Cabrera on open search: 'Probably not'

Incoming president Ángel Cabrera speaks to Faculty Senate member Susan Trencher at a Wednesday meet-and-greet. (Kevin Loker)
Incoming president Ángel Cabrera speaks to Faculty Senate member Susan Trencher at a Wednesday meet-and-greet. (Kevin Loker)

Incoming university president Ángel Cabrera told a Faculty Senate member Wednesday that if the presidential search was open, he likely wouldn’t have continued through the process.

“Probably not,” Cabrera told Faculty Senate member Stanley Zoltek at an informal meet-and-greet. “It would have damaged my reputation.”

The confidentiality of the presidential search process that led to the Board of Visitor’s selection of Cabrera as Mason’s sixth university president has been at the center of discussion among faculty. Some members of the Faculty Senate say that the closed process violated procedures in the Faculty Handbook, a document they feel is contractual in university decision-making and one that said that the search “must include opportunities” for the General Faculty to meet with final candidates. Others question whether closed search processes, a practice usually intended to protect an applicant’s status at their sitting institution, returns “better” candidates for an open job.

Cabrera, who will assume the role of president when Alan Merten steps down at the end of June, was one of six final candidates, all of whom “insisted” on confidentiality “until the very end,” according to Peter Pober, chair of the Faculty Senate and one of four faculty representative on the search committee. During remarks at the meet and greet, Cabera said that the “level of engagement” among faculty is “a very good sign,” even when its about disagreements.

“The level of engagement that the faculty has . . . is a very good sign,” said Cabrera at the meet-and-greet. “Even when that engagement and intensity has to do with disagreements about things, it’s a very good sign.”

Cabrera also told the Faculty Senate that faculty play a role in decision-making.

“I fully intend to engage with you guys,” said Cabrera before opening the floor for questions. “. . .The faculty are a key part of making decisions that effect the [culture] of the institution.”

Last week, outgoing BOV Rector Ernst Volgenau defended the BOV’s actions in the search. Volgenau told the Faculty Senate the BOV didn’t “technically follow the rule of the Faculty Handbook,” but because it wasn’t all-contractual, they weren’t “compelled” to do so.

Cabrera, the sitting president of Thunderbird School for Global Management, said he wouldn’t speak on the decisions of Mason’s Board, but on Thursday further addressed the role of confidentiality in a presidential search process.

“Well it’s obviously a decision by the Board, and not by me, but all I can tell you, if confidentiality had been compromised somehow, I would not have continued in the search most likely,” said Cabrera in a phone call Thursday. “And that’s not just me. It’s a very delicate issue [in the industry.]”

“There are many different circumstances, and some [applicants] are in the situation where they don’t mind,” said Cabrera, adding that applicants in open searches, including colleagues of his in the industry, have found themselves in “career-damaging searches.”

Conflicting views exist on the necessity of confidentiality in presidential search processes. Jan Greenwood and Betty Turner Asher of Greenwood Asher and Associates, the search firm hired to conduct Mason’s recent presidential search, published a 2011 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education which discusses the negative consequences faced by presidents who pursue other job opportunities.

A 2005 study published by the American Association of University Professors, an association whose policy statement language was used in the Faculty Handbook which the Board of Visitors approved, found “no compelling evidence of diminished presidential quality as a result of openness requirement.”

In 2009, while still at Thunderbird, Cabrera was involved in the presidential search process at Florida International University. Cabrera told Zoltek that when he received a phone call that he was going to be finalist – and was told by FIU that it would “hit the newspapers in the next two hours” – he pulled out.

All university presidential searches in Florida are open under state sunshine laws. 

Twelve years ago, President Alan Merten was also involved in an open presidential search. Merten was one of six final candidates for the vacated presidency at the University of Florida, where he previously served as Dean of the College of Business Administration. He chose to withdraw his name for consideration shortly before his scheduled interview for the presidency.

Merten has remained president at Mason since his appointment in 1996. He will step down at the end of June.

Cabrera’s visit this week is part of his “orientation” with Mason, and the second visit he has made since his selection announcement in December. While Mason only has “one president at a time,” according to Manager of Presidential Operations & Activities Sharon Cullen, Cabrera has begun a schedule of informative meetings to learn about the different units of the university, the administration and other “specifics.”

“We’re doing phasing of visits,” said Cullen. “He’s not having 30 meetings in one visit . . . We’re having him meet the specific people that he will be working directly with and the areas they are in charge of, and learning about those as well.”

The President’s Office is helping with the transition to Fairfax, according to Cullen. A transition committee, formulated with a few of the Board members and “primarily centered for Board activities and Board-specific transitions,” has also been formed.

“Cabrera found the right fit with Mason,” said Cullen. “Now he needs to learn about some of the things maybe he didn’t know as much about or needs to know more about now that he’s going to be president,” said Cullen.

Cabrera remains president at Thunderbird through June. He becomes Mason’s president on July 1.

The Faculty Senate meeting’s agenda from Feb. 28 says that a resolution on the presidential search process will be included on the agenda for their next meeting, March 28.


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