As Thomas LeBlanc prepares to take the wheel as GW’s next president, faculty members say they hope his experiences and approach to administration will improve academics and resolve the University’s financial woes.
Although generally pleased with the Board of Trustees’ Jan. 6 announcement of the new president, some faculty said they are concerned with the lack of racial and gender diversity within GW’s leadership positions.
Still, they said they are impressed with LeBlanc’s experience managing the University of Miami’s $3.3 billion budget, as well as his role in bringing the institution into the top 50 colleges in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings.
Chris Bracey, a professor of law and the vice provost for faculty affairs, said in an email that LeBlanc will be a “welcome addition” to GW.
“He is a seasoned academic administrator, who began his career as a tenured faculty member.” Bracey said. “He has an understanding and respect for faculty and what is needed to support the growth of research and scholarship.”
A concern about diversity
Throughout the search process, which began in June, faculty complained that both the search committee and faculty consultative committee, who represented faculty during the search, were not diverse in gender, race and academic discipline.
Jeffrey Cohen, a professor of English, said that after the announcement, some faculty in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences began emailing and calling each other find out more about LeBlanc, in addition to contacting the future University president’s colleagues in Miami. These faculty members concluded that LeBlanc was “well-liked” and has a “broad vision” for GW, Cohen said.
Still, Cohen said he had hoped to see more diversity in the pick for GW’s top official. Administrators have made strides over the past decade in diversifying the racial makeup of the faculty and student bodies, but some of these efforts have leveled out recently.
Though the position of vice provost for diversity and inclusion was introduced in 2011, leading to the hiring of nine black top administrators among other diversity staff picks, the current top three administrators are white.
“I hope the day comes, and comes soon, when GW has a woman or a person of color as its president. We’ve had nothing but male presidents since the University began,” Cohen said. “I think a lot of us do feel that way, but that has nothing to do with the qualifications of the president who’s just been named.”
LeBlanc said in an email that he worked on several diversity programs at Miami, including helping to created the Presidential Task Force to Address Black Student Concerns and the university’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.
“I would want to look closely at the socio-economic makeup of students. I would want to look very carefully at student debt to see what we could do,” LeBlanc said. “I would also want to talk to students, faculty and staff to hear about steps that have already been taken to diversity the student body and faculty and discuss how we can build upon those efforts.
Katrin Schultheiss, the chair of the history department, said that if LeBlanc wants to promote inclusion on campus, he must prioritize diversity – even if that means taking resources from other University initiatives.
“It’s easy to give lip service to issues of diversity and retention of a diverse student body and a diverse faculty,” Schultheiss said. “It’s easy to say that’s a priority, but to actually make it a priority you have to put resources behind that and sometimes you have to sacrifice other big projects that the University might want to undertake in order to prioritize those kinds of things.”
While Schultheiss said she applauds Knapp’s administration for pushing for diversity, she said she worries about LeBlanc’s computer science background leading him to focus more on science, technology, engineering and math programs over the social sciences and humanities.
LeBlanc has a background in computer science, receiving his Ph.D in from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and serves as a professor of computer science, electrical and computer engineering at Miami.
Humanities faculty have become increasingly concerned that a push in funding for STEM programs has led to a loss of financial support for their departments. During the presidential search, faculty expressed concerns that the presidential profile would attract a candidate who would steer the University toward a STEM focus.
Ellen Costello, an associate professor of physical therapy and health care sciences, brought up diversity during a Faculty Senate meeting Friday, saying that LeBlanc’s selection came as a “shock” and wanting to know how diverse the pool of candidates was.
Members of the search committee declined to comment on the pool, referring Costello to Board of Trustees Chairman Nelson Carbonell, but added that diversity was a major part of the search.
Dealing with finances
Some faculty said they are hopeful that LeBlanc will listen to the desires of students and faculty as well as the administration before making big decisions for the University, particularly when it comes to finances.
Carbonell, the chair of the Board of Trustees, said at the Faculty Senate meeting that LeBlanc told him that he plans on holding a series of town halls at GW when he arrives on campus Aug. 1 – similar to the town halls that the presidential search committee held when creating the presidential profile in the fall.
Harald Griesshammer, an associate professor of physics and a member of the Faculty Senate, said he believes LeBlanc will be open to different viewpoints while maintaining his own perspective as an academic and financial officer.
Some faculty members, including Griesshammer, said LeBlanc is a suitable candidate to take on the University’s financial difficulties. Faculty throughout the search highlighted the University’s debt, which totals approximately $1.7 billion and surpassed the size of the endowment this past year, as a topic the new president would have to prioritize.
“I think that the University will grow both academically and in financial resources when the president can address the issue that we are not spending our money wisely,” Griesshammer said, referring to LeBlanc’s experience overseeing a $3.3 billion budget, three times more than GW’s roughly $1 billion budget. “I think he is going to be somebody who listens to evidence, who collects data before making decisions.”
Donald Parsons, a professor of economics and a member of the Faculty Senate, said dealing with GW’s continued financial difficulties, including rising debt and tuition costs, should be a top priority for LeBlanc.
“I had worried that we might attract a president who was unaware of the serious financial bind that recent Board of Trustees spending policies have put us in,” Parsons said. “And that he or she would be overwhelmed once realizing the extent of the threat to the University’s core academic enterprise.”
Parsons said his in-person encounter with LeBlanc dispelled any concerns regarding his ability to tackle budget challenges. Parsons met the new president when LeBlanc chaired the evaluation team for GW’s accreditation in 2008.
“From the bit of interaction I had with him at the time, as a member of the budget subcommittee, he seemed alert and reasonable in his manner and judgment,” Parsons said.
A focus on the sciences
Some faculty members said they are enthusiastic about LeBlanc’s background in the STEM fields, which they say give him a unique critical-thinking approach to problem solving.
Randall Packer, a professor of biology, said that during his 46 years at GW, LeBlanc is the first president to have a background in STEM, which he believes it reflects the University’s investment in science and engineering.
“Having a president now that comes out of science and engineering is the right choice for this particular time,” Packer said.
Charles Garris, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said LeBlanc is a straightforward problem solver. Garris said that he partially credited LeBlanc’s success at the University of Miami to his computer science background because it prepared him for critical thinking.
“You try to find some balance of the good things and the bad things so that the net is really good,” Garris said about LeBlanc’s problem-solving style.
Garris said he was impressed with the clear improvements in Miami’s national ranking under LeBlanc’s leadership, as well as strides in student retention and creating a “student-centered” culture. Miami’s graduation rate increased from 63 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2015 and increased the average SAT score from 1190 to 1350 between 2001 and 2013.
Retention has been a major focus for administrators over the past year and a half, and leaders recently brought in a director of retention to lead those efforts. Because GW’s operating budget is roughly 60 percent dependent on tuition dollars, keeping students on campus comes with an added financial boost.
“I think we’ve made a wonderful choice,” Garris said. “He’s going to fix things that need fixing and leave things alone that ain’t broke.”