A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

A Conversation with Dr. Cabrera

By Colleen Kearney Rich on October 19, 2012


It has been a summer full of activity for this university with many comings and goings. In response to preparations for the arrival of a new president, an excitement has permeated the campus as the community anticipates what’s next for Mason. In this feature, we pose some questions to President Cabrera on everything from education and leadership to favorite vacation spots and, of course, football.

How would you describe your leadership style, and how do you like to interact with students, faculty, and staff?

First, leadership is about service, about helping others be successful. I’ve always argued that org charts ought to be drawn upside down because the role of leaders is to support others. In the weeks to come, I will continue to work with the senior administration and deans, faculty leadership, and student groups to better understand how I can be most helpful to them.

Second, I’ve learned that we only follow someone when we trust his or her judgment and character. To earn the trust of the Mason community, I will find all avenues at my disposal to reach out to them, from face-to-face meetings to other forms of communication, including social media, which has already been tremendously helpful.

President Cabrera greets Mason families during Move In. Photo by Creative Services.

Mason is very diverse. Did that play a role in your interest in Mason, and how do you feel your international experience can add to our diverse cultures here at Mason from a leadership standpoint?

Mason’s diversity is one of its greatest assets. In the era of globalization and Internet connectedness, the most successful organizations–just as the most successful cities or nations–will be those that can best attract talent from a multitude of backgrounds and engage them in collaborative ways. Diverse teams may be more difficult to manage than homogeneous teams where everyone shares similar beliefs, but they end up being far more innovative and creative precisely because of their heterogeneity.

Diversity was definitely one of the things that made me very excited to join George Mason University. I grew up in Spain. I have studied in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. I married an American, and together we have raised a bilingual family. I’ve traveled and worked around the world and even written a book, Being Global: How to Think, Act, and Lead in a Transformed World [with Gregory Unruh, Harvard Business Review Press, 2012], on how to best engage productively with people from different cultural backgrounds. In a way, diversity has become my way of life.

In what ways would you like to see the alumni community engaged in the life of the university?

A university is as successful as its alumni. Their achievements are our achievements. Their successes are our successes. Our alumni are our best ambassadors; first, because they know us better than anyone and, second, because their very careers tell the story of what we are about.

I’d like to see alumni engaged not just in remembering and celebrating the past, but in shaping our future. Within our community of more than 145,000 graduates, professionals are having an impact in virtually every field across the globe. Their collective voices and perspectives add to the rich diversity of the Mason community. We will need to draw upon their talents and support as we embark on the next phase of the university’s life.

President Cabrera jokes with students during Welcome Week. Photo by Creative Services.

My hope is that to our alumni Mason is much more than the school they once attended. I hope we remain their partner for lifelong learning and personal growth. The more valuable we are to them, the better we are at engaging them in the life of the university, the better they will be able to represent Mason around the world.

I look forward to meeting many Mason alumni in the months ahead as we begin a dialogue that will strengthen ties and build pride in our university. I will not be shy in asking for their help in opening doors, offering advice, and supporting the university financially.

This question is one that keeps coming up. Everyone, especially alumni and current students, wants to know about football. What role do you see athletics playing in our university community?

Intercollegiate athletics have played a unique role in energizing our students and galvanizing the attention and support of our alumni and the community at large. The success of the men’s basketball team in the 2006 NCAA Final Four still resonates across the nation. I am confident that our student-athletes will continue to succeed and help carry the Mason name around the country.

During my brief tenure many alumni and members of the community have inquired about starting a football program at Mason. I understand that the university has reviewed this idea on several occasions in the past and in each case decided not to proceed with launching a program.

Should we re-examine this issue in the future, there are a number of things that must be considered. First and foremost, a football program must fit strategically within the vision of the university and our academic mission. Second, we would need to maintain our commitment to and compliance with Title IX and gender equity in athletics. And, last, we would need to identify new financial resources to build the infrastructure, including staff and facilities, to run such a program without drawing resources away from our many academic needs and priorities.

Given the changing landscape of how state universities are funded, how important is private philanthropy to Mason’s future and what do you see as some of our immediate priorities?

President Cabrera has been on a “listening tour,” meeting with Mason faculty, staff, alumni, students, and friends, as he prepares to craft his vision for the future of the university. Photo by Creative Services.

There is no question that Mason, like most universities, increasingly has to rely on private donations to sustain and enhance the quality of the educational experience we provide to our students. Operating a major university requires substantial income, which cannot be fully covered with state appropriations and student tuition. One of our top priorities will be to continue to build the Mason brand and distinction while keeping our doors open to any student with potential. And private philanthropy will be essential in that endeavor.

Working with the university’s Board of Visitors and faculty, I have already begun an inclusive process that will capture the voices of our community, students, alumni, volunteer leaders, and friends in the creation of a strategic vision for the decade to come. This vision will help clarify our funding priorities and will help convey the message to our donors of why we believe they ought to consider investing in us.

Some priorities are already clear: we need help in attracting and retaining the very best faculty and keeping our doors wide open to the brightest students in Virginia regardless of their family means. Endowed professorships, research support, and student scholarship funds are currently among our most pressing needs. Meanwhile, we continue to expand and dramatically improve the quality of our facilities and our technology. Private support in these efforts will lower our debt service costs and will significantly contribute to keeping Mason affordable.

I truly hope that in the coming years, the most prominent professorships, the most generous scholarships, and the most modern facilities will carry the names of the leaders in our community, foundations, corporations, and outstanding alumni who share our vision and our values and who have chosen to invest in the future of this unique institution. That will be a powerful message to future generations regarding the value of George Mason University and the great service we provide to our community.

Thunderbird was noted for its global outreach, and Mason already has a growing global presence. What can we do at Mason to extend its influence in the global community, as well as nurture our relationship with alumni around the globe?

To serve Virginia and the United States well, Mason needs to be a strong bridge to the world. We need to find ways to bring the world to Mason and take Mason to the world. Under the leadership of Provost Peter Stearns, Mason has made inroads in both directions, and we will need to build on this momentum.

The diversity of our student population is certainly an asset on which we can build. In addition, the openness and flexibility of our community means that we are comfortable operating in a global setting. Finally, our physical location near one of the world’s greatest political and diplomatic centers provides access to people and cultures that can form the backbone of our global connectivity. I look forward to exploring how these assets can be leveraged to position Mason as a source of innovation, learning, and thought leadership on a global scale.

Online delivery of higher education is here to stay. How can Mason be at the forefront of online programming? What do you say to those who take a more traditional view and resist further changes?

When we introduced the Global MBA on Demand at Thunderbird, many alumni complained that a true Thunderbird experience could never be delivered online. A few years later, graduates are reporting learning outcomes and satisfaction ratings that are comparable if not higher than traditional residential programs. My experience at IE Business School in Madrid prior to Thunderbird delivered similar results. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education confirm our experience is not an accident; in fact, it seems that a combination of online and face-to-face learning can yield better results than traditional methods alone.

I have been involved with learning technology as a researcher, an instructor, and an administrator for more than 20 years, and I am very excited about the potential ahead. An institution with the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of Mason, located in one of the most exciting metropolitan areas in the nation, should definitely take the lead in leveraging learning technologies to deliver a high-quality education to students in both traditional and nontraditional settings.

You are a world traveler. Do you have favorite places that you enjoy visiting?

A few come to mind: a Turkish meal overlooking the Bosporus, a swim in an oasis in the Algerian Sahara, a walk on the beach in North Carolina, anchoring by Barrio Colorado Island in the Panama Canal, waking up in a tent by the Havasupai Falls in Arizona, marveling at the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’An, and hiking Picos de Europa in northern Spain–cider at the end included!

What do you do for fun and relaxation?

Hiking, skiing, swimming, reading, and listening to music–from Italian opera to indie with my kids. Looking forward to sailing in the Chesapeake.

Executive Summary

Ángel Cabrera

Age: 45

Twitter Handle: @CabreraAngel

Education: BS and MS in engineering from Madrid Polytechnic University in Spain, MS and PhD from Georgia Institute of Technology

Previous Positions: President, Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix, Arizona, and professor and dean, IE Business School in Madrid, Spain

Accolades: Fulbright Scholar; named Global Leader for Tomorrow in 2002 and Young Global Leader in 2005 by the World Economic Forum and one of the top 20 business school leaders in the world by the Financial Times; recognized as a Henry Crown Fellow by the Aspen Institute

Family: Married to noted organizational psychologist Beth Cabrera, PhD. They have two children.


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