Former Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton will serve as George Mason University’s interim president this fall while the public university’s board of visitors searches for a permanent appointee.
The GMU Board of Visitors voted unanimously on June 20 to appoint Holton after Dr. Ángel Cabrera confirmed on June 13 that he will step down from the position he has held since 2012 to become president of the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“George Mason University is a special place for me and my family, and I look forward to serving the institution during this interim period,” Holton said. “The university has made tremendous strides for such a young institution, and it’s my privilege to continue that momentum and ensure a smooth transition to the next president.”
Holton served as Virginia’s education secretary from January 2014 to July 2016 under then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a tenure highlighted by efforts to increase state funding for public education, reform standardized testing requirements, and address economic and racial achievement gaps.
She left the position after her husband, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), was selected by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to be her running mate. She was the Commonwealth’s First Lady from 2006 to 2010 when Kaine served as governor.
Prior to becoming secretary of education, Holton served as a juvenile and domestic relations district court judge and worked for the Virginia Community Colleges System as director of its Great Expectations program, which supports foster youth as they pursue higher education.
With a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a law degree from Harvard, Holton also has experience as a legal aid lawyer for low-income families in the Richmond area.
As the daughter of Gov. A. Linwood Holton, Holton played a symbolic role in the push for desegregation in Virginia when her father sent her and her sister to a historically all-black Richmond City public school.
Holton has ties to George Mason both directly and through her father.
Linwood Holton signed legislation in 1972 giving GMU independence from the University of Virginia. He later received the Mason Medal in 2010, and the university named a plaza next to the Center for the Arts after him in 2016.
Holton has served as a visiting professor for Mason since May 2017, when she joined the faculty of both the Schar School of Policy and Education, and the College of Education and Human Development.
In addition to conducting research in education, social welfare, and urban policy, Holton is a visiting fellow at GMU’s Center for Education Policy and Evaluation.
Holton’s experience with state educational policy and familiarity with Mason made her an ideal choice for interim president, according to GMU.
“Her knowledge of state government and her leadership in statewide higher education, where she was instrumental in bolstering the Commonwealth’s talent pipeline, will be particularly useful as Mason strives to grow programs to meet the talent and innovation opportunities generated by Amazon’s arrival in Northern Virginia,” GMU Rector Tom Davis said.
Holton will be George Mason’s first female president when her appointment takes effect on Aug. 1, though Mason says she does not plan to seek the position on a permanent basis.
Once Holton becomes interim president, Cabrera will shift to an advisory role until he officially leaves Mason and assumes his new position at Georgia Tech on Sept. 1.
After announcing Cabrera as a finalist to lead Georgia Tech on June 6, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents cemented his selection on June 13, citing his role in elevating GMU’s reputation as a research institution and Virginia’s largest public university.
Cabrera noted in a letter announcing his decision to leave Mason that Georgia Tech has “played a very special role” in his life after he met his wife while studying cognitive psychology there as a graduate student.
Cabrera earned a doctorate and a master’s degree at Georgia Tech while attending as a Fulbright Scholar, and he currently sits on the president’s advisory board, which he chaired in 2011.
“I am proud of what we have accomplished together to make George Mason university the extraordinary institution it has become,” Cabrera said. “I am deeply grateful for all the Mason community has done to support my family and me since we arrived.”
Over his seven-year tenure as Mason’s president, Cabrera pushed the university to become an academic and research leader while emphasizing its relatively diverse student population, which is concentrated in Fairfax but includes campuses in Arlington, Manassas, and now, South Korea.
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education named George Mason a top-tier doctoral university in 2016.
In addition to opening a campus in Songdo, South Korea, in 2014, GMU established the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Institute of Biohealth Innovation, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, the Potomac Center of Environmental Studies, and the Point of View Center for Conflict Analysis and Resolution under Cabrera.
With more than 37,000 students representing over 130 countries, Mason has accounted for more than half of Virginia’s total enrollment growth since Cabrera become president. Its philanthropic contributions went from $53 million in 2012 to $112 million after a fundraising campaign that concluded in December brought in $690 million, according to The Washington Post.
Cabrera also attracted some criticism during his time at Mason, as the university’s relationship with private donors in particular raised concerns from students, faculty, and the general public about the influence of outside interests on hiring, research, and other academic areas.
The student group Transparent GMU sued the GMU Foundation, which solicits and administers private donations on the university’s behalf, in 2017 after Mason denied public information requests for records detailing its agreements with the conservative nonprofit Charles Koch Foundation.
Though a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge ruled in July 2018 that the foundation is not subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Cabrera admitted in an email to faculty on Apr. 27, 2018 that some of the university’s past gift agreements with private donors fell short of standards for academic independence.
GMU’s president ordered the university to review all active gift agreements, which resulted in the Board of Visitors adopting a revised gift acceptance policy on May 2 to improve oversight and transparency.
Cabrera’s administration also courted controversy by renaming of Mason’s law school after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016 and hiring current Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a visiting professor for the law school.
Announced in March, Kavanaugh’s hiring prompted some students to organize a protest as well as a town hall with administrators to discuss frustrations with the university’s Title IX office and its handling of sexual assault allegations.
As Cabrera’s tenure winds down, George Mason plans to build off his work promoting research and career preparation.
Mason announced in November that it will invest more than $250 million over five years to expand its Arlington campus, which is adjacent to Amazon’s planned second headquarters.
GMU has also partnered with Northern Virginia Community College and Amazon Web Services to develop a bachelor of applied science degree in cloud computing, the university announced on June 11.
Scheduled to launch in fall 2020, the new degree pathway is part of the ADVANCE program that Mason and NOVA formally launched last October to better coordinate the transfer process for community college students seeking a four-year degree.
The search for GMU’s seventh president is currently underway, as the Board of Visitors selects search committee members, hires a recruitment firm, and develops a process for obtaining input from the public, including faculty, staff, students, alumni, and donors.
“Additional details will be communicated over the next few weeks,” the university said in a press release. “As part of this process, the board indicated its commitment to engaging the full breadth of the Mason community in identifying the desired characteristics of the next president.”