Georgia Tech campus
Photo: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM/JOHN SPINK / AJC
Photo: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM/JOHN SPINK / AJC

Georgia Tech alumnus picked as finalist to be president

An alumnus of one of the state’s largest and highest-regarded institutions emerged Thursday as the candidate to become its new leader.

Ángel Cabrera, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Georgia Tech, was named as the sole finalist to become the school’s next president. If selected, he would take over a school that is still recovering from some recent well-publicized ethics troubles.

Ángel Cabrera, who received master’s and doctoral degrees from Georgia Tech, is the sole finalist to become its next president.
Photo: Evan Cantwell/George Mason University

Cabrera has been president of George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia, since 2012 and has become a high-profile figure in the higher education world. The university’s enrollment has increased by 5.8% and its graduation rate is up 3 percentage points since Cabrera took office. But Cabrera has faced criticism in recent months after its law school agreed to have U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh teach overseas classes this summer over the objection of some students.

A 22-member committee of the state’s Board of Regents and others picked Cabrera to be the candidate to replace G.P. “Bud” Peterson, who announced in January his retirement plans after a decade as Georgia Tech’s president. Peterson has spent much of the past 12 months grappling with several internal and state reports of ethics violations that resulted in the resignations and firings of some of the school’s top administrators.

 >> RELATED | Georgia Tech president to retire

>> MORE | President Peterson rebuked for ethical lapses under his watch

“Dr. Ángel Cabrera has the academic background, leadership skills and community ties necessary to lead a premier research institution like Georgia Tech,” University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley 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’s Georgia Tech roots are deep. He’s been chairman of the school’s advisory board. His wife and son are Georgia Tech graduates.

“Georgia Tech is very special to me,” Cabrera said in a statement. “My wife and I met there and our son is a recent graduate. It would be a privilege to lead such a great institution.”

The announcement surprised some on campus who were unaware of the committee’s progress. The Board of Regents presidential search policy allows them to name just one finalist. The 19-member board will vote on Cabrera at an unspecified date.

>> READ | Georgia Tech has had a ‘dramatic increase’ in ethics complaints, president says

If hired, Cabrera will be tasked with improving its ethics culture and investigating complaints faster. Georgia Tech took an average of 102 days in 2017 to investigate a complaint, the second-longest time of any college or university in the University System of Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. It also saw a surge in ethics complaints, with 140 complaints between July and October, Peterson told staff at one meeting.

Cabrera will also have to improve mental health services at Georgia Tech. Several students have committed suicide in recent years, and others have complained the school’s mental health services are inadequate.

Cabrera will also have to maintain Georgia Tech’s rigorous academic standards, its standing as one of the world’s top research institutions and its ongoing effort to offer more online classes. Georgia Tech has nearly 33,000 students, and its 88% six-year graduation rate is the highest of any public college or university in the state. Its research institute received nearly a half-billion dollars in federal research funding in the last federal fiscal year.

Some students complained Thursday that they didn’t have enough input into the selection process. One student group, the Young Democratic Socialists of America, released a statement raising those concerns and criticizing some of Cabrera’s decisions at George Mason.

“Ángel Cabrera is not the answer,” it said.

Fourth year student Jack Becker was critical of Cabrera’s decision to have Kavanaugh teach. Becker wants to see Cabrera, if he’s appointed, implement more recommendations to improve conditions for Georgia Tech students after the 2017 fatal shooting of a student by a campus police officer.

“I want to see (Cabrera) make headway and not sweep it under the rug,” said Becker, 21, a liberal arts student.

Cabrera has defended George Mason’s decision to hire Kavanaugh, who was accused of a sexual assault that allegedly occurred more than 30 years ago, when the judge was a high school student.

“I respect the views of people who disagreed with Justice Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation due to questions raised about his sexual conduct in high school,” Cabrera wrote in March on George Mason’s website. “But he was confirmed and is now a sitting Justice. The law school has determined that the involvement of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice contributes to making our law program uniquely valuable for our students. And I accept their judgment.”

Georgia Tech students walk to and from class on the first day of the semester in this AJC file photo.
Photo: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

George Mason has nearly 38,000 students, and its six-year graduation rate is about 69%, according to its website. The university has doubled its endowment during Cabrera’s tenure, and he’s been a vocal supporter of immigrant students known as “Dreamers” who obtained protection from deportation through an Obama administration policy, according to The Washington Post.

American Council on Education Senior Vice President Terry Hartle called Cabrera an “ideal” candidate to lead Georgia Tech.

“He is an experienced president, he’s internationally known and he has unique connections to Georgia Tech,” Hartle said.

Hartle noted Cabrera has added more campuses in Virginia to increase accessibility for students, and the university has been ranked by some prominent organizations as a top-flight workplace.

“A place like Georgia Tech isn’t going to take risks with (who it chooses to be) president,” Hartle said.

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