beginning today.
  • Join at least two initiatives on campus. There are 300 clubs and organizations from which to choose. Pick at least one you may not think you’re interested in.
  • Every once in a while, take the Metro to Washington, D.C., — recently crowned as America’s coolest city, in case you haven’t heard.
  • Take care of your body. Don’t overeat. Don’t overdrink. Don’t do drugs (it’s really stupid). Get plenty of exercise.
  • Do not abuse anyone or tolerate anyone who does. Sexual assault on college campuses happens to perhaps one in five women. About 90 percent of those attacks involve acquaintances, not strangers. Alcohol plays a part in more than half of the incidents. And perpetrators are almost always repeat offenders. If you are aware of an abuse and don’t report it, you just became part of the problem. We should all be part of the solution.
  • Study a lot.
  • Have fun!
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    A year in (brief) review

    Posted: July 1, 2014 at 6:18 am

    It’s been a productive year at George Mason University on many counts.

    This academic year we welcomed the largest freshman class in our history, as well as the largest transfer class. In fall 2013, 3,011 first-time freshmen arrived on campus, with 2,390 being from the Commonwealth and 621 coming from out of state. The 2,659 degree-seeking, undergraduate transfer students was almost as large a group as the freshman cohort; and when spring 2014 transfers are included, the number of new transfers reached 3,931.

    And we’re not just becoming larger; we’re also becoming more effective. Our 6-year graduation rate has steadily increased from 64 percent in 2009 to about 67 percent in 2013 (and at 72 percent and 71 percent, respectively, women and Hispanics are the first two groups to have surpassed the 70 percent mark). Add to that high employment outcomes of our graduates, as reported by SCHEV, and low student loan default rates, as reported by the Federal Government, and we can safely and proudly claim that we are serving more students and serving them better.

    These numbers in fact put us firmly on track to achieve our goal of 100,000 graduates over the next 10 years, a strategic objective that ranks among our most ambitious. Here’s our point of departure.  In 2012-13, we awarded 8,410 degrees and 549 certificates. Of those degrees, 59 percent (4,920) were undergraduate, and one-third (2,756) were in the humanities and social sciences, with an additional 40 percent (3,331) pretty evenly distributed among education, business and engineering. Our graduates also earned 261 law degrees, 249 PhDs, and 2,980 Masters. No other four-year institution in the Commonwealth awarded more degrees. We anticipate similar numbers this year, and gradual overall increases thereafter.

    Here are several other highlights (a more exhaustive list and data will be available this Fall as part of my president’s report–here’s a link to last year’s):

    • We produced a university-wide strategic plan, and developed unit-specific plans for each of the colleges under that framework. We created a unified brand profile that is effective July 1. A campus master plan and a campaign plan are under way.
    • We recruited a new provost, David Wu, who begins July 1. David completes a new leadership team with robust and diverse backgrounds.
    • We established a partnership with INTO that will greatly increase our international student population.
    • We agreed to merge the School of Public Policy and the Department of Public and International Affairs into a new School of Policy, Government and International Affairs that will stand out in breadth, depth and quality.
    • The Mason-Korea campus in Incheon welcomed its first class in March. Initial enrollment totaled 40 students, including six undergraduates from Fairfax.
    • We raised more than $51 million, which makes fiscal year 2014, once again, a record fund-raising year.
    • We transformed the Mason Inn into the Mason Global Center, that will add much needed educational and residential space while ending years of operating losses.
    • We consolidated and moved administrative offices, including the provost and president’s offices, into Alan and Sally Merten Hall (formerly, University Hall), a move that created an additional 25,000 square feet of renovated academic space, without requiring new construction.
    • We launched five new fully online programs this year: MEd, Education Leadership;MS, Applied Information Technology; MS, Biodefense; Graduate Certificate in Emergency Management and Homeland Security; and, Graduate Certificate in Geospatial Intelligence. All will offer their first set of online cohorts this fall.  We also are launching a fully online asynchronous MS program in Systems Engineering.
    • We opened the Simulation and Computational Gaming Institute in March, and last month we announced the creation of the Sustainable Earth Institute.
    • We helped incubate a new Education Design Lab (an initiative with former member of the Board of Visitors and benefactor Kathleen DeLaski), dedicated to designing new solutions in higher education, and launched two pilot projects—one on apprenticeships and one on 21st century skills.
    • We joined the Atlantic 10 conference and won four conference championships on our inaugural season—men’s soccer, baseball and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field. Our results in men’s basketball were disappointing, but the national television exposure and as the six bids to the NCAA tournament reaffirmed the value of our decision. Tom O’Connor retired, and we hired Brad Edwards as our new Athletic Director.

    Much, much more was accomplished throughout the university.  And much more is under way.  Thank you to each and every member of the Mason community–students and families, faculty and staff, alumni, volunteers, board members, friends, elected officials, donors and partners–for all you do to move this university forward.  Looking forward to an equally productive 2014-15!

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    Top workplace 2014

    Posted: June 22, 2014 at 7:00 am

    I’ve always felt that George Mason University is not just a great place to go to school, but also a great place to go to work. I’m delighted that the word is spreadinh!

    The Washington Post has selected George Mason as a Top Workplace in the National Capital Region (and the only university in the top 20!). This recognition belongs to every faculty and staff member of our community because it is each of them who every day makes our university a special place for every one else to work, grow and have an impact.

    Why is Mason a great place to work? Last year we spent time diving into our culture, asking what makes this university successful.  The result was a set of seven beliefs or values.  I am pretty sure these seven values are also the big reason why we are considered a great place to work:

    Our Students Come First
    We take great pride in serving our students and helping them grow as individuals, scholars and professionals. A shared sense of purpose is a hallmark of any great organization, and we definitely have it.

    Diversity Is Our Strength
    We include and embrace a multitude of people and ideas in everything we do, not because of a sense of moral obligation, but because of a genuine belief that diversity makes us better at what we do. Because we embrace diversity, everyone, no matter their background, can make of Mason their successful professional home.

    Innovation Is Our Tradition
    We are a young university that prides itself of not following someone else’s path, but blazing its own.  Whether by creating new programs and learning experiences for our students or by engaging in new research journeys with great impact, we strive to find new and better ways to deliver on our mission and know very well that great ideas can come from everyone.

    We Honor Freedom of Thought and Expression
    Innovative learning and scholarship requires thinkers and leaders who are free to pursue their ideas and conduct research that makes our university and our world a better place. That’s why we zealously protect the freedom of all members of our community to seek truth and express their views.

    We are Careful Stewards
    The university where we work is an invaluable asset that has been built by many to serve generations to come. We use precious resources from tax payers, families, and a myriad of organizations to do what we do. We owe it to everyone to use these resources responsibly and sustainably. 

    We Act with Integrity
    We hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards as educators, scholars, students and professionals.

    We Thrive Together
    At Mason we try to nurture a positive and collaborative environment that contributes to the well-being and success of every member. We try to offer programs that support our employees: from tuition waivers, to flexible work options, professional and leadership development, executive coaching, or volunteer service leave.  But most importantly, we recognize that our success is shared and it is our responsibility to help one another succeed.

    Big thanks to the Washington Post for this recognition.  And thanks to each one of my colleagues for their commitment to our university.  Our rewarding and enriching environment is created and sustained by each of you.  Congratulations on a job well done!



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    Bienvenido Mr. Fulbright, and congratulations!

    Posted: June 15, 2014 at 8:47 am

    The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.

    —Senator J. William Fulbright

    The Prince of Asturias Foundation announced this week that the Fulbright Scholarship will receive this year’s Príncipe de Asturias award for international cooperation.  This is the highest recognition bestowed by Spain to an organization or person who has made an exceptional contribution to international cooperation and understanding.  In past years it has gone to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Red Cross and Nelson Mandela.

    As a Fulbright alum and fan, I share the excitement of the entire Fulbright family on this much deserved recognition and I extend my congratulations to all Fulbright scholars, staff at IIE and CIES (disclosure: I serve on its board), the U.S. Department of State, all bilateral commissions and contributing governments and foundations around the world.

    The Fulbright Scholarship is one of those government programs that works.  With a current investment of less than $250M a year by the U.S. government plus $80M from overseas partners, the Fulbright program has allowed more than 100,000 American students and faculty to study, conduct research or teach overseas.  And it has allowed more than 200,000 foreign students and faculty to do the same in the U.S..  In doing so, it has helped build 300,000 bridges of understanding between the U.S. and 150 other nations.  It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to build goodwill with relatively little investment.

    The classic Berlanga movie “Bienvenido Mr. Marshall“, one of my favorite of all times, offers an insightful and very funny take on the stereotypes Americans and Spaniards had of one another circa 1950. It is also a critical tale of American economic development investments (or lack thereof) in impoverished, post-war Spain.  The villagers in imaginary Villar del Río get ready to welcome the Americans and their gifts only to see Mr. Marshall drive by without stopping. I suppose my views of America growing up must have been shaped by movies of that sort in addition to the dubbed versions of John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Clark Gable and Kirk Douglas.

    Whatever my stereotypes of Americans were, they didn’t help me much when in the Summer of 1991 I boarded a TWA plane headed to the U.S., compliments of a Fulbright Scholarship.  My life would never be the same.

    Thanks to my Fulbright I discovered a fascinating and diverse new country, which I learned to love and make my own.  I also discovered a gem of American society, the American research university, which shaped my views of what higher education can do to change the world for the better.  Georgia Tech, my home for 4 years, allowed me to explore academic fields outside my own and gave me two graduate degrees and a wife–I couldn’t ask for more!

    I returned to Spain in 1995 with a much richer appreciation of the U.S. and full of ideas, and American-style ingenuity, as to how Spanish higher education could be improved. I worked in business and at three academic institutions there, then returned to the U.S. where I have worked at two others.  I’ve become a U.S. ambassador (lower case, no Senate confirmation) when I’m in Spain and a Spanish ambassador in the U.S..  I’ve also learned to establish connections between peoples and organizations in other parts of the world.  I’ve become so fascinated by the power of reaching across national boundaries, that I’ve even written a book about it.

    In Berlanga’s movie, Mr. Marshall never shows up in the end.  The Villar del Río villagers are left disappointed and as ignorant of the americanos as always.  Mr. Fulbright did show up and made a big difference, in my life, 300,000 others and the millions that together we have managed to reach.

    Congratulations Fulbrighters!  Let’s work to make sure the Fulbright program grows stronger.  For now, it would be useful and timely if you joined the #SaveFulbright movement.

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    A tale of two systems

    Posted: June 6, 2014 at 5:35 am

    The rector of Spain’s Universidad Pontificia de Comillas, a selective Jesuit university with some of the country’s most reputed programs in business, law and industrial engineering, invited me this week to speak to his administration about the differences and similarities between the American and Spanish systems of higher ed, given that I have studied, taught and held leadership positions in both systems.  One of the most striking differences that I have seen and that centered a big part of our discussion is funding.

    According to the OECD, Spain spends $13,400 per university student, which is about the OECD average.  In comparison, the U.S. spends a whopping $25,600, the world’s highest, and almost twice as much as the average rich country.  For that money, the U.S. gets about half of the top universities in the world–more than anyone else–even though, when normalized by population, the U.S. comes in 9th, with countries like Switzerland, Denmark or Sweden doing better as I have explained here before.

    Where does the money come from in each case?  While in Spain only 22% of the money comes from private sources (mostly families), private funding accounts for 64% of spending in the U.S.. As it turns out, in terms of public funding, Spain makes a bigger investment per student ($10,400) than the U.S. does ($9,200).

    While discussions in the U.S. tend to be about whether universities overspend and overcharge, discussions in Spain tend to be about whether universities underspend–yet there’s a general reticence to considering higher private/family funding.  I would argue that the U.S. has gone too far in shifting the cost of higher ed from public sources to families–thus current debates around affordability and ballooning student debt.  But I would also argue that Spanish universities desperately need additional funding, even if it means to shift some of the burden to families.

    Spain’s focus on public funding and very low tuition has delivered on access.  According to the OECD, 60% of men and 70% of women 25-34 have a college education, while the numbers are 38% and 30% among people 55-64.  In only one generation, college has gone from a privilege of the few, to an opportunity for all, an outcome that deserves to be recognized and celebrated.  Yet this funding and governance system that emphasizes uniformity and access has failed to produce research universities that compete with the world’s best and which are essential to fuel the country’s innovation capacity.  Spain needs to accept a broader diversity of missions and roles among its universities, recognize that not every university can nor should try to be all things to all people, allow more flexibility in tuition policy and, as every one seems to acknowledge but no one dares to push, it needs to radically change its system of governance.


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    Sustainability and resilience at George Mason University

    Posted: May 19, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Scientists have been telling us for years that atmospheric CO2 and other gases derived in part from combustion of fossil fuels and other industrial processes were reaching concentrations unseen in human history. These cumulative emissions are believed to be driving a gradual increase of average land, ocean and atmosphere temperatures, a disturbance of statistical weather patterns, a disruption of ecosystems and reduction of biodiversity, an accelerating melting of polar icecaps, and an increase in sea levels.

    Some of these changes are mutually reinforcing, often in complex, non-linear ways, which makes forecasting a particularly difficult endeavor.  Predictions of how these trends will affect us are imprecise–and at times contradictory–but include the possibility of  changes in the availability of fresh water, the redrawing of densely populated coastlines, the increase in frequency and intensity of natural disasters and the geographic expansion of certain infectious diseases.

    Yet the emission of greenhouse gases that is threatening our current standard of living is the direct consequence of the technological advances that have allowed many of us to enjoy unprecedented levels of prosperity.  It shouldn’t surprise us that scientists’ admonitions have been received in some cases with indifference, lukewarm skepticism, denial or, even outright hostility.  The threats posed by climate change appear uncertain, broadly shared and long-term, while the costs of curbing emissions are painfully real, immediate and personal. And, while rich countries point the finger at the rapidly growing emissions in the less developed countries, the question that looms in the less developed world is why those who contributed the least to the problem should bear the cost of dealing with it.

    We are thus trapped in a tragedy of the commons of global proportions, where the immediate self-interest of each individual, group or nation is at odds with the collective, long-term interest of all.  National political processes and international governance mechanisms have repeatedly failed not for a lack of rationality but for an excess of it.  While emissions have gone down slowly in a few countries, a host of cultural, historical and political differences that cut across inter- and intra-national boundaries make it safe to bet against sufficient action happening to stabilize the climate system any time soon. Meanwhile nature maintains its course and keeps changing the parameters of the problem.

    Climate change is the poster child of what has been referred to as “wicked problems”. Problems are wicked when they are hard to define and isolate, when their underlying causes and effects are complex and evolving, when different stakeholders are affected by them differently, when there’s no consensus as to what would constitute a solution, and when the information and resources needed to reach a solution are held by different individual and groups who may have difficulty communicating and collaborating.

    As a university that has declared its commitment to producing research of consequence and contribute to find solutions to some of the most pressing (read wicked) problems of our time, we have our work cut out for us.  On the positive side, our resources in the disciplines that are relevant to tacking climate change are nothing but impressive. Here’s a sample:

    • Prof. Jagadish Shukla, a lead author in the IPCC that was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, and his colleagues at the Center for Oceanic-Land-Atmosphere Studies have developed unique tools to understand short and long-term climate fluctuations.
    • Prof. Thomas Lovejoy, the award-winning conservation biologist who coined the term biological diversity in 1980, has spent most of his scientific career documenting biological decay due to ecosystem fragmentation, deforestation and climate change.
    • Philosopher Andrew Light, currently advising the U.S. Secretary of State on international climate change negotiations,  has written extensively on the moral implications of policy and market-based solutions to climate change.
    • Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication and its director Prof. Ed Maibach produce with Yale University some of the best data we have about Americans’ attitudes towards climate change.  The Center’s most recent addition, former conservative Congressman Bob Inglis, is leading a campaign promoting free-enterprise solutions to climate change.
    • Arison Prof. Gregory Unruh, who created the concept of carbon lock-in, has worked for years in trying to change the mindsets and skill sets of business leaders to try to drive environmentally-friendly business practices.

    The list of academics, just at Mason, who are experts in one aspect or another of climate change is much longer.  Yet for all the impressive talent that we have, we suffer from some of the same limitations to address this most wicked problem: we are tackling this from mostly disconnected, narrow disciplinary lenses.  Each of the individuals listed above (and many of the ones I skipped) know painfully well how hard it is to reach across ideological, cultural and disciplinary divides to drive action.  They have the scars to show for trying.  But they have successes under their belt too.

    Our challenge is now is to try to bring this impressive talent together in a way that can help define and address some of the most pressing challenges of climate change.  We need to figure out how to best train new creative problem solvers who can experiment with new approaches.  We need to come up with transdisciplinary approaches to understanding the geophysical, biological, economic and social implications of climate change.  We need to find new ways for our science to serve society, helping governments, businesses and the civil sector make informed decisions about matters of utmost importance.

    And we need to find the right external partners who can expand our capabilities.

    This is exactly the goal of our new interdisciplinary institute: The Institute for a Sustainable Earth.

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