Naming George Mason


How George Mason was selected as a name for the University’s branch college in Northern Virginia is a bit of a mystery. There is very little documentation that details exactly whose idea it was and why “George Mason.”

Most likely the choice of George Mason was advanced to candidacy through conversations in both administrative offices and the Board of Visitors meeting room in Charlottesville. The strongest available evidence might lead us to believe that the president of the University of Virginia, Colgate W. Darden, Jr., made the selection. However, in an oral history interview from 1983, early Mason backer and Fairfax leader John C. Wood credits Virginia Senator Charles Fenwick of Arlington as the one who first suggested naming the college after the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights and an early supporter of the abolition of slavery. [1]

On June 16, 1959, President Darden wrote Director John Finley at the University College to suggest George Mason as a possible name for the college. The college had been in existence for nearly two years and giving it a distinct name had come up at the University’s Board meeting just a few days prior to Darden’s letter to Finley. Though officials in Arlington and the local community at Bailey’s Crossroads called the school “The University College of the University of Virginia,” many in Charlottesville simply referred to it as the “Northern Virginia Branch College.” Darden asked Finley for his opinion as to how Northern Virginians might feel about the new name, “George Mason.” [2]

During the process, three different names were in the running to become the new name of the branch college. Both “George Mason College” and “University College of the University of Virginia,” the school’s name at the time, were discussed during the June 13, 1959, meeting of the Board. In this meeting, Darden suggested “George Mason College of the University of Virginia” to the Board. Board member Charles Fenwick pointed out that “University College of the University of Virginia” was currently being used and would be suitable as well. After some discussion, the Board decided to defer the decision until the October 7, 1959, meeting. Although it is not mentioned in the minutes of the meeting of October 7, another name, “Northern Virginia College,” must have been proposed. This new name joined the previously suggested “George Mason” and “University” Colleges. Back at Bailey’s Crossroads, Director Finley was apprised of these discussions, presumably by telephone, and asked for his and his colleagues’ opinions regarding the name choices.

On October 12, 1959, Finley sent a brief letter to Dr. James W. Cole, Jr., Dean of Extension and General Studies. In this letter, Finley told Cole that he asked about thirty individuals who were evenly divided among the three name suggestions. [3] This left the decision squarely in the hands of the Board. The Board did choose the name for the college, as it was finalized at its December 12, 1959, meeting at Charlottesville. Under the heading GEORGE MASON COLLEGE MATTERS, the minutes affirm:

"The following resolution was adopted RESOLVED by the Board of Visitors of The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia that the Northern Virginia Branch College, heretofore established on the site adjacent to the Town of Fairfax, is hereby named George Mason College of the University of Virginia. [4]

Browse items related to the naming of George Mason College.

[1] Martha Turnage and John C. Wood, Oral History Interview, 1983
[2] Colgate W. Darden, Jr. to JNG Finley, June 16, 1959, George Mason University Office of the President Records, Box 3, Folder 13
[3] JNG Finley to James W. Cole, Jr., October 12, 1959, George Mason University Facilities Planning Records, Box 1, Folder 3
[4] Board of Visitors, University of Virginia, Meeting Minutes, December 12, 1959