Unlike his neighbors, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, founding father George Mason has rarely gotten his props from historians and the public. Until recently, the same could be said of the university bearing his name. But the advancement of Mason’s basketball team to the NCAA’s Final Four is only the school’s latest surprise win. The GMU economics department—which didn’t even award Ph.D.s until 1983—has two Nobel Prize winners on its faculty. The law school ascended to the first tier several years ago, a striking achievement for a new program that 10 years ago was being run out of an old department-store building. What’s remarkable is that GMU’s freewheeling basketball team and its free-market academic teams owe their successes to very similar, market-beating strategies.
GMU has excelled on the court and in the classroom by daring to be different. Its basketball team and academic programs began with the (correct) assumption that they couldn’t hope to compete against the top schools in their fields—say, Harvard Law School or the Duke Blue Devils—by directly imitating their methods. GMU lacks the resources and reputation to recruit McDonald’s All-Americans or Alan Dershowitzes. So instead, GMU has hunted for inefficiencies in its markets. Coach Jim Larranaga follows the Moneyball model of recruitment: 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.
This is also the idea behind GMU’s free-market-oriented economics department. The department got started with a heretical premise: The academic market is inefficient, so how can we exploit it? GMU knew it couldn’t afford to be a first-class MIT and didn’t want to be a second-class MIT, so successive chairs of the department, backed by entrepreneurial university presidents George Johnson and Alan Merten, looked for unexploited opportunities.