Staff Editorial: When reflecting on Lerman’s tenure, the good should outweigh the bad

For the past five years, Provost Steven Lerman has been a visible and friendly face on GW’s campus.

Now, Lerman has announced he will step down from his role as provost in January. He will leave behind important initiatives, a strong relationship with the GW community and a mixed legacy — one dotted with both monumental successes and failures.

Unfortunately, the news coming from the provost’s office over the past few years hasn’t always been positive. The provost position was brand new when Lerman came to GW in 2010, and admissions became one of his responsibilities. Since then, his office has dealt with scandals like the University’s inflation of admissions data, the misrepresentation of GW’s financial aid policy and a spike in the acceptance rate last year.

Apart from admissions, a decrease in graduate enrollment the last two years has resulted in University-wide budget cuts because of missed budget projections. Meanwhile, GW’s 10-year strategic plan — Lerman’s own pet project — has been threatened by delays and about $8.2 million in funding cuts. Officials ditched another big initiative, the plan to build a campus in China, in 2014.

However, none of those problems are as straightforward as they seem.

Of course, we can’t discount them as innocuous because they’ve been so visible. But it also wouldn’t be fair to say that they fell solely on Lerman’s shoulders.

Budget concerns are largely due to a dip in graduate enrollment, a phenomenon occurring at universities across the country. And the University’s admissions problems are multi-faceted, resulting from decisions made by multiple individuals. Plus, GW’s China aspirations were derailed after GW School of Business Dean Doug Guthrie, who was the University’s chief China liaison, was fired in 2013 for overspending by $13 million.

However, Lerman has rarely swept any of this under the rug. Instead, he has always prioritized transparency in less-than-ideal situations, even when that openness wasn’t required.

In 2013, amid faculty doubts about GW’s future plans in China, Lerman attended a Faculty Senate meeting to brief the group and establish a faculty committee to consult on the China project. And last November, he went to another Faculty Senate meeting where he was upfront about the status of Science and Engineering Hall and came clean about fundraising concerns. This made him the first senior official to speak out about the problems surrounding funding for SEH, a project faculty leaders had been questioning since before construction began.

The provost’s willingness to be honest has been a bright spot during his time here — and there are plenty more shining moments that stand out from his tenure. And ultimately, you can’t talk about the bad without celebrating the good.

Lerman’s years at GW have been filled with both big and small successes. Most prominently, he steered the creation of a sweeping 10-year strategic plan and watched it start to come to life. Since then, it has resulted in major changes to both the admissions model and some academic requirements.

In addition, Lerman’s refreshing commitment to diversity has resulted in the hiring of more full-time female faculty and the majority of GW’s new tenure-track faculty hires are women. It also seems that he has always cared about faculty, and has often offered himself as a resource to them.

Lerman’s role included more unique initiatives. He made improvements to the University Counseling Center one of his top priorities in 2013, helped deans set goals for their schools as part of the University’s $1 billion fundraising campaign and helped to build a strategic plan for GW athletics. Along with University President Steven Knapp, Lerman also hired nearly every current dean and launched a global bachelor’s program that’s set to recruit this fall. These are all victories that cannot be overlooked.

Most importantly, Lerman has proven that he is committed to serving students, something he promised when he arrived at GW in 2010. Then, he said, “You have to enter into a role like this with the understanding that you’re serving the students. That is probably the single most important thing.”

Since his arrival on campus, not only has he been open and honest with the student body, but he has made a genuine effort to get to know them.

Over the years, it hasn’t been uncommon to spot Lerman catching a ride on the Vern Express to and from his home on the Mount Vernon Campus. There, he hosts a monthly “Pancakes with the Provost” event, where he and his wife serve students breakfast free of cost so students can meet him. Lerman is also a regular attendee at men’s basketball games and other student events.

Those personal ties are likely what students will remember most about Lerman. Although there have been some unfortunate marks on his legacy, his desire to make GW a better place for students and faculty — despite having no personal connection to the school before accepting the provost position — was commendable.

Although the hiring of a new provost is likely a long way away, we can only hope that the person who takes Lerman’s place has the same commitment to the community. That person should strive for transparency in the same way, push initiatives that he or she is passionate about and continue engaging with students in meaningful ways.

Lerman still has a few months left. Hopefully he will use his time to continue carving out his legacy — and serve up a few more pancakes.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Sarah Blugis and contributing opinions editor Melissa Holzberg, based on discussions with managing director Rachel Smilan-Goldstein, sports editor Nora Princiotti, design assistant Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee and assistant sports editor Mark Eisenhauer.

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