The Right IDEA

George Mason University’s sixth president, Dr. Angel Cabrera, looks to the future of the school and its place in innovative academia.

George Mason University’s sixth president, Dr. Angel Cabrera, looks to the future of the school and its place in innovative academia.

By Colleen Sheehy Orme 

Dr. Angel Cabrera
Photo courtesy of George Mason University

John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Dr. Angel Cabrera, a renowned scholar, recognized global leader and management educator is the sixth president of George Mason University. Within moments of speaking with him it is evident that he manifests the profound qualities of a natural leader. It can only seem providential that he found his way to the nation’s capital to lead Mason’s Patriot’s.

A man of great wisdom, there is absence of pretense, which makes him all the more intriguing. He is an intricate and fascinating blend of what could be called, ‘entrepreneurial academia.’ It is fitting that he is here to guide a university whose tagline is, “Where Innovation Is Tradition.”

It was one year ago that Dr. Cabrera assumed office, effective July 2012. And great consideration was given before selecting Cabrera to lead Virginia’s largest university.

Dr. Cabrera sits in the office of President at Mason having left Arizona’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. It was difficult leaving Thunderbird, the world’s leading graduate school of international management, but Cabrera was enticed not only by Mason, but by the vibrant rush of the metropolitan area. He was the school’s 11th president, a title which he held since 2004.

In chatting with Cabrera, you get a feel for Cabrera the man. A native of Spain he is an avid fan of soccer and the team Real Madrid. He will also tell you that he follows Formula 1 and MotoGP. He is enthusiastic about hiking, swimming, sailing and skiing. Of course, it’s hard to conceive how he does it all as nestled amongst these endeavors are the accomplishments that crowd the walls of the office of this esteemed president.

One should not be fooled by the external trappings of this grand and spacious office. Cabrera instead makes the Mason campus his true office. He delights in chatting with students, staff and all he encounters. He is taken by the vast accomplishments of Mason’s staff which he acknowledges are so wide scale and common that they are almost too numerous to mention by name. Instead, he excitedly points out that there is almost something new to be intrigued by each day.

“It helps to not only tell the story of Mason, but I get a better understanding of what’s going on in the community.”

Cabrera’s journey began when he received his undergraduate and masters degrees in engineering at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid, what is considered Spain’s premier engineering univeristy. He then jokes that Georgia Institute of Technology introduced him to both his MS and Ph.D., as well as his wife, an organizational psychologist. Together they have two children.

Another aspect of Cabrera, the man, is his strong philanthropic history. He is an ardent and passionate supporter of corporate social responsibility and management responsibility. In his years at Thunderbird he was instrumental in establishing a program to provide business education to entrepreneurs in developing countries. He also led his graduate students in orchestrating a formal commitment to social responsibility and professional ethics. It garnered Thunderbird the recognition of being the first business school in the world to commit to a professional oath of honor.

Cabrera was named one of the top 20 business school leaders in the world in 2011 by the Financial Times.
He is also the author of “Being Global: How to Think, Act and Lead in a Transformed World,” published by the Harvard Business Review Press.

Together Mason and Cabrera are an impressively good match.

U.S. News & World Report declared Mason a top “Up-and-Coming University,” and Kiplinger’s listed it as a “Best Value in Public Colleges.” Mason boasts an impressive and highly regarded, 6,000 large, in faculty and staff. Mason is also one of the top 200 research institutions in the world.

So just what does running a presitigious higher education institution, such as Mason truly entail?

One thing is certain it is both a rigorous and varied adventure. 

“It is impossible to be bored because every day is a different day filled with different things,” says Cabrera. “For instance, this year I spent a lot of time outside meeting and speaking with business leaders and business groups getting to know a lot of different people. It helps to not only tell the story of Mason, but I get a better understanding of what’s going on in the community.”

Cabrera was an external hire so there is an obvious curiosity and interest to meet this new leader of all things Mason. “I spend a lot of time with students to get to know their interests and needs,” says Cabrera. He also divides his time amongst faculty and staff, basketball games, other athletic events and art events. He is particularly commited to philanthropic efforts and fundraising at Mason, hoping area philanthropists will champion Mason.
“A lot of my efforts are going to try and raise funds through the George Mason University Foundation.”

In rounding out his first year anniversary it seemed fitting to ask what Cabrera’s expectations were and if they came to fruition?

“Honestly, my expectations were surpassed because we are a large university. Every week I run into a new part of the university that is doing something truly amazing,” says Cabrera. “Each week there is a new pocket of excellence with the faculty doing new and cutting edge things. I have been surprised almost constantly. I knew some of the area’s where Mason has distinction, but it’s remarkable beyond that.”

“I realized quickly that most people in our community, in the region do not understand the asset they have built here,” he adds.

The question begs: Has Cabrera encountered any unexpected hurdles in nearing his first anniversary as president?
“I encountered no particular hurdles. In fact, everyone has been amazingly helpful,” he states.

“When I came, I asked the board to give me a few months to craft a vision for the university. I needed to make sure it was not just my vision for the university, but everyone’s vision. I collected input and over 4,000 participated.”

These 4,000 individual’s consisted of faculty, staff, students, alumni, members of the Board of Visitors, trustees, business leaders and members of the general assembly. Cabrera even discussed the school with those on Capital Hill.

Angel Cabrera George Mason Commencement Ceremony
Photo courtesy of George Mason University

“I really collected input from many, many sources,” says Cabrera. “Every door I knocked on was opened and answered. I owe a lot to my predecessor’s because they have left a lot of good will for the university and I have defintley benefited from it.”
Perhaps it is his leadership style which made his first year seemingly void of hurdles. After all, Mason is an especially large institution so how was the transition nearly seemless? It may well be due to the fact that Cabrera’s leadership is one of absorption of data and individuals, blending together before making drastic changes. His is a comprehensive, team-involved leadership where the students, faculty, staff and president are united, not just led.

In March of this year, Mason’s new ‘Vision’ was approved.

“It was approved, I believe enthusiastically, and now we are moving into the strategic planning and how to execute it,” adds Cabrera. “Institutions need to be open minded, innovated, diverse in serving students and plugged into the community. In fact, we summarize it, the university’s new vision is being called, the “Mason IDEA.” (Innovation. Diverse. Entrepreneural. Accessible.)

“I think these things will serve us well,” says Cabrera. “Changes are happening in higher education and Mason is more equipped to deal with that than other universities.”

Mason is an exceptional example of higher education in that, as a relatively young university, there is an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that allows them to go where other institutions have yet to tread. In speaking with Cabrera, this is one of the strongest pulls he felt towards the position of president.

“Higher education is undergoing big changes because of financial pressures, changes in the way universities are funded and because of technologies. For many reasons universities are under pressure to do the kinds of things we do, and do them differently, and many universities are not ready for change or to do things differently,” says Cabrera.

”It is wonderful to be in a university that has very robust and academic values, but is always looking to do new and innovative things,” says Cabrera. “To do the kinds of things that Mason does is very hard to do elsewhere. Also it is located right outside of Washington, D.C., one of the biggest allocations of talented and educated people.”

“The tricky thing is that we also have strong traditions and that tension of being true to the values of academia and at the same time embrace innovation,” says Cabrera.“I think things are changing because every university feels the same pressure to change. I think what you are going to see is more and more leaders becoming deans and presidents who embrace innovation because that’s what are society wants us to do.”

Technology is definitely a cornerstone of Cabrera’s approach. It will be the focus of how he grows Mason efficiently and progressively towards the future and the diverse student population. It will not be a brick and mortar approach, but rather a future forward technological academic dance. His other passion is the pure scale of Mason and the dramatic impact on an academic instituation of this size. This seems to be his vision for Mason as it already encompasses an enormous variety of majors. It seems that Cabrera will focus on the strength and progressiveness of fine tuning the engine before driving it in too many directions, too soon.

Cabrera is anything but the average president. A rarity, he is the convergence of both business and academia and what might be called the aforementioned, ‘entrepreneurial academia.’

It is obvious that the lense with which he views education and the future allows him to connect the dots that others may not see. It means not only remarkable and endless possibilities in the area of innovation, but also efficient understanding and implementation of streamlining education with today’s rapidly growing technology.

It gives pause to the fact that relatively few numbers of higher education presidents possess this profitable combination. It is also clear the signficant game changing qualities it provides making Cabrera a man to watch. A forerunner in the future transformation of higher education.

“I think it’s intriguing to bring people from business to lead universities, but you need to understand academia as well.”

“On one hand I am very, very comfortable in business and on the other I am an academic,” says Cabrera. “I think it’s intriguing to bring people from business to lead universities, but you need to understand academia as well.”
Cabrera feels strongly that a business background alone is not the basis of running an educationally prolific and profitable instition because one must understand the world of academia.

So how did Mason stumble upon the individual who seems destined for this coveted office?

More than 300 people were interested in the president position and the search lasted nine months. The committee was comprised of numerous stakeholders. It included, Board of Visitors (BOV) members, faculty, students, alumni and business representatives. The BOV poured over impressive candidates that were comprised of numerous individuals, including those with education backgrounds and those from the private and public sectors.

Lovey Hammel, president, co-founder of Employment Enterprises, Inc. and alumnus of Mason was the chair of the search committee for Mason’s Board of Visitors. “Dr. Cabrera was a wonderful match for Mason,” says Hammel. “He talked that the future of education is about innovation and change. Mason’s history is all about rapid change. Additionally, I was personally inspired by his keen awareness and concern about every type of student (traditional, non-traditional, certification) that education touches.”

It seems the faculty and students have also received Cabrera well.

“Working with Angel Cabrera has been a true delight. He is a man of fundamental integrity, and is an inclusive decision maker. The recently completed visioning exercise pulled a precise narrative from the Mason community which I predict will launch a new generation of accomplishment,” says Bill Reeder, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “I am particularly excited by the inclusive philosophy of this vision and its focus beyond the boundaries and boarders of the campus, while at the same time placing a firm responsibility to students on each and every shoulder. Very dynamic leader and already a dynamic impact.”

Jordan Foster, student body vice president, 2012-2013, is also recognizing the Cabrera benefit: “I feel that Dr. Cabrera is exactly what Mason needs right now. The vision is putting Mason on the best track possible, and I am very excited for the oncoming years. When working with him I feel the hierarchy go away and I feel that he is open to hear anything and work with anyone.”

When asked specifically about the future of Mason, Cabrera responds: “It is very exciting especially because there are some statistics that only about 17 to 18 percent of college students are what you would call traditional students.”

A traditional student is considered to be a student living in a dorm, who is 19-years old and going to classes on campus. The rest of the students are classified as those taking classes part-time, going to community classes or taking classes online, etc.

“The advantage of Mason is that we have a terrific campus life in Fairfax with 6,000 to 7,000 students that are traditional students, but we are a 33,000 student institution,” says Cabrera. Therefore, Mason is catering to all student walks of life and what it will take in the future to best serve them.

“We will continue to innovate in the ways that help students and adapt to help students get their education done,” says Cabrera.

Will Mason continue to expand their main and branch campus locations?
“Obviously, we have to finish some major projects on both campuses, so there are things still underway,” says Cabrera. “We will continue to grow in numbers of students and graduates, some of that will be through more efficient use of facilities we have and some through online courses.

“We will grow, but probably not at the same pace in terms of construction as in the past decade,” he adds.

“These jobs are so complex and you end up dealing with many issues. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what your real purpose is,” says Cabrera. “In higher education we are in the business of changing the world one person at a time. At the end of the day are we having an impact? Are we making the world a better place? This is what keeps you going and helps you make the right decisions.”

The ‘Vision’ is uniting Mason. It is not only an example of Cabrera’s tight grasp on academia, but also his business acumen. He is strengthening the Mason brand, reinforcing the university’s shelf value and making it stand out amongst the crowded educational arena. As many business professionals realize ‘brand’ and ‘emotion’ are the cornerstones of profitability. It is only logical that a man who understands business and the emotion of education will make Mason an even more successful brand. An unbelievably exciting thought for Virginia’s largest university.



(July 2013)