If Fuller is approaching the asymptotic point for his profession beyond which one cannot grow any more influential, his rise was also smooth and rapid. Born in Summit, N.J., he went to college at Rutgers, and then took a fellowship at the University of Mississippi for his master’s (“Mississippi was really backwards,” he remembers. “The university had its problems”). From there, he took another free ride to Cornell, and came to Washington in 1967 to do research for his dissertation—but ended up staying, when George Washington University offered him an assistant professorship in 1969.
George Washington is where Fuller established himself as the pre-eminent analyst of the Washington economy—especially the influence of the federal government, which changed in the wake of Reagan-era budget cuts that decreased the size of the bureaucracy but created a bonanza of contracting and procurement. Fuller found ways to track each piece of federal spending, and how it affected jobs, private investment, and the housing market. He eventually led the university’s urban and regional planning program.
G.W.’s administration, though, was never that supportive. Local issues aren’t much admired in a university full of people who weigh in on issues of more global significance. In the 1980s, G.W. folded the planning program into the business school and stopped funding studies on the city entirely, opting to chase government and non-profit grants instead.
George Mason, on the other hand, saw Fuller—and his top-notch economic models—as a way to put their fledgling school of public policy on the map. They couldn’t offer him a lot more money, or George Washington’s prestige, but they could give him something more important: freedom. “[At G.W.], the faculty didn’t have much independence, where the opposite was the case at Mason, and still is,” Fuller says. “The environment is very permissive, and very encouraging, and as a consequence it’s a very fertile area for faculty of all kinds.”
Fuller’s old employer never replaced the regional expertise it lost when he left.
“George Washington has never seen itself as a local institution. It sees itself as a national institution,” says Garry Young, who heads up the school’s much-reduced Center for Washington Area Studies. “It is fair to say that we ceded a lot of that research. There’s only so much money to pay for this stuff anyway.”
Fuller’s new gig, though, came with a different master. The university pays his $207,000 salary, but he needs to tap clients in order to fund staff and grad students: Mason is not treated with the same generosity as the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech. “In fact, the university wouldn’t exist if Northern Virginia business leaders hadn’t invented it,” Fuller says. “The state didn’t want it. Northern Virginia kept evolving, and they found resources for it.”
In practice, it’s like bartering: The Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, for example, funds a research assistant; in exchange, Fuller and colleague John McClain will make presentations at association meetings and put together a bimonthly research newsletter. (Young says G.W. doesn’t do this because they want their grad students to be able to publish in academic journals, which they typically can’t do with research performed for private groups.)
Sometimes, Fuller lands bigger windfalls. When G.W. tried to steal him back in the early 2000s, retired George Mason president George Johnson got Dwight Schar, a wealthy homebuilder and part-owner of the Redskins, to endow a university chair for a million bucks.
Vice President for Research and Economic Development Roger Stough, who initially recruited Fuller, says the academic-industrial complex is part of George Mason’s competitive advantage. “The strategy for Mason for a long time has been to make itself useful to those interest groups so it could use their wealth to make it prominent among the universities,” he says. “Fitting into the ecology of the region so you can benefit from being a part of it.”
Is there anyone professors aren’t allowed to take money from?
“We wouldn’t take money from the Mafia,” Stough answers. “We would be very careful about taking funding for foreign sources. Social turmoil of any sort, revolutionary-type activities. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things where some people might say gee, there might be some question about that.“
Thus, it became Fuller’s mission to be useful.
Every region may have a Stephen Fuller, but Washington isn’t like every region. Divided among three jurisdictions, area planners’ ability to do things is further complicated by the rise or fall of Northern Virginia’s influence in Richmond, the District’s influence on Capitol Hill, and the capacity of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to get along with each other as well as with their state legislature. To make matters worse, there is no empowered regional body—like New York and New Jersey’s Port Authority—to make them play nice.