At the end of a meeting with senior faculty in January, University President Thomas LeBlanc asked professors how officials should spend a hypothetical $1 billion donation.
One possible approach, LeBlanc said, would be to spend $600 million to fill gaps in unmet undergraduate financial aid, $130 million to renovate the long-deteriorating Thurston Hall and about $200 million to recruit and retain top-ranked faculty – spending the full check on just three key priorities.
The point, he said, was that moving a multi-billion-dollar university like GW forward would require enormous resources, and officials would need to be strategic about where to make major investments.
“The University does have some resources, and we’re going to think about how to prioritize that in a world in which everything we care about is really expensive,” LeBlanc told the Faculty Senate.
The episode reflected the first-year president leadership style that faculty, student leaders and former officials described as enthusiastic, evidence-driven and blunt about the need for change. In interviews, University leaders past and present said LeBlanc’s approach has buoyed the University, boosting morale and raising hopes that long unaddressed issues may finally be improved.
In his first year, LeBlanc shed administrators who have been longtime fixtures in Rice Hall, heard concerns from students, faculty and staff and began building an agenda aiming to enact gradual but far-reaching change across the University.
“I think people are much more optimistic,” Harald Griesshammer, an associate professor of physics and a member of the Faculty Senate, said. “We have a lot of enthusiasm with our students, in research and faculty – he’s tapping into that enthusiasm. People see things are moving forward.”
Building a vision
LeBlanc began his tenure at GW discussing five signature areas of focus for his presidency – including long-standing priorities, like fundraising and research, and new points of emphasis around the quality of student life and the bureaucratic culture of GW.
Faculty said he adopted the right approach, first hearing from community members at a series of town hall meetings about the issues hounding GW and then attempting to solve them by bringing professors and students into policy discussions.
In his second semester, LeBlanc has begun shifting his focus to improve long-derided areas of the University, like research support and student dining, and he has restructured the administration he now leads. The president has also convened a working group to identify ways to improve frustrating processes across departments and will start a task force by next month focused on faculty research support.
Charles Garris, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the former chair of the Faculty Senate executive committee, said that as GW’s reputation has improved in academic programs and research over the last couple of decades, officials have struggled to improve a transactional mentality and make campus a “friendlier” place.
“I think this is probably the biggest contribution that President LeBlanc could make is if he got us back to a culture where the staff, faculty and everybody has a service mentality that our role here is to serve and to make things work better and we get rewarded for serving,” he said.
LeBlanc said his first significant decision was to change the student library fee to an opt-in system instead of tacking on the fee automatically. He also unveiled a new student meal plan for next academic year, worked with student leaders to craft changes to the Colonial Health Center and merged the enrollment and student affairs offices into one unit.
“We were not well structured to deal with the student experience, and I would just simply say we had all of these issues and all of these questions that were coming up at town halls, and there was no office that was responsible for thinking about them or worrying about them or solving them,” LeBlanc said in an interview last week.
Student Association Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson said LeBlanc has been receptive to SA proposals and brought a “refreshing perspective” to University leadership.
“A lot of the concerns that we brought to LeBlanc this year have been really long-standing ones from students at this University, things that students routinely brought up, but the usual status quo is to throw them under the rug or to say ‘well that’s just how it is here,’” she said.
Robert Chernak, the long-serving former senior vice president for student and academic support services, said LeBlanc has brought a “real sensitivity to student welfare” that has lifted the morale of student affairs employees bruised by years of budget cuts to administrative offices.
“People are a lot happier in student life,” he said. “They think that their work is more valued. They feel that there’s a recognition starting with the president that students are treated in a way that shows respect.”
Officials make an exit
The first year of LeBlanc’s tenure has also seen a parade of high-level departures from the University. Lou Katz, the executive vice president and treasurer, announced his retirement in February and Leo Chalupa, the vice president for research, said in March he will step down this summer. Peter Konwerski, the ever-visible vice provost and dean of student affairs, left his role in December.
LeBlanc said high turnover in the first year of a presidential administration is a “natural consequence of change” – but he acknowledged that some of the staff exits were likely a result of the direction he wanted to take the University.
“I’ve been around the academy long enough to know that when a new president comes in and starts to say, ‘this is where I want to go,’ there’s some people who will say, ‘I don’t want to go there,’” he said.
To begin building his team, LeBlanc turned to the University of Miami, where he served as executive vice president and provost for about 12 years before coming to GW in August. LeBlanc has chosen Miami administrators to lead the University’s fundraising and budget operations in the first two major searches of his presidency. The new business school dean is also from Miami, but LeBlanc said he had little involvement in that search.
LeBlanc said he is not “raiding” Miami for talent to bring to GW, but he said it’s an advantage for GW that he knows talented officials from his former university.
“As provost, I know pretty much everybody at Miami really, really well,” he said. “I know exactly who the very best people are and if they happen to show up in some of our searches, I don’t know why we wouldn’t take advantage of that.“
The challenges ahead
Katrin Schultheiss, the chair of the history department, said while she supports the priorities LeBlanc has laid out, it’s still too early in his presidency to know whether ambitious goals like improving campus culture will prove successful.
“It’s tough – it’s a huge, huge institution, GW,” she said. “You’re turning a battleship here, it’s not turning a bus.”
LeBlanc faced his first crisis in February when a racist Snapchat made national headlines and ignited a campus firestorm. In response, he announced nine measures designed to improve the campus environment for minority students.
Jack Stripling, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education who covers university presidents, said presidents often start out with a set agenda but are forced to become “reactive” when major events hit campus.
He said LeBlanc’s top five priorities are standard goals in higher education, but LeBlanc will face a steeper challenge once he begins taking specific steps to achieve those goals.
“All of a sudden these everybody-can-agree-on priorities become flesh and not everyone is going to like that,” he said. “The devil is in the details.”