There’s no doubting the academic credentials of Angel Cabrera as he takes the helm of Virginia’s largest university, George Mason University, for his first school year. Former dean of the IE Business School in Madrid, ranked one of the top 10 business schools in the world. Former president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, a leading management grad school. Author of a recent book on global leadership, a Fulbright scholar, holder of four degrees.
But, at 45, he also has the energy and youthful outlook of someone who knows how to balance hard work with hard play. He’s a rock and roll fan, he travels a lot, and he’s on Twitter constantly, in English and Spanish, where he’s highly entertaining. And in his first interview since moving to Fairfax, he was still bursting with excitement over having attended the last couple of days of the London Olympics, including the spectacular closing ceremonies.
“I was so lucky,” he said. “It was the most amazing experience.”
But really, his play-by-play Twitter feed fromWembley was what captured the moment.
‘Wish you were here’ ecstasy...In heaven folks!
They even brought Lennon back.. Wow
This is the middleager’s psychedelic nirvana...
Please please don’t let the spice girls ruin this!!
I swear I just saw 4 spice girls on top of four London cabbies (what did they put in my drink?)
Really in bad shape: I’m told it was five of them!
Now they deliver Freddy [Mercury] live... I must definitely be intoxicated!
So where do you sign up for #Rio2016?
As they say in the Twitter world, follow this guy.
Cabrera said he was hesitant to get on Twitter. Students at Thunderbird warned him against it, he said. “You need to be more presidential,” they told him.
But two years ago, he tried it. And now he believes it’s “really one of the most amazing game-changers in our lifetime.”
In fact, this interview occurred because of Twitter. I tweeted the question of whether he’d sit down with his new hometown paper. “Any time,” he responded almost instantly. And then he did.
I asked Cabrera what qualities he had that convinced Mason’s Board of Visitors to hire him. He modestly dodged the question, said he didn’t know, etc. I said he must have some good aspects or experience.
“I rock,” he said with a straight face. He also disclosed that he is an accomplished air guitar player.
Those qualities don’t necessarily get you the top job at an institution with 33,000 students. He finally acknowledged that his background as a chief executive helped, and that at both IE and Thunderbird he had launched online education programs that have been widely lauded, at a time when all colleges are trying to determine how deeply to explore online possibilities.
Cabrera also said that he had recently concluded a successful $65 million fundraising campaign at Thunderbird. “Obviously raising money is going to be important for the future of this university as well,” he said.
“Mason, I think, can do better in terms of raising private funds,” the new president said. “We’re incredibly appreciative of all the donors who’ve supported us, [but] our endowment is very small for a school of this size. I mean, we have less than $60 million in our endowment, which is not sufficient for a school of this size. So the scenario is we just want to try to get our fair share of philanthropic dollars. We’re in one of the most prosperous regions in the country.”
Cabrera said Mason should push for more public funding as well, saying that “we get less money from Virginia on a per student basis than several of the other Virginia universities. So we need to continue to make the case that we ought to take our fair share of that.... And then we’ll have to make our case to the private donors, and say this is why you should invest in our university, and this is why the university is playing such a key role in the economic growth and prosperity of this region. Please share your hard-earned dollars with us.”
Then, the former business school dean added, “Having done all that, we still have to look inside and say how can we do more with less? And that’s absolutely essential that we do that. That’s the hardest question we’re going to be asking ourselves.”
Cabrera said he spent the previous six weeks on a learning tour, visiting each of the school’s 11 colleges and being amazed by programs such as the cyber-security center and the bio-safety laboratory.
And the university has its human assets too. Before moving to Fairfax, Cabrera took three months off. He traveled to a conference in Rio de Janeiro on sustainability, where the Blue Planet Prize, which he described as “the Nobel Prize of environmentalism,” went to Thomas Lovejoy, a Mason environmental science professor. From there, Cabrera said he flew to Madrid for an economic conference, where the keynote speaker was Mason economics professor Tyler Cowen.
Cabrera said Mason has to capitalize on its diversity. He said the school has one of the highest diversity rates of any American college, and that it’s an invaluable learning tool for those who must someday go out into the real world and deal with people from other cultures.
Donna Peterson, a recent George Mason grad who contributes to this blog, asked Cabrera about a lack of diversity among Mason instructors. She only had four women teachers in her years on the Fairfax campus.
“Noted and agreed,” Cabrera said. “That’s an area we need to do better. To the university’s credit, they hired an immigrant as president. Now it’s our responsibility to make sure that translates.”
George Mason is not done growing, by a long shot. It has plenty of room for expansion in its Loudoun and Prince William campuses, has unused land in Fairfax, but more important, Cabrera said, it has a mission to produce more graduates.
“We’re hearing the governor of Virginia saying Virginia needs thousands more graduates,” Cabrera said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
The problem is improving the quality of the education while increasing the number of students, which raises issues of class size and tuition. “How can you do both?” Cabrera asked rhetorically. It is another large issue facing him.
A lesser issue facing him, but facing him repeatedly, is that of George Mason launching a Division 1-A football program, the equal of its basketball program. Cabrera was well aware of the emotional and financial boost the school received from the basketball team’s trip to the Final Four a few years back.
“If we could push a button here and magically bring a donor with $60 million, interested in football,” Cabrera said, “I would be so grateful I would start working on that program tomorrow morning.” He said Mason has periodically examined the costs associated with launching big time football, and he fielded questions about it on his recent learning tour.
“When you add all the numbers, it’s a big number,” Cabrera said. “Would it be great to have it? Absolutely. Would it add to the experience? Yes. But how do you pay? I don’t know.”
Our time was running out, and I had to ask about Twitter. There almost certainly is not a university president, anywhere, who tweets more than Cabrera. Economic theory one minute. Emerging from a Mason meeting the next. Retweeting an academic link in the next. In two languages. Not to mention the Olympics.
“Twitter has blown me away,” he said. He mentioned his hesitance to join, but when he did, “it changed the way I interact with people, the way I communicate with people, the way I consume news. I no longer go and browse the headlines of newspapers. I follow 400 people approximately, so I have 400 volunteers who are curating news for me. It’s amazing. I’m getting insights about the Mason community. I’m getting insights from faculty, from students, it’s breaking down barriers of communication in ways that are absolutely amazing.”
Cabrera added, “Also, I’m an outside hire. You come into any organization as a new chief and it’s basically, You’re a martian that lands on Planet Mason and people say, Who is this guy? I haven’t found a more effective way than just Twitter for people to know what I’m about. And it’s not about official statements and all that. It’s about the sometimes absurd circumstances of life. I find it fascinating.”
We talked about the Olympics, and being there in the middle of the rock spectacle, participating in the light show, watching the London Symphony Orchestra do the wave. But Cabrera returned the conversation to Twitter, and how it enhanced his experience.
“I know people say, Well you’re on Twitter, you’re not appreciating,” Cabrera said. “It’s makes you even more aware or more conscious of the moment...This is my theory. Untested, but anyway. You go through a day, and you’ve had some jewels, some moments that are precious moments, right? You encounter a friend or you saw something that was beautiful and you just have that emotion and that emotion is sort of gone, right? And Twitter allows you to somehow capture it, even though it’s briefly, but you write about it, you’re sort of capturing that moment, you’re acting on that moment. And you’re sharing it. And sometimes you share that and no one cares. And sometimes 20 people are retweeting it, and somehow they’re sharing into that moment you had. It is mind-boggling.”
This open-minded, worldly, funny, Twitter-mad president could be a real treat for the Mason community. Here’s where you go to get a front-row seat: twitter.com/CabreraAngel.