GMU names Spanish-born educator Angel Cabrera as president

December 15, 2011

George Mason University introduced Angel Cabrera, a Spanish-born educator, as its next president Thursday, a move that underscores the rising value of global reach among schools that occupy — or aspire to join — the top ranks of national universities.

Cabrera, 44, is president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, arguably the nation’s top international business school. The search committee at George Mason found him ambitious, entrepreneurial and possessed of a youthful energy, qualities that seemed a perfect fit for the ascendant Northern Virginia university.

“He just matches up with our culture,” said Lovey Hammel, a university trustee who led the search committee.

George Mason is on a swift upward trajectory from regional commuter campus to nationally ranked university. Alan G. Merten, GMU’s president since 1996, has overseen an era of rising enrollment, selectivity and stature. GMU has climbed to the 138th position among national universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. More significant, perhaps, is its perennial mention on the U.S. News list of “Up-and-Coming Schools.”

“It’s a place that’s more interested in challenging the status quo than in maintaining the status quo,” Cabrera said, speaking at the Mason Inn conference center after a morning news conference. “It’s a lot more exciting to be part of a university that’s thinking, ‘How can we do things different?’ ”

Cabrera will start work at George Mason in July. University officials said his salary is not yet settled.

Cabrera, born in Madrid, grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood and spent summers in a mountain village, according to a 2004 profile in the Business Journal in Phoenix. One grandfather was a teacher; another ran a small business. He wanted to do some of each.

He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Madrid Polytechnical University and then a master’s and doctorate from Georgia Tech as a Fulbright scholar. At Georgia Tech, he met his wife, Beth Fraser. They have two children.

Cabrera rose to dean of Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, and he is credited with transforming that institution into a top European business school.

He joined Thunderbird in 2004, when the Arizona campus was in financial turmoil. Its heavily international student population had dwindled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent crackdown on international student visas.

Cabrera did “a sterling job of revitalizing the institution,” said Robert Hisrich, Garvin professor of global entrepreneurship at Thunderbird. Cabrera restructured the school and found savings in untapped areas. For example, he reduced the number of foreign languages taught at Thunderbird. Language study is costly, and at one time the school was offering “something like 18 languages,” some of them poorly enrolled, Hisrich said.

Thunderbird has operated with a budget surplus since 2006. This year, the school completed a five-year, $65 million fundraising campaign.

At the same time, Cabrera found a new academic brand for Thunderbird, putting emphasis on ethics and social responsibility. In 2005, Thunderbird was the first business school to adopt a professional oath of honor, a pledge taken by all graduate students.

Cabrera also established Thunderbird for Good, an initiative that has trained several hundred female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other developing nations.

“I think the question is, how can you change more lives? How can you make a difference?” Cabrera said. “And I think Mason should be proud right now of all the lives it touches.”

GMU serves 33,320 students from 141 nations, and the population of international students has been growing. The school is notable for having virtually no disparity in graduation rates among white, black and Hispanic students.

Cabrera joins a small but growing community of Hispanic college presidents, including Juliet Garcia at the University of Texas at Brownsville, France A. Cordova at Purdue and Eduardo J. Padron at Miami Dade College.

More important, perhaps, Cabrera also will be one of a few U.S. college presidents born overseas. His global credentials may point the way to George Mason’s future.

Large universities “are increasingly global institutions,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “They have a physical campus someplace, but they are all over the world. No university can be confined to the boundaries of its state any longer and remain a premier institution.”

Universities have grown dependent on international students as a revenue source. Many schools are opening academic programs in the Middle East or China, and faculty members are collaborating across national borders on academic research.

The flagship University of Maryland at College Park took a step toward globalization last year when it hired Wallace Loh, born in Shanghai and raised in Peru, as its president.

“With Dr. Cabrera, you’ve got someone who’s a widely recognized global leader in higher education,” Hartle said. “It’s understandable and not at all surprising that George Mason would want to expand its international profile. They couldn’t have done that a decade ago.”

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