George Mason University President Angel Cabrera tackles issues

August 29, 2012

The most-often-asked questions George Mason University’s new President Angel Cabrera hears are about bringing football to the school.

“It’s a full range” of questions on football, said Cabrera, 45. “There are members of our community who think we are blessed not to have the complexities of a football program and that we should never, ever look into it. There are members of our community who think it’s about time we got a football program and we need a football program like the rest of the big universities. . . . You have the full range of opinions, right?

“I’m actually very open to the idea,” Cabrera said, adding that he is working on drafting a new vision for George Mason, which will be implemented during the next decade.

Will football be a part of that vision?

“It’s a pretty expensive proposition,” said Cabrera, who left his presidency at Thunderbird School of Global Management, a top-ranked international business school in Arizona, to become GMU’s sixth president.

“In an environment where we have so many pressures and demands to increase quality [and] to remain affordable for our students, we have to be very careful about it,” Cabrera said. “If I told you that establishing a football program would mean an increase in student fees of $1,000 a year— I’m not saying that’s the figure — but suppose I said that, would you want football or not?”

Football at Mason is a $65-million-plus question, according to a 2010 internal study conducted by the senior vice president’s office and the school’s athletic department. The study looked at the cost of fielding a Division I team. A similar study by an outside consultant was conducted in 1998. If the costs were divided among the more than 33,300 students expected to attend Mason this fall as a one-time expense, each student would pay about $1,950 for football.

The figure was too high for Cabrera’s predecessor, Alan G. Merten, who was an avid supporter of Mason athletics during his 16 years at the Fairfax school.

“When I came to Mason, my goal was to have a really good basketball program,” Merten said in May. “I thought we could pair a really good athletics program with our academic programs. If you do athletics the right way, it brings a lot of positive attention.”

Merten said football is a high-risk, high-reward decision with cost implications that could impact academic programs.

Beyond the cost, the million-dollar question might be overshadowing questions Cabrera hopes students, faculty and the community would ask.

“I would love it if people said, ‘How are we going to improve the quality of our programs or increase our research portfolio,’ or if people are as excited about the amazing research that some of our colleagues are doing in the biomedical sciences or in economics as they are about athletics,” Cabrera said.

Since taking office in July, Cabrera has been on a listening tour, visiting Capitol Hill, the governor’s office and local governing bodies. He also has staged town hall-style meetings with each of the schools within Mason and regularly fields students’ and staff’s questions via Twitter. The goal, he said, is to gain feedback on the expectations and needs the community has for Mason, and use that to create a direction and vision for the university.

This vision will be crafted and drafted in future months, with plans to roll it out in spring and generate a fundraising campaign later next year.

“George Mason is special. It’s special in many ways. We are incredibly young as an institution. It’s been only 40 years. And for a university in just four decades to become the largest institution in a system of universities that is known around the world as really one of the best public university systems, that is really remarkable,” he said.

Mason’s leaders said their expectations of Cabrera are to take the university from national to global, while maintaining the quality nurtured under Merten.

“By becoming a more national force, we almost by default become a global force,” said Bill Reeder, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. This year’s students represent all 50 states and the District, and some 130 countries.

“I think, when [Cabrera] was selected and we got to know him, there was a unanimous feeling that this was the right person for us,” Reeder said. On the football question, he agreed with the high-risk, high-reward view.

“I jokingly say, ‘I want to have football because it would give me a million-dollar marching band,” Reeder said.

Still, Reeder said, the focus at Mason is on where academics, research, community partnerships and the use of technology will lead the university next.

The emphasis on brick building developed under Merten’s reign likely will not proceed as it did in the past decade, George Mason Provost Peter N. Stearns said. During his tenure, Merten shifted Mason from commuter to residential campus with the addition of some 3,500 beds. He increased the number of facilities on campus from 125 to 168, and enrollment from 24,200 to 33,300.

With state funding for higher education continuing to decrease in terms of per-student spending, Stearns said universities will redefine their roles. “I don’t think it’s a secret that this region could be in for some challenges should the federal budget shrink,” he said. “How does the university remain accessible to the community and students?”

This, Stearns said, is the question Cabrera will have to answer.

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