This post was written by Lana Mason, Processing Student Assistant. Lana has an Associate of Arts degree in Fine Arts from Piedmont Virginia Community College. She is currently studying Art History at George Mason University. Lana was the recipient of the University Libraries Student Assistant Scholarship for the 2018-19 academic year.
This is the first post in a six-part blog series exploring the campus culture of George Mason University through the lens of each of its six past presidents’ tenures. The materials referenced in these posts are derived from the George Mason University Office of the President records.
Lorin A. Thompson was both the first chancellor of George Mason College (GMC) of the University of Virginia and the first president of George Mason University. Born in Colorado and raised in Nebraska, Thompson lived most of his early life in the Midwest. He came to Virginia in 1940 as the director of the State Planning Board’s Virginia Population Study. Prior to his tenure at Mason, Thompson was director of the Bureau of Population and Economic Research at the University of Virginia (UVA). His Ph. D. in industrial psychology and years of administrative experience working in demographic studies made him an appealing candidate to guide George Mason College, which in 1966 had been newly expanded from a two-year college into a four-year, degree-granting institution. In June 1966, he was granted the position of first chancellor of GMC and immediately set to work on expanding the tiny college. Six years later in 1972, George Mason College officially became George Mason University and Thompson was named the university’s first president.
During Thompson’s tenure, GMC went through a period of rapid growth and began to develop its own unique campus culture. The 1967 “Status Report and Recommendation for Action”[i] document presents a picture of Mason during its earliest years—a diminutive but rapidly growing institution whose administrators had high hopes for explosive growth in the coming years. According to the report, there were little more than 1,000 students on campus, with only 81 faculty members and a humble 19 classrooms. While these numbers seem tremendously small by contemporary standards, they represented roughly a 30% increase from the 1966 headcounts, and demonstrated the significant expansion trajectory that characterized the school for many years to come.
Mason’s freshman student demographics circa the 1960s represent a student body that was in many ways far outside of the national average and stands in stark difference to Mason’s diverse student body of today. At the time of the survey, the average Mason freshman was “a white, above average student who comes from a well-educated, upper middle class family”.[ii] Only 2% of freshmen identified as an ethnicity other than Caucasian, and nearly 95% described having come from middle to upper middle class neighborhoods. Only 7.5% of freshmen stated that they had needed to take out a loan to pay for school, as the vast majority were able to afford to attend with the help of familial financial aid. Notably, the vast majority of freshmen at Mason during this period supported gender equality, legalization of abortion, and voluntary participation in the military.
Thompson’s administration marked a period in which Mason was beginning to forge its own unique identity as an institution, differentiating itself from its UVA heritage. From the outset of its establishment as a four-year institution, students and administrators alike sought to construct a common identity for Mason. The 1969 “George Mason College Handbook”[iii] speaks to the common interest in creating a unique community within the college and the desire for fostering a sense of belonging in new students. Created by the Student Government, the handbook covers everything from the college’s honor code—which emphasizes mutual respect and trust between both students and faculty—to the on-campus film screening schedule.
The drive to create the “Patriot” identity at Mason led to the development of many new activities, events, and programs on campus, including events such as George Mason Day, arts festivals, and student organizations. The school also began to participate in a variety of intercollegiate athletics including soccer, tennis, golf, and basketball.
Mason also began to experience controversies and turmoil during this time, reflecting the wider events and social changes happening in American society. Despite the 1960s freshmen survey which suggested that the vast majority of the student body supported legal abortion access,[iv] abortions and assistance of any kind in procuring one was illegal according to Virginia state law. In November 1971, the Broadside student newspaper ran an advertisement[v] for abortion services available in New York City—the publication of which was illegal. The printing of this ad resulted in a lawsuit against the Broadside staff as well as a long and complex debate over the issues of abortion, freedom of speech, and legal culpability. The Vietnam War was also in full swing, and college campuses across the United States faced unrest as attitudes towards the war and the military draft polarized the country. In 1968, informational materials were circulated on GMC campus that were designed to share access to resources for “draft dodging.”[vi] These documents give a vivid picture of the kind of world Mason students faced during the politically turbulent time period of the 1960s and 70s.
retired from the presidency in 1973 and was succeeded by Vergil H. Dykstra,
whose administration set the tone for major changes in the newly established
university’s campus culture.
[i] “Status Report and Recommendation for Action,” September 20, 1967, George Mason University Office of the President records, R0019, 5.9, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[ii] “George Mason College Freshman Profile,” circa 1960s, George Mason University Office of the President records, R0019, 8.7, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[iii] “The 1969-1970 George Mason College Handbook ‘The Patriot,’” 1969, George Mason University Office of the President records, R0019, 11.5, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[iv] “George Mason College Freshman Profile.”
[v] Broadside Student Newspaper, November 3, 1971, page 4, George Mason University Office of the President records, R0019, 9.7, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
[vi] “Conscientious Objection,” 1968, George Mason University Office of the President records, R0019, 12.13, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
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