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The most often-asked questions George Mason University’s new President Angel Cabrera hears are on bringing football to the school.

Cabrera, 45, estimates he’s been asked that question about 103,000 times.

“It’s a full range [of questions on football],” he said. “There are members of our community who think we are blessed not to have the complexities of a football program and that we should never, ever look into it. There are members of our community who think it’s about time we got a football program and we need a football program like the rest of the big universities. … You have the full range of opinions, right?

“I’m actually very open to the idea,” Cabrera said, adding he is working on drafting a new vision for Mason, which will be implemented during the next decade.

Will football be a part of that vision?

“It’s a pretty expensive proposition,” said Cabrera, who left his presidency at the top-ranked international business school Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona to become Mason’s sixth president.

“In an environment where we have so many pressures and demands to increase quality [and] to remain affordable for our students, we have to be very careful about it,” Cabrera said. “If I told you that establishing a football program would mean an increase in student fees of $1,000 a year— I’m not saying that’s the figure — but suppose I said that, would you want football or not?”

Football at Mason is a $65 million-plus question, according to a 2010 internal study conducted by the vice president’s office and the school’s athletic department. The study looked at the cost of fielding a Division I team. A similar study by an outside consultant was conducted in 1998.

If the costs were divided among the more than 33,300 students expected to attend Mason this fall as a one-time expense, each student would pay about $1,950 for football.

The figure was too high for Cabrera’s predecessor, Alan G. Merten, who was an avid supporter of Mason athletics during his 16 years at the Fairfax school.

“When I came to Mason, my goal was to have a really good basketball program,” said Merten during an interview in May. “I thought we could pair a really good athletics program with our academic programs. If you do athletics the right way, it brings a lot of positive attention.”

With that said, Merten added football is a high-risk, high-reward decision with cost implications that could impact academic programs.

Beyond the cost, the million-dollar question might be overshadowing questions Cabrera hopes students, faculty and the community would ask.

“I would love it if people said ‘How are we going to improve the quality of our programs or increase our research portfolio,’ or if people are as excited about the amazing research that some of our colleagues are doing in the biomedical sciences or in economics as they are about athletics,” Cabrera said.

Since taking office in July, Cabrera has been on a listening tour, visiting Capitol Hill, the governor’s office and local governing bodies. He also has staged town hall-style meetings with each of the schools within Mason and regularly fields students’ and staff’s questions via Twitter. The goal, he said, is to gain feedback on the expectations and needs the community has for Mason, and use that to create a direction and vision for the university.

This vision will be crafted and drafted in future months, with plans to roll it out in spring 2013 and generate a fundraising campaign later in 2013.

“George Mason is special. It’s special in many ways. We are incredibly young as an institution. It’s been only 40 years. And for a university in just four decades to become the largest institution in a system of universities that is known around the world as really one of the best public university systems, that is really remarkable,” he said. “We believe we are well suited to have a much bigger share of federal funds in research, for example” because of location and areas of knowledge such as law, economics, biology an cyber security.

“I think we still have huge potential to do much more research,” he said.

Mason’s leadership said their expectations of Cabrera are to take the university from national to global, while maintaining the quality nurtured under Merten.

“By becoming a more national force, we almost by default become a global force,” said Bill Reeder, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. This year’s student body membership represents all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and some 130 countries.

“I think, when [Cabrera] was selected and we got to know him, there was a unanimous feeling that this was the right person for us,” Reeder said. On the football question, he agreed with the high-risk, high-reward view.

“I jokingly say, ‘I want to have football because it would give me a million-dollar marching band,” Reeder said. “It automatically attracts some instruments,” like trombones, trumpets and percussion.

Still, Reeder said, the focus at Mason is on where academics, research, community partnerships and the use of technology will lead the university next.

“Any transition like this, after you’ve had one president 16 years, raises questions and anxieties,” Mason’s Provost Peter N. Stearns said. “He knows we’re on a good trajectory. … It’s clear, he’s very interested in using technology. He will probably accelerate what we’ve started [with online learning]. … He is well known globally. He’s a new generation leader.”

The emphasis on brick building developed under Merten’s reign likely will not proceed as it did in the past decade, Stearns said. During his tenure, Merten shifted Mason from commuter to residential campus with the addition of some 3,500 beds. He increased the number of facilities on campus from 125 to 168, and enrollment from 24,200 to 33,300.

With state funding for higher education continuing to decrease in terms of per-pupil spending, Stearns said universities will be redefining their roles.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that this region could be in for some challenges should the federal budget shrink,” he said. “How does the university remain accessible to the community and students?”

This, Stearns said, is the question Cabrera will have to answer.

Mason’s fall semester begins Monday.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com