What's With GMU?

George Mason University’s basketball team broke into national prominence, going all the way to the NCAA Final Four matchup but losing to the red hot University of Florida Gators. The Patriots’ stellar performance this season is emblematic of the entrepreneurship and risk taking that long has been a feature of the University.

In 1980, when I left Temple University to join George Mason University’s Economics Department, it was a little known school in northern Virginia. Dr. George Johnson, also from Temple University, was president. In an early meeting, to settle my dispute with one of the deans, I learned that Dr. Johnson was an entrepreneur with a vision. In 1983, Dr. Jim Buchanan, a former mentor during my doctoral student days at UCLA, was enticed to join our economics department, bringing with him several members of the Center for Study of Public Choice that he founded at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In 1986, Dr. Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

In 1986, Henry Manne was offered the deanship at our law school. At the time, the law school was less than nondescript, with most of the faculty having only a tangential academic relationship with the school. Mr. Manne was given complete control over hiring and firing. He hired legal scholars, established the Law & Economics Center and laid the groundwork for GMU Law School to become a first-rate law school. Today, GMU Law School is in the nation’s top tier of law schools. According to the latest U.S. News & World Report’s "America’s Best Graduate Schools 2007," GMU Law School ranks 37th among 193 law schools. One uniqueness of our law school is that its professors revere and respect the U.S. Constitution.

In 1995, my colleagues asked me to become department chairman, and I reluctantly accepted. Our department was under siege by a hostile administration because we all shared characteristics that don’t go over well in today’s academy; we are libertarian-leaning free market economists. My confrontational stance as chairman didn’t endear me to the administration. I decided that the only way to improve our department was to "privatize" it — go out and raise money. With the help of my colleagues, generous donors and a new dean, we built a first-rate department. In 2001, the last year of my term as chairman, Dr. Vernon Smith and six of his colleagues at the University of Arizona’s Economic Science Laboratory joined our department. A year later, Dr. Smith became GMU’s second Nobel Prize-winner.

You say, "What’s up, Williams? I thought we’re talking about GMU basketball!" For GMU’s basketball team, knocking off several of the nation’s top-ranked teams is in itself a stellar performance. Going from no one’s guess to being in the Final Four is indicative of some of George Mason University’s entrepreneurship. Coach Jim Larranaga and his staff used what my colleagues, Professors Peter Boettke and Alexander Tabarrok, in their article "The Secret of George Mason," called the Moneyball model of recruitment. Larranaga knows that he can’t compete for freshmen players with the likes of UCLA, Duke, Wake Forest and other top-ranked teams. Boettke and Tabarrok say he overcame that obstacle by hunting "for the undervalued players — the ones who everyone else thought were too short, too thin, or too fat — and then building them into a team. In its astonishing defeat of UConn, GMU’s players were giving away 4 inches at nearly every position."

After this season, it’s just possible that the GMU Patriots will be able to hold its own against top schools, as does the economics department and law school, in recruiting basketball players. Singer Ray Charles pointed to the problem in his hit song, "Them That’s Got," which says, "That old saying them that’s got is them that gets is something I can’t see. If you got to have something before you can get something, how you get your first is still a mystery to me." George Mason University basketball, as well as law and economics, has solved Ray Charles’ mystery. We have something.