The George Mason governing Board of Visitors voted unanimously Thursday to name Holton to fill in when Cabrera departs.
Holton, 61, will be the first woman to lead Virginia’s largest public research university, bringing deep connections to Richmond and Washington. She was state education secretary from 2014 to 2016, advising then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on elementary, secondary and higher education and providing guidance to key public institutions in the field. She is now a member of the state Board of Education. Her father is former Republican governor A. Linwood Holton Jr., and her husband is Sen. Tim Kaine (D), also a former governor.
Since May 2017, Holton has been a visiting professor at George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government and its College of Education and Human Development. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a law degree from Harvard University.
Familiarity with the legislature in Richmond could prove valuable as George Mason seeks funding for various initiatives.
“Her knowledge of state government and her leadership in statewide higher education, where she was instrumental in bolstering the Commonwealth’s talent pipeline, will be particularly useful as Mason strives to grow programs to meet the talent and innovation opportunities generated by Amazon’s arrival in Northern Virginia,” George Mason Rector Tom Davis said in a statement Thursday. As rector, Davis leads the university’s governing board.
Davis said in a telephone interview that Holton does not want to be a candidate for the presidency on a longer-term basis. He said the board plans an extensive search to replace Cabrera, and he wants to consult with faculty, students and other stakeholders. “We’re going to move quickly,” Davis said. “We owe it to the university to do a national search. We want to have somebody in place a year from now.”
George Mason, based in Fairfax County, had about 37,700 students last fall. It became independent in 1972, a spinoff of the University of Virginia.
The state’s second-largest public research university, Virginia Tech, with about 34,900 students, plans to establish an “innovation campus” in Alexandria to support the arrival of Amazon as the Internet retail company develops a second headquarters in Northern Virginia. George Mason, which has a campus in nearby Arlington, also plans to expand to support the Amazon project. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The university said Cabrera will remain an adviser to the interim president for a month, to help ensure continuity, after Holton assumes office Aug. 1.
Holton said in a telephone interview that she plans to meet with key constituencies on campus during the transition. “I’m going to want to be talking to and listening to a lot of people,” she said. “The university is going in a great direction.”
Holton said she is struck by George Mason’s commitment to broad access for economically disadvantaged and first-generation students, among other groups. The university’s partnership with Northern Virginia Community College, aiding transfer students, “is one of my favorite things about Mason,” she said.
As a relatively young university, she said, Mason is “a place where innovation is welcome and encouraged . . . We’ve got a great and diverse student body, a strong faculty senate . . . I’m going to learn from all of them as we move forward together.”