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George Mason’s president is finalist to lead Georgia Tech

Ángel Cabrera has led the public university in Northern Virginia since 2012.

Ángel Cabrera, the president of George Mason University, has been recruited to lead Georgia Tech in Atlanta. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Ángel Cabrera, who helped raise the profile of George Mason University as its president for the past seven years, was named the sole finalist Thursday to become the leader of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

On Cabrera’s watch, Virginia’s largest public university has doubled its endowment, expanded enrollment, opened a campus in South Korea, renamed its law school for the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and launched distinctive academic programs in cybersecurity and other fields.

George Mason also moved into the top tier of doctoral universities in 2016 with a designation of “highest research activity” — commonly known as “R1” — from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. That was an important milestone for a school that began as a University of Virginia affiliate and became independent in 1972. Under its sixth president, who at age 51 is just a few years older than the university, George Mason has cultivated a reputation as a young and innovative school that serves a broad spectrum of students on multiple campuses in Northern Virginia.

Cabrera also has dealt with controversies over issues such as how the university can maintain academic independence when it accepts gifts associated with donors, including the prominent conservative businessman Charles Koch. In 2018, Cabrera acknowledged that some donations arranged before he took office came with too many conditions, raising concerns about “donor influence in academic matters.”

Cabrera said at the time that he had sought to uphold standards of academic independence during his time in office. The issue drew renewed attention after the Charles Koch Foundation and others made donations that helped lead to the renaming of the law school for Scalia.

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“He’s been a fantastic president,” said Tom Davis, rector of George Mason’s governing Board of Visitors. “He’s left a great legacy here.”

George Mason had about 37,700 students as of last fall, up from 33,000 in 2012. It is based in Fairfax County, with campuses in Arlington and Prince William counties. Its affiliate in South Korea opened in 2014.

The governing Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia announced Cabrera’s selection as the finalist for the position at Georgia Tech, pending final action in coming days.

“Dr. Ángel Cabrera has the academic background, leadership skills and community ties necessary to lead a premier research institution like Georgia Tech,” Steve Wrigley, chancellor of the Georgia system, said in a statement. “His strong record of improving student outcomes, increasing enrollment, strengthening research and enhancing stakeholder partnerships will enable him to successfully advance the priorities and meet the needs of the Georgia Tech campus community.”

Cabrera said in a statement: “It would be a privilege to lead such a great institution.”

He declined further comment.

He holds a master’s degree and doctorate in cognitive psychology from Georgia Tech. His wife, Beth Cabrera, and their son, Alex Cabrera, are also Georgia Tech graduates. Ángel Cabrera earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer and electrical engineering from Universidad Politécnica of Madrid in his native Spain.

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An avid Twitter user, Cabrera describes himself on the social media platform as president of the “largest and coolest research university in Virginia.”

He has been a vocal supporter of undocumented immigrant students known as “dreamers,” who obtained protection from deportation through the Obama-era program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

In November 2016, he joined more than 200 college and university leaders in signing a statement that urged the nation’s leaders to preserve and expand the program. George Mason, he told The Washington Post, had hundreds of DACA students. “They have excelled both inside and outside of the classroom,” Cabrera said.

Because it is younger than other public universities in Virginia, George Mason had a relatively small endowment of $53 million when Cabrera arrived. He oversaw a $500 million fundraising campaign that ended in December with $690 million. The endowment currently stands at $112 million.

He was a cheerleader for Northern Virginia’s successful bid to land Amazon’s new headquarters. As part of that package, George Mason’s Arlington campus plans to expand in coming decades with an emphasis on research and graduate education in technology.

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Before coming to George Mason, Cabrera led the Thunderbird School of Global Management, acquired by Arizona State University in 2014.

The school he has been recruited to lead is in Atlanta and regarded as one of the nation’s top public universities. With about 29,400 students, Georgia Tech ranks eighth among public universities in a list maintained by U.S. News & World Report, tied with the University of Florida.

Georgia Tech’s president, G.P. “Bud” Peterson, announced in January that he would retire this summer after 10 years in the position. The university has faced scrutiny over the past year as some administrators under Peterson left following investigations into alleged ethical lapses. Peterson told the Chronicle of Higher Education that those situations did not prompt his retirement.