President Ángel Cabrera
Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019
Ferst Center for the Arts
(As written, not necessarily as delivered)
Thank you. It is such an honor to be back at Georgia Tech. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that one day I would be asked to return to Georgia Tech as president. Today standing here before you, it’s still hard to believe, but I’m thrilled to be back here in this community that has always been home to me, and I am so excited to begin working with all of you to write the next chapter in the history of this great institution.
I want to start by thanking everyone who helped us during the transition to Tech: the staff in the president’s office and the University System of Georgia office, every member of the senior administration, and, very especially, President Bud Peterson, who has been generous with his advice and time, and flexible to accommodate the timing of our move. His last act of service as president, which I will forever be grateful for, was agreeing to hold down the fort while we played Clemson last week!
Before I share with you how I plan to spend the next few months, and announce some immediate actions, let me tell you a little bit about me, what brought me here, and what excites me the most about our future.
I’ll start by introducing the other half of the Cabrera team: my wife, Beth, who grew up in Florence, Alabama. Beth and I met in graduate school at Tech and have been together since. I know this will sound a tad too surreal to be true, but it turns out that our very first date was right here, in the Ferst Center for the Arts, where we came to hear the Spanish Symphony the very year it opened, 1992.
After earning our doctorates at Tech, we moved to my hometown of Madrid. Beth, whose Spanish was limited to “hola” and “gracias” when we met, went on to become the first American to earn tenure at Carlos III University of Madrid (a dynamic young university and, interestingly, a Georgia Tech exchange partner) and to earn an award as the best instructor in her department. I should point out that she credits the Georgia Tech School of Modern Languages (not me) for her mastery of Spanish. Beth now writes about how we can improve our well-being at work and in our personal lives, and she teaches executive education programs to business leaders. A few years ago, we did some research together and wrote our most cited paper ever together … Maybe now that we’re back to where it all began, she may agree to write with me again!
This past spring, we proudly watched our son Alex walk across the stage and receive his bachelor’s in computer science after four wonderful years at Georgia Tech. Two weeks ago, he started his Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon. Our daughter Emilia is entering her third year at Harvard and is also majoring in computer science. She’s currently the only member of the family without a Georgia Tech degree, an issue, we keep reminding her, she can always try to correct in the future.
I arrived at Tech exactly 28 years ago almost to the day. I was traveling from Madrid, and like many of you, I showed up with two suitcases (which is all TWA allowed), some apprehension, and much excitement about the future. I had studied electrical and computer engineering at Universidad Politécnica of Madrid and had done well. With the support of my faculty, I got to do research in digital signal processing and present it at a conference. I also learned of a scholarship program called Fulbright, which eventually helped me make it here.
When I arrived at Tech, I just couldn’t believe it. Here I was, a kid from a working-class neighborhood in the outskirts of Madrid, whose parents didn’t go to college, about to start a doctorate at an iconic American research university. What are the odds? But what I didn’t realize then is that giving opportunities to people like me was exactly why public higher education was created.
I have seen firsthand the impact that public research universities can have in the lives of students and their families, the health of economies, and the strength of societies. Nothing I have accomplished in my own life would have been possible without quality public education. And I consider it a privilege to work for an institution that is not only devoted to scientific and technological progress but to social mobility and opportunity as well.
Most recently, as president of George Mason University (for the past seven years), I have worked with faculty and staff to help the university become a national example of access to excellence. In just a few decades, George Mason has emerged as the largest, fastest growing, and most diverse public four-year institution in Virginia, and the nation’s youngest top-tier R1 research university. It is a powerful engine of innovation, social mobility, and economic growth. During the past decade, Mason has accounted for more than half of all the growth in Virginia universities. More than half of Mason students are nonwhite, and about 40% are first generation, and, thanks to Mason, they go on to become teachers and nurses, engineers and lawyers, consultants, entrepreneurs, and CEOs. They are the reason behind the economic transformation of northern Virginia from sleepy suburb to a vibrant high-tech hub.
None of this is new to Georgia Tech, of course. This place was founded more than a century ago precisely to help rebuild and modernize a state economy ravaged in a bloody civil war by preparing people from around the state to innovate and build a competitive industry. Some 134 years later, we just need to look around to see how Tech has delivered on that founding mission far and beyond what anyone could have imagined back then.
We now attract thousands of talented individuals of all backgrounds from Georgia, across the nation, and around the world. This year, about 37,000 students applied for an entering first-year class of 3,080. We have become one of the world’s most admired engineering schools. And our strengths now reach far beyond engineering, with almost half of our undergraduate students choosing majors outside engineering.
Our research is leading to breakthroughs in areas ranging from artificial intelligence to sustainability, biomedical engineering, policy, and a wide range of social and cultural issues. With research awards now surpassing $1 billion, the magnitude of our research enterprise is simply extraordinary, especially for a public institution without a medical school.
That intensive research activity is producing new solutions and new technologies to help us live more productive, healthy, safe, and pleasant lives. It is also fueling a new wave of innovation and entrepreneurial activity that is creating economic opportunity and turning Atlanta into a vibrant, globally connected place to live, learn, and work.
That effect, the Georgia Tech effect, is most visible in our neighborhood. We have led an urban revival in midtown. Tech Square has transformed a decaying urban core into a vibrant innovation district. And the process is far from over and is helping Atlanta emerge as a world-class technology hub.
We have developed a presence in key locations internationally, and we are leading the way in using technology to reach students regardless of geography. Five years ago, we revolutionized graduate education in computer science with a low-cost, high-quality online master’s program that, today, serves more than 9,000 students representing all 50 states and 118 countries, the largest master’s program in computer science by far in the U.S. and possibly the world. Now we have launched the online master’s degree programs in analytics and in cybersecurity. The world is paying attention to what is going on at Georgia Tech.
Like all public universities, we face important challenges. But we face them from a position of great strength and with the tools, the resources, and the ingenuity to address them.
As a member of the Georgia Tech Advisory Board for about a decade, I’ve had a front row seat to watch the Institute reach impressive new heights. I salute all of you for what you have accomplished, and I thank my two predecessors, Bud Peterson and Wayne Clough, for leading us to where we are today.
One my most important goals for the coming year is to produce a new strategic plan that will help us keep that momentum going.
As you know, in 2010, we adopted a strategic plan that has served us well. Many of the accomplishments during the past nine years can be traced back to the foresight and vision in that plan and the ability of all of you to execute it, along with the flexibility to respond to opportunities that came our way. It also served as the basis for the successful Campaign Georgia Tech. That plan, however, had a 25-year horizon. And, as you may have noticed, much has changed since 2010. Our presidential transition creates a natural opportunity to reassess that vision, to rethink the kind of institution we want to become, and the impact we want to have in the world.
To build our new plan, I am going to need everyone’s input. During the next weeks and months, I will be reaching out to different groups inside and outside our campus — students, faculty, staff, alumni, employers, partners, elected officials — to gather everyone’s thoughts and aspirations and engage in a thoughtful dialogue to help articulate a new vision for Georgia Tech.
We need to answer some important questions: How can we direct our research efforts to have the most impact? How do we continue to lower barriers of access to low-income students? How do we plan to respond to the evolving needs of our students? Where do we go next with our online strategy? How do we engage most effectively globally? How can we best serve the economic development needs of our city and our state? How do we Create the Next in higher education?
To help me guide this process, I have invited a trusted colleague of mine, Frank Neville, to join me here at Georgia Tech as senior vice president of Strategic Initiatives and chief of staff. Frank was my chief of staff at Mason, where he was also vice president of Communications and Marketing. Previously, he worked with me at Thunderbird School of Global Management (which is now part of Arizona State University) as vice president of Global Communications and Public Affairs. And before that, he served our country for 15 years as a diplomat for the U.S. Department of State in Asia and Latin America. I’m grateful that he agreed to join me here, and I can’t wait for you to get to know him.
In his role, Frank will assume oversight of the Strategic Consulting department, currently under the EVP of Administration and Finance. I very much look forward to working with Frank and our Strategic Consulting team to get us organized in this strategic planning process. Stay tuned for details.
I want to use this moment also to recognize Lynn Durham, who, as you know, has served as President Bud Peterson’s chief of staff and as interim vice president for Government and Community Relations. I have gotten to know and admire Lynn during the years when I served on the Georgia Tech Advisory Board, and much more closely these past two months as she did a terrific job orchestrating our presidential transition. Because of her extraordinary record of service, her knowledge of the Institute, and her strong relationships with key external constituencies, I could think of no better person to coordinate and lead our external relations. That’s why I have appointed Lynn to be vice president of Institute Relations. Her new portfolio will include government and community relations and economic development, as well as chairing a new external affairs council to help us strategically coordinate our efforts across the Institute. Thank you, Lynn, for your service, and I very much look forward to working with you in your new capacity.
Both of these changes will take place immediately. Also, the search for the executive vice president for Administration and Finance was restarted this summer. We are making good progress, and I hope to be able to share news about the role in the coming months.
In addition to spending a great deal of time thinking about our future, I have spent the summer learning as much as I can about the Institute and some of the immediate issues we face.
I was not surprised to learn about the overall concern at Tech about student mental health, an issue of increasing importance in universities across the nation. And an issue that, as we saw two years ago on this campus, can have tragic and deeply painful consequences. I was pleased to learn about the work the Institute has done during the past couple of years to address this growing problem including the creation of a new Center for Assessment, Referral, and Education (CARE), which opened on the first day of class this semester. I am encouraged by the training programs introduced by our police department and the multiple efforts including, very importantly, efforts by students, themselves, to strengthen a campus culture that is reflective of the kind of inclusive, supportive community that we want to be. That we need to be.
I want to call your attention to some of the materials recently produced to help all of us play our role in helping any student who may be struggling or suffering. It is clear that we all need to be on board. And I want you to know that this will remain a priority for me personally.
Another area that concerns me a great deal, as I know it does many of you, is the issue of sexual violence and gender-based discrimination on college campuses. I have devoted a lot of effort to this issue that continues to hurt so many students every year. After careful consideration and discussions with our senior leadership team, I have decided to transfer Georgia Tech’s Title IX office from the Office of the General Counsel to the renamed Office of Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Our top priority in cases of sexual violence is the well-being of the individuals involved, and this transfer will underscore that very clearly. The changes will also affect our ADA function, which will also transfer to the Office of Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I want to thank Archie Ervin and Ling-Ling Nie for their leadership in making these changes happen, and I look forward to working with them and all of you in building an environment where all students can thrive without fear. They are working to implement the changes now and will use our communications channels to keep you up to date on anything that may affect how you work with this team.
Throughout my career, it has become clear to me that diversity makes a community stronger, smarter, and more resilient. When we listen to, learn from, and collaborate with people who have different experiences and perspectives, who bring different strengths, we see opportunities and find solutions that would be invisible from only one wavelength. Promoting diversity will be an important part of my work because it’s the right thing to do and because it makes all of us better.
Just this week, I spoke with the Women in Engineering group and a number of student leaders representing minority populations on campus. I also participated in the Diversity Symposium and was moved by the unveiling of the sculptures of Georgia Tech’s first three African American students and our first African American graduate, Ronald Yancey. I hope these statues will serve as a reminder of the difficult path we have walked to become a more inclusive community, of the personal acts of courage it took to get to where we are today, and as an inspiration to keep working in making sure no individual is ever excluded from Tech for reasons other than their academic potential.
Another area that I realize has been on people’s minds during the past two years is ethical conduct and the questions that have been raised. I know the vast majority of you care deeply about this place and would never do anything unethical. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to build trust but only a few bad actors to destroy it. And our goal must be to not only do the right thing but to make sure everyone knows that we are. As a public institution, it is of paramount importance that we earn and keep the public trust.
I know questions about ethical conduct at Tech have been taken very seriously by the administration under President Peterson, and I appreciate the work he has done to strengthen the Institute in that area. I am fully committed to building on the work that has been done during the past year to create an ethical culture that is part of the fabric of the Institute. As you know, Ling-Ling Nie joined Tech last spring as general counsel and VP for Ethics and Compliance with the explicit goal to leverage her industry expertise and help us strengthen ethics and compliance throughout the Institute. Building on that work, we are moving ahead with a few important changes, which will be communicated separately. The new organization will be more effective, more efficient, and will better equip us to lead our entire community to embrace ethics and compliance in the way we work.
Even with these changes, it will take all of us working together to ensure that we maintain the public trust as we utilize federal, state, and philanthropic resources to fulfill our mission. Ling-Ling and her team are rolling out an ethics campaign during the coming months that will help us all better understand how to weave ethics into the way we approach our daily work so that, over time, it becomes second nature.
That brings me to transparency. To earn the public trust, the expectation of transparency needs to be built into everything we do. We need to be able to explain why we do what we do. And in cases when information cannot be shared, be clear about why that is the case.
As a first step toward increasing transparency, we will be moving the Open Records department from Legal Affairs into Institute Communications. It will become part of a new group being created within Institute Communications. That team will focus on telling our story through the news media, managing crises, as well as being responsive to those seeking more information through Open Records requests, and supporting all those in external-facing functions throughout the Institute.
In the category of trying to practice what I preach, I will contribute my own efforts to our commitment to transparency by writing a blog for the president’s page on the Georgia Tech website. I’ll use it to share my thoughts on topics related to Georgia Tech and higher education at large. Also, after a few weeks of social media de-tox this summer, I have re-engaged on Twitter and will continue to post on Instagram (my handle on both is CabreraAngel). In addition, feel free to email me your ideas and concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, I invite you to stop me and say hi when you see me on campus, or at a game. I understand my first name may not be the easiest to pronounce for English speakers. But should you want to try, I enjoy being called by my first name, Ángel.
I am so excited to be back at Georgia Tech, and so proud. And not because of our reputation and accolades, but because of our impact. Don’t get me wrong. I love our fabulous rankings, and I will be the first to brag shamelessly about them whenever I can. But that’s not why we do what we do. We work hard to make a difference in the world we live in.
Georgia Tech is a great technological university and a great public university. It is a strategic asset for Atlanta and Georgia. It is an engine of innovation and economic growth. It is a national resource in our system of science and technology. And it is a global hub of innovation that holds the key to helping us deal with some of our most pressing global challenges. In a couple of weeks, I will be in New York City with leaders from the U.N. and higher education around the world, announcing a new University Global Compact and pledging to do our share in driving progress toward achieving our most important sustainable development goals.
It is in places such as Georgia Tech, with extraordinary talent and a strong mission of public service, that we will find our best path forward. Progress and Service. That’s what it’s all about.
I’m happy to be back home. Thank you.
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