Not only is Angel Cabrera pushing George Mason University into digital frontiers, as we reported Friday in The Washington Post. The new president of the sprawling Northern Virginia school also is rethinking its image.

Cabrera told me in an interview in his office on the Fairfax County campus that he was puzzled by something about the GMU image when he arrived in July. Is it a commuter school? A residential school? Or both?

Angel Cabrera, the new president of George Mason University, jokes with professor Sarah Nutter during a town hall meeting at the university last week. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post) (Jahi Chikwendiu//WASHINGTON POST)

“What I love about Mason is something  that I’m not sure everybody at Mason loves about themselves,” Cabrera said, “and I think they should.”

A lot of people, Cabrera said, have told him: “We used to be known as ‘just a commuter school’ down the road, which is for many people not a terribly exciting thing, and now we’re the real thing. We’re a residential school, we have 6,000  beds on campus. We’re the real thing.”

Cabrera’s reply to these assertions? “I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure I see this as a move from something bad to something good.’”

He continued: “I think it’s fantastic that we have an incredibly rich campus experience. You’ve seen our campus today. I talk to our students every chance I can, to their parents. We do have an amazing campus experience. But it’s only 6,000 beds on campus.” About 7,000 to 8,000 others live nearby, he said. And GMU--Virginia’s largest public four-year university — has 33,000 students in all.

Do the math.

Who are all those others, Cabrera said, who don’t live on or next to campus?

“They’re commuters, they’re working professionals; they’re working mothers who want to finish their nursing degree; they’re folks who are working on the Hill who want to get their law degree at night; they’re who knows what.

“To me, the beauty of Mason is that we do all of the above, that we seek inclusion, that we have found ways to serve students in many different lifestyles with many different needs. Whereas many folks in higher education define themselves by how many people they exclude, and the biggest badge of honor is your selectivity rate, which is another way of saying, ‘We’re very good because we left 6,000 applicants OUT last year.’ Here’s a university that prides itself on how many lives we changed, not how many lives we choose not to change.”

This is a very interesting manifesto. Cabrera is saying, in effect, that he’s not bothered at all by the school’s deep affiliation with commuters.

Nor, to be sure, were his predecessors. But in recent years GMU officials have sought to play down the school’s commuter character and highlight its new dormitories. Not long ago, in fact, the school won official designation as a residential university.

At the same time, Cabrera envisions extending the Mason Nation to, well, the world. Remember, he’s Spanish- born and comes from a school that specialized in international experiences--the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona.

Cabrera recently traveled to China to forge ties with higher education in the world’s most populous nation. And he stopped in South Korea to inspect a project that is likely soon to lead Mason to join with other schools in a Korean campus.

And Cabrera is deeply interested in MOOCs, the phenomenon of “massive open online courses,” which opens up the gates of elite higher education to the world, for free. On Monday, GMU economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok plan to launch such a course in development economics on a platform they call Marginal Revolution University. Cabrera is cheering them on.

 Does Cabrera want to push GMU to the forefront of the digital higher education movement?

“I definitely hope so.” he said. “I think in a way one of our key goals….is to redefine the classroom of the future --- because by the way, it’s not just about creating new programs for students who are not coming today to Mason. It’s about how technology can shape the [experience of] students who are already at Mason.”

Asked about the role of the public university in America-- something that is a topic lately in the wake of the University of Virginia leadership crisis --Cabrera notes quickly that he was a product of public schools in Spain.

He rejects the either/or proposition that universities face a choice between preparing graduates for society’s economic needs or steeping them in the traditions of liberal education.

“Our obligation is both,” he said. “We have to deliver on both. ...

“We have to educate well-rounded citizens but also people who can respond to the needs of the business community around us. That’s something that is very unique about Mason. We do both, in a non-apologetic way. That’s who we are.”

He added, emphatically, that his academic worldview is about far more than “return on investment.”

“What is the value of the research that we may conduct in the humanities? In history? In art?” he asked. “In a way, we act as the temples of Western civilization. Our professors are the people who sort of hold the knowledge of what makes us what we are.. .who understand the history of human thinking and art and expression. What value do you put to that?”

 P.S. — Cabrera is a basketball fan, essential at Mason given the school’s 2006 Final Four run. He’s partial to Spaniard Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA. In soccer, he’s for Real Madrid. It’s a family tradition, he said.

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