Faculty across GW are left surprised after learning last week that their ambassador in the administration, Provost Steven Lerman, will leave his post in January.
Lerman’s decision came completely unexpected to dozens of faculty who described him as responsive, involved and committed to solving problems. And as the University prepares for the provost’s departure and a search for a new official, faculty say Lerman leaves big shoes to fill.
“I think it’s a great loss for GW that he won’t be provost,” said Jean Johnson, the former dean of the GW School of Nursing and a current faculty member. “I marvel at his energy level — he must have met with students and alumni and donors and faculty and staff and everybody.”
Before Robert Chernak, the long-serving former vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, retired in 2012, he worked with Lerman to usher the provost into the newly created role. Lerman would eventually oversee areas Chernak had led like admissions and athletics.
Chernak called Lerman “the soul of the administration.”
“I can’t tell you how much I respect him as an individual. He’s a terrific person and someone who cares about the human component,” Chernak said, adding that he sent Lerman a note after learning of the resignation.
A provost, who is often called the “dean of the deans,” takes on all academic matters at a university, ranging from shaping budgets for individual colleges to creating and setting off new programs.
Lerman was the official who pushed hardest for GW to expand its reputation globally, launching a global bachelor’s program that he said would start recruiting undergraduates this fall and leading the drive for GW to consider creating a campus in China.
But those projects weren’t without their hiccups. Lerman shelved a broader global degree program in 2013 and a plan to build a China campus was ditched after former GW School of Business Dean Doug Guthrie, who led the University’s China strategy, was fired in 2013.
Several deans, who worked closely with Lerman to craft budgets for their schools, create new programs and set fundraising goals, said they admired his leadership style, which Johnson described as “even-handed.”
Faculty also said Lerman was always helpful and responsive, sending updates on University or faculty issues throughout the summer.
Jennifer Griffin, a strategic management and public policy professor in the GW School of Business and the former chair of her department, said Lerman was always active in reaching out and communicating with faculty during difficult times. He guided the business school through the firing of Guthrie, who was removed from his position for overspending by $13 million.
Griffin said Lerman met with faculty the day Guthrie’s firing was announced, an event that marked what she called a “significant period of transition for the school.” She said it would be tough to find a provost who could live up to Lerman’s legacy.
“He’s always kind and conscientious. Even when he had difficult messages to deliver, he stood up and took the questions from the faculty for good or for ill,” Griffin said.
Lerman, who will return as an endowed A. James Clark Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering after a year-long sabbatical, was also known among faculty for highly valuing strong professors.
Carol Sigelman, the chair of the psychology department, said she worked with Lerman at GW’s annual teaching day, an event run through the provost’s office that brought together faculty members from across the University to participate in workshops.
“I appreciated how much he cared about teaching and how much he cared about faculty development,” Sigelman said.
Lerman also called for GW’s libraries to receive more funding and guided the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Science through a transition as departments moved from across campus into the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall last year.
During his time at GW, Lerman had a hand in selecting five deans and three directors. He also created new positions in the administration as part of the strategic plan, like an international vice provost, a position that was filled last spring.
Ben Vinson, the dean of the Columbian College who was hired by Lerman, said in an email that the provost’s leadership “strengthened” the college during that transition.
“I think the deans had a tremendous amount of respect for Steve Lerman,” Chernak said, adding that Lerman promoted an open culture with “healthy debate.”
Vice Provost for Libraries Geneva Henry said she decided to come to GW because of Lerman’s leadership, and said he was a “trusted mentor.”
“Steve Lerman has the highest level of integrity and has been a strong advocate for creating a library that will support the aspirations of the University,” Henry said in an email.
David Dolling, the dean of SEAS and the only current dean who was hired before Lerman’s arrival, said Lerman was key in planning the development and construction of the Science and Engineering Hall. Lerman also helped grow SEAS by helping to launch the department of biomedical engineering.
“He leaves us in a strong position to continue to grow in a smart manner,” Dolling said.
Supporting academic initiatives
Leighton Ku, a professor of health policy and interim chair of his department, said that before the Milken Institute School of Public Health building was completed in 2014, faculty were spread out across campus, making it difficult for them to collaborate on research and for students to reach out to faculty.
He said Lerman strongly supported bringing the school together under one roof.
“The public health school has been among one of the biggest research entities in the University recently, and obviously it’s not as if he wrote the grants for the research, but he was establishing the framework to do that research,” Ku said.
Lerman worked on other projects that broadened GW’s academic scope, like helping to launch the GW School of Nursing. The school opened in 2010, the same year Lerman joined GW, and has steadily climbed in national rankings since then.
Johnson, the inaugural dean of the nursing school, said Lerman was “so instrumental” in getting the nursing school on its feet, and added that his deep understanding for academics and the 40 years of experience he gained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped him work successfully across colleges.
“He’s helpful in thinking of issues and directions to go in,” Johnson said. “He also let you know when he thought you were doing something right and if you were going off in the wrong direction.”
Lerman supported a number of cross-disciplinary programs like the GW Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Initiative and the Global Women’s Institute through the Office of the Provost. The strategic plan calls for more interdisciplinary programs to be created across GW.
David Rain, the director of GW’s environmental studies program, helped launch the GW Sustainability Collaborative and a sustainability minor through the provost’s office, and attributed the creation of the programs to Lerman being a “huge champion” for sustainability.
But Rain said that because the minor is not run through an academic department, he wouldn’t be surprised if without Lerman, the minor got folded into a college.
“It was his own little thing,” Rain said.
Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.