At his last Board of Trustees meeting Friday, Chairman Nelson Carbonell still jotted down notes on a sheet of paper while Student Association leaders delivered their annual report.
One focus of Carbonell’s tenure as board chair has been expanding student engagement and representation on the board: Two years ago, Carbonell increased the student presence on board committees and task forces, and this academic year, he voted with trustees to approve a free 18th credit following a student referendum showing broad support for the change.
At the meeting, Carbonell thanked the students for their leadership and told the board that working with the SA has been “fantastic” and worthwhile to help improve the student experience.
“It’s the most fun part of the whole job,” Carbonell told incoming board chair Grace Speights. “And believe it or not, you will learn a lot by spending time with our students, they’re really, truly an asset.”
Carbonell stepped up to the role of board chair in 2013 after serving as the vice chair for six years. Under his tenure, trustees approved reduced laundry, printing, and rental room costs, oversaw the construction of the Science and Engineering Hall and most recently overhauled the faculty code, a document that specifies professors’ rights and responsibilities.
“I will personally be forever grateful to have Nelson to bring GW to this point,” University President Thomas LeBlanc said at a board meeting Friday. “Always prioritizing quality, providing sound, controlled guidance and doing what is right for this University.”
Putting students first
Former University President Steven Knapp said Carbonell helped maintain a low cost of attendance by pushing for increases to the University’s financial aid pool, which has grown each year since 2014. Carbonell also supported the fixed tuition policy that was implemented in 2004 and limited tuition increases to about 3 percent each year, Knapp said.
“I would say that his dedication to students was shown in his philanthropy, his own scholarships, supporting my emphasis on affordability and access and the success of students,” Knapp said. “We worked together particularly to make it possible to maintain that commitment to students.”
“He was very much about giving back and enabling other students to enjoy the benefit that he had from the opportunity to attend GW,” Knapp said.
Knapp added that Carbonell supported efforts to boost the number of applications from low- and middle-income populations. During Carbonell’s tenure, officials dropped standardized testing requirements for applicants in 2015, which led to a surge in applications the next academic year.
“We have always tried to find a place where we could have access to GW for a broad array of students,” Carbonell said. “The sticker price of GW is really high, and it’s not affordable by most people. But we’re able to bring many students here because of scholarship programs.”
Fundraising for the future
While serving as board chair, Carbonell has made a series of large donations to GW, including $2.5 million to help fund the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorder Initiative in 2014 and thousands to match donations from the Class of 2013 to their senior gift.
Carbonell said the “best” philanthropic gift he has made to GW was to establish the Nelson and Michele Carbonell Engineering Endowed Scholarship in 2010 to assist engineering students. Carbonell received his electrical engineering degree in 1985 from GW on a scholarship.
“It feels like I’m paying it forward, it’s just fantastic,” Carbonell said. “I hope to lead people to do that because one of the ways that you make it more affordable is by having philanthropic support for scholarships.”
Allan From, a former trustee who stepped down from the board in 2016, said Carbonell’s leadership helped officials reach their $1 billion fundraising goal, set in 2014, ahead of schedule. The capital campaign, which was the largest in GW’s history, raised funds for financial aid and construction projects.
“He traveled all over the country with the president and convinced them that the University was a good place to invest in,” he said.
Aside from donations, Carbonell had a hand in some of the most influential financial decisions in the last six years.
When graduate enrollment dropped in 2015, leaving a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, Carbonell led the board as administrators announced budget cuts and slashed $8 million in funding from the strategic plan.
Officials decided to introduce 3 to 5 percent budget cuts for the following five years after an enrollment drop.
“Nelson is a bulldog,” From said. “He really is, in terms of when he puts his mind to something, he gets focused.”
Focus on shared governance
Robert Chernak, the former senior vice provost and senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, said Carbonell was one of the most “personable” chairs he worked with. His town halls with faculty, students, staff and alumni during the presidential search process helped improve transparency, he said.
“Nelson Carbonell has been the most hands-on chair, devoting several hours of his time to GW,” he said. “He’s been very generous.”
Chernak said that when he worked with Carbonell, the board chair dedicated as much time to his chairmanship as he would to a full-time job and tried to garner input from faculty leadership on issues like a yearslong overhaul of the faculty code that began in 2013 and ended with a board vote in 2015.
But some professors said Carbonell’s management of the review sparked tension between the board and faculty members who said they did not have enough say in the process.
Donald Parsons, a professor of economics and a former member of the Faculty Senate who served during the code overhaul, said Carbonell rushed the process to reform the code, reducing faculty members’ ability to provide adequate input.
“He never got the idea that it was a partnership,” he said. “There was no sense of community.”
Carbonell said that as chair, he helped diversify the board in terms of race, gender and professions represented.
“GW is doing everything from the arts to medicine,” he said. “You can’t have a board where everybody comes from a single profession, or everybody comes from a single walk of life, or where everybody’s male, or whatever all those things are.”
Carbonell added that he helped reduce the size of the board from more than 40 members to about 20, which has enabled every member to make a significant contribution in its discussions.
He also helped recruit trustees who can offer insights about the University’s strategic planning process, rather than those who may only provide philanthropic support, he said.
“There are people who have been on the board who are really famous and prominent people,” Carbonell said. “But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here because of your ability to do the work, to understand the issues and to act as a steward for the institution.”
Zach Schonfeld contributed reporting.