Ángel Cabrera, George Mason University
April 26, 2013
Wow. Aren’t our students awesome? I hope you’re enjoying this.
Thank you so much to everyone here today. It’s wonderful to see a community come together to celebrate their university. It’s inspiring to see how much this community cares about what we do here at George Mason. Thank you!
A good society not only builds road and bridges to connect us, hospitals to heal us, and armies to protect us. It also invests in educating our youth, cultivating the arts, advancing the sciences, and expanding our understanding of what it means to be human. This is the hallowed purpose of the university: to help us be a freer, fairer, happier society.
It’s no coincidence that a nation that was founded on the principles of individual rights and liberty, and that has championed those principles around the world, would build the world’s best universities.
Our namesake, George Mason, argued that a good society must guarantee individual rights and liberties. He, like other Virginians of his time, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington, knew that freedom and self-government was the key to a prosperous society, and that freedom and self-government could only be achieved through education.
George Washington argued for the creation of a national university, and Thomas Jefferson went on to create one, our mother institution, the University of Virginia.
The very motto of this university, Freedom and Learning, is a reminder of that fundamental idea: that one not only needs to be free in order to learn, but that one can only be free through learning.
American universities didn’t become strong because America prospered. America prospered because it built strong universities.
Universities don’t just happen. They are created and nurtured by a community and therefore can only be as strong as their community wants them to be.
When I look around this morning, I see a bright future for this beloved university of ours. And I see a bright future for our community because of it!
I have seen firsthand how universities change lives. I came to this country, like many young people dream of doing, because it offered the best education in the world. It was 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed and the Internet was made commercially available.
I was able to pursue my dream thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship that was a joint effort of Spain and the U.S. I landed at Georgia Tech as a computer engineer who wanted to learn psychology, something the Spanish education system wouldn’t allow.
My years at Tech truly and deeply changed my life; intellectually, professionally and very personally. I fell in love with psychology. I fell in love with the intellectual freedom at a great American university.
More importantly, I fell in love with a fellow student, Beth Fraser, of Florence, Alabama, who for some reason, still unexplained, agreed to marry me and move to Spain with me.
In Spain, Beth thrived. She was the first American to be granted tenure at Carlos III University. And she brought into the world two children, Alex and Emily, who are our biggest sources of pride.
As a family, we have lived a wonderful and adventurous life, which has brought us back to where it all started: the campus of a great American university.
Our lives have been transformed in profound ways by higher education. It’s therefore an honor, a privilege really, to be given the opportunity to make a contribution to the education of others by serving as president of George Mason University.
I will do my best to discharge my responsibilities with integrity and creativity, and to be a champion for George Mason University and higher education at large, in the United States and around the world.
Let me tell you a little more about my background.
I was born and raised in the great city of Madrid, the second of four brothers. If you haven’t yet been to Madrid, you really need to add it to your bucket list! Madrid isn’t only home to the best soccer in the world (a fact contested only by people who choose to ignore the data), but the best art and nightlife, too!
During the summers, my brothers and I would go to my mother’s hometown, El Torno, a beautiful but very poor farming village in the secluded mountains of Extremadura. There we ran carefree in the woods, swam in creeks, and got ourselves into occasional trouble. When that happened, the infallible magic words that always saved us were “soy el nieto de Don Cesáreo, el maestro” (“I’m the grandson of Don Cesáreo, the teacher”).
The reactions of admiration and deep felt respect for my grandfather, the teacher, were extraordinary. Granddad had been responsible for the education of the entire town. Whatever they learned or read, it was because of him. And for the brightest few, he’d been responsible for helping them escape the harsh life of this town and become teachers or doctors or engineers.
So I grew up thinking that there could be no profession more important in the world than being a teacher. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an educator, like granddad.
My mom never went to high school, let alone college, because her parents could only afford to send one of their children, and they chose to send their boy. My dad, who grew up in Madrid, didn’t go to college either, because he had to work in the family business.
They grew up during Franco’s dictatorship. As it turns out, dictators don’t have the same appreciation for education as this nation’s founding fathers. Education was a privilege for the few, not an opportunity for all.
It’s remarkable that only one generation separates that girl in the mountains of Extremadura, whose most exciting trip of the year was going into town 15 miles away in a truck full of cattle; and that boy from Madrid who had to work from dusk to dawn to help his family, from my brothers and me.
One generation, loving parents, and a great public education made it all possible.
The beauty of George Mason University is that stories like mine are not unusual. They are precisely what we’re about, what we do, day in and day out.
One of the first people I met at Mason was alumna Lovey Hammel. As a member of the Board of Visitors, she volunteered to lead the search for a new Mason president. She asked me to meet her and another visitor Carol Kirby in Dallas and hear what she had to say. She spoke about how she attended Mason part-time in the 80’s because she was working with her mom to create a small business that has now become a $60 million enterprise. She spoke of the university with great pride and it was that pride and excitement for Mason that caused me to become very interested in this position. Mason changed her life, and she in turn changed the lives of many others, including mine.
Later I would meet other impressive alumni whose lives were also changed by Mason and who went on to achieve great success, including several members of our board of visitors, board of trustees and our advisory boards who are helping Mason stay strong.
I’ve met students and alumni from all over Virginia, from every corner of the U.S, and from around the globe; White, Black, Latinos, Asian; some from privileged families, others who were the first in their families to attend college (like the many graduates of our Early Identification Program). Each of them saw their lives transformed at Mason.
One of them is Zainab Salbi, who had been one of my heroes for years before I arrived at Mason. Zainab moved to the U.S. from Baghdad when she was 19. Her childhood was marked by the Iran-Iraq war and by her witnessing the cruelty of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Having interrupted her studies in Iraq she was able to come to Mason and graduate in 1996. While at Mason, Zainab learned how hard war is on women, and how often rape is used as a tool of intimidation and terror even in the heart of Europe, in the former Yugoslavia. With the encouragement of her professors, she created an organization, Women for Women International, where women support women in terrible cases of abuse. Since then, almost 400,000 women have been supported and received hope. Zainab has been recognized by the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, Time Magazine and many others as one of the most effective social entrepreneurs in the world.
Another individual I had known and admired before coming to Mason is Anousheh Ansari. Some of you met her during convocation last December. Anousheh grew up in Iran, a girl with a big brain and big dreams, including her dream to travel to space. Anousheh would eventually move to the U.S., attend Mason and graduate with a degree in electrical engineering in 1989. After graduating, she and her husband created a very successful telecommunications company and together lived their American dream. One day, she found a way to train as a backup astronaut in Russia. Believing that this would likely be as close as she would get to her dream of flying to space, she dedicated herself and completed the training. At the last minute, the lead astronaut fell ill and her dream became a reality: the first Iranian to go into space, which was September 18, 2006.
Lovey, Zainab and Anousheh are different but their stories share a common thread. Lovey, Zainab and Anousheh were non-traditional students at Mason. A traditional model of higher education did not fit the life plan for these women; their personal circumstances made it difficult, if not impossible.
Mason empowered each of them to pursue successful careers and have a positive impact on many others. At Mason, they each developed the ideas, the tools, and the inspiration to convert those ideas into action. And their actions have changed or inspired thousands of lives.
That’s exactly what education should be about. We find people with talent, whatever their circumstances, and we help them grow so that they can change the world for the better.
As I continue to learn more about Mason, I have found that the stories of Lovey, Zainab and Anousheh are not exceptions. They are the consequence of a unique approach to higher education. Mason is indeed a very special place.
It is innovative and diverse, it is entrepreneurial and accessible. These four words are what we call the Mason idea, it is what sets us apart and positions us like no other institution to fulfill the promise of higher education.
This is how the Mason magic works. Because we are accessible and inclusive, we are diverse. Diversity of people and ideas fuels our innovation and produces new ideas, which inspire initiatives and interventions that make a difference. Access leads to diversity, diversity fuels innovation, innovation empowers action.
A good example of how this formula works is provided by my colleagues Marc Gopin and Aziz Abu Sarah, faculty members in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, who work together to understand the interplay between religion and conflict in places like Israel and Syria. What’s remarkable about this partnership is that Marc is a New York Rabbi, and Aziz is a Palestinian Muslim. Aziz grew up, like many Palestinians do, angry and frustrated with Israel. At some point, he made the conscious decision to change his life and work to tear down what in his words are “walls of anger, misunderstanding and hatred that separate us.” One of the things he’s done is to bring together Israeli and Palestinian parents who’ve lost children in the conflict to comfort each other.
It’s precisely because they are so different that Marc and Aziz and their colleagues are finding innovative approaches to understanding conflict.
They spend as much time analyzing the conflict from the Israeli side as they do from the Palestinian side. And they are using their insights to help people in other areas of conflict, such as Syrian refugees in Turkey, to make sure the seeds of hatred don’t take root.
You get the idea. We keep the doors open to unlikely characters with potential, we build a diverse pool of people and talent, and new ideas happen. Ideas inspire action. Action changes the world for the better.
We do what universities are meant to do; we change the world, one life at a time.
This formula has worked beautifully at Mason for the last 40 years. Under the leadership of two great presidents, Dr. George Johnson and Dr. Alan Merten, with the support of a dedicated community, and thanks to the work of an extraordinary generation of faculty and staff, George Mason has grown into the largest university in the Commonwealth and one of the best research universities in the world.
Mason delivered Virginia’s first two Nobel laureates and it’s achieved worldwide distinction in many disciplines. This is a major feat, unparalleled across higher education.
We even showed the Nation what it means to play good basketball in an unforgettable run to the Final Four in 2006!
But the world has changed over the past four decades, and it’s presenting us with new challenges and opportunities. Our predecessors have handed us a fine institution. Now, we must carry the torch with the same ingenuity and dedication they put into it. We need to ask ourselves how to best continue to do our job in the context of the 21st century.
Over the last several months, we’ve asked ourselves that question. We’ve hosted meetings, large and small, face-to-face, and online, with over 4,000 people (students, faculty, staff, volunteers, friends, and community leaders). We’ve discussed what makes us who we are, the challenges we face, and the opportunities we have to do better.
From this work, we’ve sketched a vision of what we believe Mason ought to become, painting a picture of our collective aspirations as a community. Think of it as an impressionist rendition, as a watercolor of our future.
So what’s in that picture?
Imagine a university where students aren’t just acquiring knowledge but helping to create it.
A university community whose reach isn’t limited by physical location and buildings but amplified by world-spanning communications technology and partnerships.
A university with fewer and fewer barriers for students with talent who aren’t defined as “traditional” but who are ready to grow and make a difference.
Imagine a university where faculty aren’t only producing breakthroughs in science, humanities and the arts, but who are putting their ideas into practice to help find solutions to the greatest challenges in our nation and around the world, to find new cures for our physical and social ailments.
Imagine a university that is at the center of a cultural and economic renaissance in its region, that is helping incubate new businesses and drive innovation; that is helping its region become one of the best places in the world to live a full life.
Imagine a university that is focused on the well-being of its community, that is attracting the best talent in the world because it allows everyone to thrive.
Imagine a university that isn’t constrained by scarcity, but empowered by an abundance of resources that it helps create.
I hope the elements in that picture don’t feel totally unfamiliar, because we already do many of these things at George Mason University.
We help many students become creators, not just learners. We use the Internet to help nurses in Virginia complete their bachelor’s degrees, students in Africa learn economic development, and aspiring theater stars learn from a Golden Globe winning actor.
Our faculty are investigating new treatments for cancer and spinning off companies to take those drugs into the market. They are helping police officers reduce crime.
Our historians are building digital archives to empower anyone to experience history.
Our economists have helped derail plans to censor the Internet and are advising international organizations to keep the Internet free. Our chemists are designing water filters that are keeping thousands of people in Bangladesh healthy.
We are the home to world-class artistic and athletic performances.
We advise local entrepreneurs on creating and growing businesses.
We work with high school and community colleges to make sure talented students beat the odds and are inspired to become scientists or philosophers.
We help older adults take the biology class they always wanted to take or start the project they never had a chance to do.
Yet we have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible. We need to do much more, and we need everyone’s help to do it.
- We need to turn all our classrooms into modern spaces for learning and exploration.
- We need to develop new learning technologies to help our faculty’s ideas reach many more students, to change many more lives.
- We need to find ways to help many more students have meaningful global experiences.
- We need to multiply the number of labs, equipment, and resources for our faculty to continue to make discoveries.
- We need to dramatically increase our scholarship funds and our graduate research assistantships.
- We need new spaces where inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs can build new businesses and social enterprises.
- We need to modernize some of our flagship buildings to better serve our community.
And this is just a portion of our wish list. The full list is growing everyday as we make progress on our next strategic plan.
But what it is clear is that to build this George Mason University of the 21st century, we will need everyone’s support. Everyone has a role to play to make George Mason University the university we want it to be.
We need students who are active and engaged learners, who are helping one another learn and succeed, students who take advantage of every learning opportunity on and off campus and who are committed to building their alma mater into the future.
We need alumni who publicly express their fondness for George Mason, and who serve as mentors to those who are following in their footsteps. Alumni who recognize better than anyone the value Mason had in their lives and accept the charge of building a great university for those who come behind them.
We need the support of business, government, and community leaders. We need businesses to partner with us, government to strengthen us, and philanthropists to invest in us.
With your help, I assure you, the faculty and staff are ready to meet the challenge and build a university that will continue to make us proud and help us become a better society.
Since I arrived last July, I have been impressed by the professionalism, the caliber, and the dedication of my faculty and professional colleagues.
During the vision process, I asked them what values have helped us be what we are and will help us take this university into the future.
We agreed that we need to keep the students as our top priority, to remain committed to innovation and inclusion, to hold one another accountable to the highest ethical and professional standards, to protect freedom of thought and expression, to create an environment where we all can thrive, and to be great stewards of the resources our society has entrusted us with.
On behalf of my colleagues, I will assure you: we are ready for the challenge. With your help, we will make George Mason University as strong as our community wants it to be, so we can help our community do better and be better.
Universities do many wonderful things. We search for truth, we learn, we teach. We write, we invent, we perform, we cure, we create. We ask many questions, we answer some. We challenge society to be better, to do better.
We change the world one person at a time.
We challenged ourselves a few months ago to write, in a few words, what is the purpose of George Mason University, our mission. After much consideration we concluded the following: we are an innovative and inclusive academic community committed to creating a more just, free, and prosperous world.
The key of this mission statement is that we want to be measured not by how many resources we secure but by how much value we create for others.
It is customary in higher education to choose lofty goals that compare universities to one another. To declare that one wants to be the best university in some category or another, the best in the state, or in the nation or in the world.
We decided that what we really want to become is not the best university in the world, but the best university for the world.
With your help, I have no doubt we will get there. Now let’s get to work.
Thank you all so very much.