Thomas LeBlanc was inaugurated as GW’s 17th president Monday, committing the University to an ambitious future of leadership in research and diversity across all of its schools.
In a 20-minute inaugural address delivered in the Smith Center, LeBlanc issued a full-throated defense of academic freedom but said he was troubled by a “fact-free environment.” He called on GW to distinguish itself from top universities around the country in its global reach and world-changing research.
“We must recognize that we belong to a class of established universities that resemble us in many ways,” LeBlanc said. “Today, I believe we are ready to move beyond simply belonging to this distinguished group – we must be out front leading it, taking risks, making investments, choosing the harder path.”
LeBlanc, wearing the presidential gown worn at academic ceremonies, told an audience of roughly 1,750 including his relatives, faculty, staff, trustees, students and alumni, that academia had shaped his entire life. LeBlanc said he and his older brother were the first of his family to graduate from college and that his work in higher education “nurtured and challenged” him.
LeBlanc started as a dean at the University of Rochester and was selected as provost and executive vice president of the University of Miami in 2005. He was named GW’s president in January following a nationwide search.
In his opening weeks on campus, LeBlanc has said changing the University’s bureaucratic culture and improving the undergraduate student experience would be two of his major goals.
Taking over a University that has spent millions in recent years to become a leader in research, LeBlanc said a focus on scholarship across fields would be a hallmark of his tenure. He said the “drive to discover, to create, innovate, clarify and understand the unfamiliar must – and will – animate everything we do.”
“We cannot be content merely with prior knowledge,” he said. “We must create it as well.”
LeBlanc said GW should not set “arbitrary limits” on its growth. He acknowledged that this broad mission would be “expensive and difficult” but said GW’s reputation would benefit from a focus on the full-spectrum of academic offerings.
LeBlanc, who began his career as a computer scientist, said he is frustrated when discussions are not based in facts. But he also defended academic freedom, telling the crowd that without an “unfettered exchange of ideas,” there can be no university.
“In any classroom, in any text, there’s no such thing as a final answer and there’s no such thing as an unthinkable thought,” he said. “That should always be true here.”
LeBlanc ended his address calling on the University to expand its global reputation and recruit more diverse students and faculty.
His focus on diversity follows a years-long effort by former University President Steven Knapp to make GW more accessible and recruit students from different socioeconomic backgrounds by creating new scholarships and eliminating standardized test requirements.
“No matter where you were born, the color of your skin, which language you spoke as a child, how you live your life, who you love, how you vote or how you pray, you are welcome to make your mark here at GW,” he said to applause from the Smith Center crowd.
LeBlanc spoke after Board of Trustees Chairman Nelson Carbonell placed the gold president’s medallion, the official symbol of his office, around his neck.
Carbonell issued a presidential charge to LeBlanc, calling on him to use his understanding of history, love of learning, personal integrity and sense of humor for the benefit of GW.
He also highlighted the accomplishments of previous University presidents, including Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and Steven Knapp, who were seated on the stage.
The roughly 90-minute-long ceremony began with an academic procession featuring delegates representing more than 100 universities around the world as well as faculty, senior officials and trustees dressed in traditional academic regalia.
The faculty and delegates filled the seats on the floor of the Smith Center. Several hundred staff, members of the public and some students watched the ceremony from a mostly-full arena.
Student, faulty, alumni and staff representatives delivered short speeches officially welcoming LeBlanc to the University.
Former University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who hired LeBlanc at Miami, also spoke. She said LeBlanc was “deeply-steeped in the culture and nuisances of academy.” She added that unlike some in higher education, “he actually likes young people,” drawing laughs from the audience.
Shalala said in a time of massacres at churches and temples, defaced mosques and synagogues, persistent sexism and homophobia and increasingly harsh treatment of immigrants, LeBlanc would ensure that GW is “uniquely sensitive to the world that it’s a part of.”
“In American higher ed – and GW in particular – our responsibility is to build an American house that can never be divided by race, religion, sexism or homophobia,” she said.