Ángel Cabrera is the president of George Mason University, Virginia’s largest public university. Established in Fairfax in 1972, Mason today operates several campuses across the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region and in Incheon, South Korea. Since 2016, Mason is one of the 115 universities in the U.S. in the highest research category of the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.
Before becoming Mason’s president in 2012, Cabrera led IE Business School in Madrid, and Thunderbird School of Global Management, now affiliated with Arizona State University. Cabrera is the first native of Spain to have served as president of an American university.
As a business educator, Cabrera played a key role in advancing professional ethics, internationalization, and corporate social responsibility. As a senior advisor to the United Nations Global Compact, he was the lead author of the Principles of Responsible Management Education, now adopted by more than 500 business schools around the world.
Cabrera chairs the Commission on International Initiatives for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), and serves on the advisory boards of the National Science Foundation (Education and Human Resources Directorate), the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars (Fulbright Program), Georgia Institute of Technology, and ITESM in Monterrey, Mexico. He also serves on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
USEC Vice President, Monica Martinez, had an opportunity to obtain this exclusive interview with Angel Cabrera.
2017 marks the fifth anniversary of your appointment as president at George Mason University. What were the main challenges you had to face? What are you most proud of?
I feel blessed to lead a university that champions both access and excellence. George Mason is a unique case in American higher education in terms of what it has achieved in 45 years as an independent university. We have the largest and most diverse student body in Virginia, with students from 130 countries and all 50 states. We have won two Nobel Prizes and have achieved other extraordinary academic distinctions. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education last year selected George Mason as one of 115 Tier-1 research institutions in the United States. Most of the other Tier-1 universities are much older than ours. “Mason,” as it is commonly called, is the embodiment of inclusive excellence, with no disparity in graduation rates regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. So we’re striving to compete academically with the best universities in the world while at the same time serving a broad cross-section of students from multiple backgrounds and non-traditional profiles. That’s exhilarating – and challenging. With an ongoing public disinvestment in higher education, we have to be creative in finding new ways to deliver on our mission. We are making great progress in private fundraising, with four consecutive record years.
Based on your extensive experience in education both in Spain and the United States, what are, in your opinion, the best qualities of the American university? What qualities would you highlight of the Spanish university? What improvements do you think the Spanish universities should undertake?
Spain, like other continental European countries, excels in terms of access. In barely one generation, Spain has gone from a very low participation rate, where only the privileged were able to attend college, to a participation rate comparable to other developed countries. But they have lagged in terms of excellence and global competitiveness—as is well known, no Spanish university has broken into the top tiers of international rankings. American universities have the opposite strengths and weaknesses: They are far more autonomous, less regulated, and more competitive, and they have achieved the highest academic excellence. But there are questions about access, cost, and student debt. Spain could benefit from establishing two or three autonomous, semi-public universities without the existing regulatory constraints and focus on a mission of global excellence. They could do this without losing traction on the access mission delivered by the current system.
It is said that the future jobs that will be occupied by the youth of today are still to be invented. How are universities facing this challenge?
American universities have been guided by the notion of “liberal education,” an approach that combines in-depth study of a discipline with a broad exposure to other disciplines and a distinct emphasis on critical thinking, self-exploration, and communication skills. I firmly believe that this is the approach best suited to educating individuals who will not only be able to contribute to today’s society, but to tomorrow’s. At George Mason, we do our best to determine what those future jobs will be. We work closely with employers in the Washington, D.C., region to design curricula that produce career-ready graduates who are prepared to fill critical gaps in the workforce. In our area, the high-demand fields include cybersecurity, biomedicine, and information technology. Staying a step ahead best serves our students, region and state, and one way to do that is to establish close relationships with local industries. But in all our programs we stay true to the principles of a liberal education, the best way, in our view to be ready to contribute to our society, not only today, but in the future.
How do you think the universities of the future will be? How will new technologies affect the education?
Universities in the future will be more globally connected, more technology rich, and more data-driven. The No. 1 goal in George Mason’s 10-year strategic plan is innovative learning – providing experiential and integrative learning opportunities in all programs. Such learning can take many forms, including research, field work, internships, study abroad, service learning, online and virtual learning, environments conducive to greater collaboration, and many other platforms. Education also will grow more multidisciplinary, because the most vexing problems do not fall conveniently into one field of study. They span disciplines in the solving, and in the application. We know that learning is most effective when it is embedded in real-world contexts and empowers students to be in charge of their own learning. Being exposed to multiple perspectives, and being able to work across cultural boundaries, will be crucial. Students who take advantage of these transformative learning experiences are the students who will have the greatest impact. The challenge is to make this form of education available to many or all students, not the few.
You are also involved in the business world. You are on several Boards of companies and institutions, including National Geographic (congrats!). Please, share with us your main role on these boards, as a specialist in education.
I am sure I learn at least as much from my service on the boards of other organizations than whatever I contribute. The Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond provides a unique window into the economy of our region, and serving on the board of Inovio, a biotech company, has helped me better understand the unique challenges faced by companies spun off from George Mason. The academic boards of Georgia Tech and Tec de Monterrey allow me to exchange insights and approaches with leading universities in the U.S. and overseas. National Geographic is an iconic institution with an education mission and a commitment to exploration and research, which is what universities do! I am very excited to have joined its board and play a small role in shaping its future. By serving on these boards, hopefully the members of those organizations also become more aware of the accomplishments and capabilities of George Mason University.