George Mason president delivers new vision

April 26, 2013

George Mason University’s new president staked out a position Friday somewhat unusual for the leader of a school deemed an up-and-comer: He’s explicitly not trying to make it the best in the world.

“What we’re going to try to become is the best university for the world,” GMU President Angel Cabrera said. “That’s our goal.”

Cabrera, who took the helm of Virginia’s largest public university in July, rolled out what was billed as a new vision for GMU in an inauguration ceremony for the university’s sixth president at Patriot Center in Fairfax.

The vision is heavy on concepts such as innovation, research and engagement with the world, but somewhat light on details. Cabrera said those would come later in a strategic plan.

Still, for a youthful university, a vision statement is more than a routine public relations exercise. It is essential to figuring out where the school is headed. GMU became independent from the University of Virginia in 1972 and now has 33,000 students spread over three campuses in Northern Virginia and other locations.


Angel Cabrera. (Courtesy of George Mason University)

Cabrera, who took over from Alan G. Merten, inherited a mission statement that depicts Mason as “innovative and entrepreneurial in spirit,” with a “respectful academic setting that values diversity.”

Those values and others were incorporated into the new vision statement. In a Web video, Cabrera summed it up as “the Mason Idea.” “It’s a simple word,” he said, “and an easy way to remind us that Mason is a university that is innovative, diverse, entrepreneurial and accessible.”

In stressing a for-the-world approach, Cabrera’s rhetoric varies somewhat from the norm. Often, prominent universities seek to one-up each other in a quest for higher rankings and prestige. The frequent goal is to be the best in whatever class they choose, or at least one of the top 10, 20 or 50.

Cabrera, 45, a native of Spain, came to GMU from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona. A prolific Twitter user, he often talks up the importance of technological innovation in education and of the role universities play in reaching the huge market of adult students considered nontraditional — and sometimes, for that reason, undervalued.

“We change the world one person at a time,” Cabrera told the audience.

For his speech, he shed his formal academic cap and robe and paced the stage wearing a jacket and open-collar shirt.

The vision statement, approved by the university’s governing board in March, says Mason will produce graduates who are engaged citizens, well-rounded scholars and “prepared to act.” It stresses the application of new technology to improve learning.

The university says it will strive to be a sound investment for the state and its students. “We will be sensitive to trends in household income in our region in making decisions about tuition and financial aid,” the statement says.

For the current academic year, tuition and fees are $9,620. The governing Board of Visitors is scheduled to set new rates in May.

The statement also says that Mason will “aggressively seek additional sources of funding” through fundraising, expansion of online education, research grants and the commercialization of intellectual property.

Mason’s endowment, which stood at $52 million as of 2012, is small for a university of its stature. The university’s endowment ranked 562nd in size in a recent study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Among other public universities in the state, U-Va., with a $4.8 billion endowment, ranked 19th nationally. The College of William & Mary, with $644 million, ranked 115th, and James Madison University, with $59 million, ranked 530th.

The quest to build the endowment will be one of Cabrera’s chief challenges.

“It takes a strong leader and a skilled educator to fill this role,” Virginia Secretary of Education Laura Fornash told the Patriot Center audience. “And did I mention an accomplished fundraiser?”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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