The university Cabrera has led since July counts 31,000 students in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties and another 2,000 elsewhere.
Within a few days, though, GMU economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok will launch a free online course that aims to reach tens of thousands more from around the globe. These far-flung students won’t be enrolled at George Mason. But they will be learning from two of its prominent scholars, part of a movement to open up elite academics to the masses.
“That’s an amazing Mason experiment that can help us find a way forward,” Cabrera said. He added: “We can find ways of using technology, hopefully, that allow us to reach more people, touch more lives.”
Cabrera, 45, a Spanish-born educator just five years older than the university itself, became George Mason’s sixth president at a time of enormous flux for higher education and especially for major public universities. He came to GMU after leading the highly regarded Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona for nearly eight years.
Cabrera’s predecessor as GMU president, Alan G. Merten, held the position for 16 years, overseeing a building boom and climb in prestige that paralleled the economic ascent of Northern Virginia. U.S. News & World Report now rates George Mason a top “up-and-coming” school.
Just before Cabrera took office, the University of Virginia was shaken by a leadership crisis that reverberated at George Mason and public universities around the nation. The abrupt ouster of U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan by the school’s governing board leaders, a subsequent revolt in Charlottesville and then the reinstatement of Sullivan all reflected tensions over the mission of public higher education in an era of dwindling state support.
George Mason, a spinoff of U-Va. that became independent in 1972, is known for embracing innovation and is much younger than the flagship school Thomas Jefferson founded. Still, GMU is by no means immune to that debate.
“The way I look at it, Virginia has given us 16 prominent citizens that represent the voices of Virginians, and that’s our Board of Visitors,” Cabrera said. “We better listen to them. That’s one lesson.”
On the other hand, he said: “Boards need to understand that decisions made in universities are not made like they’re made in the corporate world. We’re different animals. So I think both sides need to learn from this.”
The new president, who earns a base annual salary of $531,400, lives with his wife, Beth, and their two teenage children in the university’s Mathy House.