What LeBlanc’s past says about GW’s future

Media Credit: Ethan Stoler | Hatchet Photograher

Thomas LeBlanc, who will become the University's 17th president on Aug. 1, said at an event earlier this month that he will get to know GW before making decisions.

When Thomas LeBlanc starts as University president on Aug. 1, GW will gain an even-tempered leader with the ability to work in divisive situations, former and current colleagues say.

Several people who have worked with LeBlanc highlighted his collegiality with faculty, focus on student resources and innovative ideas on how to bring institutions forward as skills that will be a strong fit for GW. And experts say that LeBlanc’s plan to learn more about the University and its communities is a smart way to begin his term as president, rather than coming in with big ideas that might not work for GW.

Current and former colleagues also described LeBlanc as a strong listener who was willing to embrace input from others on projects and resolve disputes behind closed doors before publicly bringing plans forward.

LeBlanc said in an email that he plans on learning about GW’s strengths in all disciplines when he first starts on the job and that he believes there are niches the University could tap into that it hasn’t taken full advantage of yet, like the intersection of science and engineering and policy.

“Are there other areas in which we can be excellent and the place of choice for a lot of students?” he said. “Our challenge is figuring out where those opportunities are and how best to capitalize on them.”

He added that he considers access and resources to be two of the biggest issues in higher education today, and he will work on how to best address both as president at GW.

“I attended college on scholarship. I owe my entire life to the generation that thought of higher education as a public good and helped finance my education,” LeBlanc said. “At GW, one of the areas I will be looking at is finding creative ways to insure that the best students can attend GW.”

The University of Rochester
LeBlanc first began working in a major administrative role at the University of Rochester, where he was the dean of the college faculty at the College of the Arts, Science and Engineering.

Paul Slattery, a physics professor there, said that at the time, Rochester was emerging from several major transitions, and that this was the first time these programs had been housed in the same college.

Slattery, who led the search for the school’s dean, said LeBlanc was already serving as interim dean at the time, and that even when the search committee examined candidates from outside the university, LeBlanc emerged as the top choice.

He said LeBlanc had to learn how to balance the two different kinds of programs – engineering and arts and sciences – for the first time and was able to set up an equitable system. LeBlanc also created a dean of research in the school for the first time, a role Slattery took on as dean of research and graduate studies, he said.

Slattery said he and LeBlanc would often speak at the end of the day about projects each was working on, giving each other advice about how to best reach their goals.

“He really hears you and really is very self assured in a calm way, and not a confrontational way,” Slattery said.

Charles Phelps, the former provost at Rochester, said he and LeBlanc would speak often about the work going on at the college and that they developed a personal friendship outside of the university by playing golf together.

Phelps said while some faculty at Rochester were initially concerned about LeBlanc’s background in computer science and how that could impact his decisions about programs, LeBlanc was balanced in his priorities and created interdisciplinary programs, like a center that brought together computer science and art.

He added that LeBlanc helped to create a new curriculum for Rochester that allowed students to develop their own majors or “clusters,” drawing in a more inquisitive student body and improving the reputation of the university.

“All the work Tom and his colleagues were doing at the college helped to attract really high quality students and faculty and improve the university overall,” he said.

The University of Miami
In 2005, LeBlanc was named the provost and executive vice president at the University of Miami, giving him oversight over the school’s academic programs and budget.

Donna Shalala, the former president at Miami and current president of the Clinton Foundation, said she believed that academic decisions should inform budgetary ones, leading her to combine the two responsibilities for LeBlanc, who oversaw a $3.3 billion budget.

Shalala said LeBlanc helped Miami attract a higher quality and more diverse student body and become less of a commuter school by adding residential options for students and adding on-campus events.

LeBlanc also focused on entrepreneurship at Miami, helping to create a center where students could get advice on starting new businesses and other projects, Shalala added.

“What Tom does is he improves institutions,” she said. “He develops strategies that help to make the institution better and he follows through on them.”

Tomás Salerno, the chair of the Faculty Senate at Miami, said faculty members generally had a good relationship with LeBlanc. He said LeBlanc had gone out of his way to consult with faculty and the senate, even in cases when some provosts may have decided to make the decision unilaterally.

As president at GW, LeBlanc will also oversee the University’s monthly Faculty Senate meetings.

Salerno said that in his position, LeBlanc knew about everything that was happening throughout the university and that his personality helped him work well with those he collaborated with.

“When I talk to him and listen to him, I never saw him criticize anything about people,” Salerno said. “His comments have always been constructive.”

What’s next?
Higher education experts said that LeBlanc’s willingness to learn more about GW is a sign of a leader who won’t necessarily dominate the institution with his own plans, but that other leaders will also have to learn how to trust him as they learn more about him.

John Burkhardt, the founding director of the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, said major transitions can cause anxiety within institutions, where change is usually both wanted and feared.

He said that in cases where some at an institution might feel as if they weren’t fully included in the process, it might be harder to accept a new leader. Faculty had expressed concerns throughout the presidential search about the kinds of faculty members being represented in the process and on the formal search committee. All faculty members on that committee were male, all were white and all but one were from a science background.

Faculty have since applauded the selection of LeBlanc, but some have shared concerns about GW’s trend of choosing white men as presidents.

“We put a lot of faith in process and in reputation, and when we feel the process hasn’t been balanced in some ways, it shakes our support,” Burkhardt said.

Jay Dee, a professor of higher education administration at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, said he thought LeBlanc may have been chosen as way to maintain continuity at GW, citing LeBlanc’s background in computer science reflecting GW’s expansion of science and engineering programs and his extensive work on both improving academic programs and overseeing a university budget.

He said that often, leaders at institutions will already have their own priorities set and will look for a president that fits those goals, instead of for one who arrives with his own agenda.

“I think where presidents have been successful is when they’ve realized that their role as a facilitator for priorities and visions that already exist, rather than someone who’s aiming to reshape an institution,” Dee said.

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