Georgia Tech's President On Student Mental Health, Campus Police Training And Creating Jobs

Oct 28, 2019

The Georgia Institute of Technology has a new president. Ángel Cabrera has been on the job for just under two months.

He formally steps into the role in a ceremony Monday.

Cabrera is a Georgia Tech alumnus who returns to Atlanta after a seven-year tenure as president of George Mason University in Virginia.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Rickey Bevington: You were a student at Tech in the 1980s. What has changed at the school in the last 30 years?

Cabrera: So much has changed, and yet, I can totally recognize the place and its culture, but the surroundings are totally different. You are from Atlanta. You may recall what Midtown was like when I was a grad student here. We rarely ventured across the connector into Midtown.

Now, that place is booming, is thriving and is filled with not just the restaurants and the lifestyle, but the businesses, the innovation, the innovation labs from many of the leading companies. It's fabulous. What's happening on the south and west of campus, what's happening in Atlanta at large is terrific.

I live in Midtown in Virginia Highlands. I love to walk the Beltline. There are all of these are incredible improvements to the city. The school itself, of course, has lots of new buildings, amazing facilities and libraries and labs and technology. But the culture of the place is still pretty much the same that I remember.

Bevington: What's that culture?

Cabrera: It's a culture of innovation, of technology, of entrepreneurship. Interestingly, it's also a culture of service. I've noticed that many of our students, when I talk to them, they're very proud of the university's motto of progress and service. I think maybe this new generation gets that part of service even more centrally to do their own missions than than we used to, back in the day.

Bevington: Georgia Tech is due for a new strategic plan, updating the last one from 2010. What will be the school's top priorities for the next decade?

Cabrera: We are indeed due for a new strategic plan. We we have been working under one that has served us incredibly well. What has happened at Georgia Tech over the last decade is absolutely remarkable. Our research expenditures, for example, just surpassed one billion dollars. There are very few universities in the country without a medical school at that level of research activity.

The number of applicants to Georgia Tech have dramatically multiplied. The university has moved up in the rankings, in national and international rankings, and positioned itself among the best in the world across disciplines. So much has changed, but also our environment has changed [like] technology, online education and the demographics of the students that we serve. All that has changed. That's why we need to rethink what's in stock for us over the next decade. [It's] how can we take those changes in our environment and turn them into opportunities for the school and for the city.

Bevington: I imagine you've been doing a lot of listening as you've gotten to campus. When you talk to students and staff and parents and members of the community. What are the most common concerns on their minds? Any themes that come up?

As Georgia Tech becomes even more competitive, and as it becomes an even more sought-after school, issues around mental health are becoming even more prevalent.

Cabrera: Well, the first reaction that I get is incredibly positive. I always joke with my colleagues, going around Atlanta and introducing myself as the new guy at Georgia Tech almost makes me immediately a rock star. People think so highly of Georgia Tech. It is so nice to be able to, in a way, represent this institution. But there are some concerns, too.

I mean, the issues around mental health, for example, this is not just at Georgia Tech. This is a national issue, but it affects us very personally. The students will very quickly bring that up. As Georgia Tech becomes even more competitive and as it becomes an even more sought-after school, issues around mental health are becoming even more prevalent. So that's one of the the areas that I think is probably more consistently brought up.

Bevington: Mental health is at the center of a recent wrongful death lawsuit by the parents of Scout Schultz, who was killed two years ago by a campus police officer during what appears to have been a mental health crisis on the part of Schultz. 

RELATED: Parents Of Georgia Tech Student Shot By Police File Lawsuit

According to records released by the school at that time, less than one third of Georgia Tech's police officers had undergone the 40-hour course in crisis intervention. So today, are Georgia Tech officers better prepared to handle crises in general?

Cabrera: Without a doubt. I have been very impressed by all the changes that were put in place at Georgia Tech over the last two years. It's not just a question about police, although, of course, the training opportunities and the protocols have been improved significantly. But really, it's an issue that spans all sorts of services and resources on campus. For example, just right as I started on my job, we opened a new care center.

This is a place where a student that is having an issue, you don't have to decide, "Ok, do I go to the medical center or do I go and seek out the help of a counselor?" It's a point of entry. If you're having issues, you go to the care center right there in the student center and you will sit down with someone, you'll fill out an assessment and you will walk out of that place with a plan on what exactly you need to do. We're also working, of course, on an information campaign so that all staff, every faculty member, including every student, knows what to do and what to recommend like when you are aware that someone in your dorm or a friend of yours may be having problems. It is a complex issue that requires complex solutions, but I've been really impressed with the work that Georgia Tech has done.

Bevington: What changes have happened in the campus police force? 

Cabrera: Training programs, protocols, there's a whole bunch of programs that have been improved.

Bevington: For somebody who may not know the difference between a university and a research university, why don't you break that down for my audience?

Cabrera: You're absolutely right, not every university is or needs to be a research university. But research universities have a dual mandate, and the way the research infrastructure in this country has been structured since World War Two, it heavily relies on the work of universities to create new technologies and to really push forward scientific base of our country.

So in our case, our faculty, they spend some of their time teaching undergraduate students, some of the time teaching graduate courses and a lot of their time running labs and bringing in grants and resources and and driving research programs. [That's] in areas that can range from from healthcare and how to come up with new treatments of cancer or how to build new information technology or how to apply artificial intelligence or how to develop better defense systems for our armed forces.

What Stanford did in Silicon Valley or what M.I.T. and Harvard have done in Cambridge, that's exactly what George Tech, Emory and other universities are helping do in Atlanta.

There's a whole gamut of research that every day comes out of our labs. What's very important about leading research universities is the spillover value that they create in their surroundings. It is research universities like what Stanford did in Silicon Valley or what M.I.T. and Harvard have done in Cambridge, and that's exactly what George Tech, Emory and other universities are helping do in Atlanta.

Some of this research turns into new enterprises, into new startups. Some of the grad students in partnership with their faculty or alone may decide to take one of those technologies and build a new product and create a business that is, in turn, going to create employment. You cannot find, nowadays, any competitive city, any thriving economy that is not anchored by great world-class research universities.

Bevington: You have an entire state to leverage, in fact. In what ways does Georgia Tech support engineering, science, math, technology students at other schools throughout Georgia within the university system?

Cabrera: Our raw material is smart people, smart students who can who study here, who can even join our labs and who can pursue careers in science and technology. For us to do our work, we need a healthy pipeline of students coming out of our high schools throughout the state and around the country and, increasingly, around the world who come to Georgia Tech. We're very committed. We're very excited about several of the programs that we do.

We have an entity called the CEISMC, an acronym for Center for Education, Integrating Science, Math and Computing, where we reach out into high schools. We have hundreds of students, for example, taking math classes, computing classes online at Georgia Tech. We organize camps and activities.

We train hundreds of teachers in Georgia, so that they can bring STEM and computing education to their high school. We very committed because, of course, it's the right thing to do, and because that is the raw material that we need. We need that healthy pipeline of talent coming our way.