New Board of Trustees chair to focus on strategic plan, student experience

Media Credit: Alexander Welling | Assistant Photo Editor

Grace Speights, the chair of the Board of Trustees, said she is holding discussions with student leaders during her first year in office.

In her first year, Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights said she hopes to build an effective strategic plan for GW and include students in the body’s decision-making process.

During Speights’ first few months as chair, the board has removed GW’s longstanding fixed tuition policy and announced plans to cut undergraduate enrollment by about 20 percent over the next few years. Speights, a law school alumna and GW’s first female and first African American board chair, said discussion and debate over the University’s next five-year strategic plan will be the main focus of the beginning of her tenure as board chair.

“We are a governance board, we’re not a philanthropic board,” she said. “So it’s not like I need a huge board of big donors to go out and solicit money. That’s not what this board is for – this board is all about results.”

Nelson Carbonell, the last board chair, stepped down at the end of May at the conclusion of his term. Under his tenure, trustees approved reduced laundry, printing and rental room costs, oversaw the construction of the Science and Engineering Hall and overhauled the faculty code, a document that specifies professors’ rights and responsibilities.

Speights will help oversee the next strategic planning process as an ex officio member of the University-wide Strategic Planning Task Force. The task force is one of five committees – alongside the distinguished and distinctive graduate education, high-quality undergraduate education, world-class faculty and high-impact research committees – that University President Thomas LeBlanc introduced this semester to guide the next strategic plan’s development.

“That has to be done, and so that is our focus and is my focus this year,” Speights said.

LeBlanc said Speights is a “fabulous” and “distinguished” person who he has had “great” interactions with since she assumed her role as chair.

“She’s a very calm, mature professional presence in all the meetings,” LeBlanc said. “I think she has incredible judgment – what more could you ask from the chair of the board?”

He said the strategic plan’s development will be challenging for Speights and the other trustees because it is difficult to maintain a “focused process” while simultaneously gathering extensive feedback from members of the GW community.

“If we try to tackle too many things, none of them will get done,” he said. “The goal here really ought to be to pick the most important things, and let’s do them really well. And I think that will be a big part of what we’re going to do this year.”

LeBlanc added that since Speights started as chair on June 1, she has been an “active student” learning everything she can about GW from officials and students across the University. Speights formerly served as the board’s secretary from 2016 to 2019.

“She’s drinking from the fire hose,” LeBlanc said. “She has to learn aspects of the University she didn’t manage to learn in her prior service, and you really want a board chair who understands all aspects.”

LeBlanc said Speights is still an “active professional” who will balance her time on campus with her job. Speights is a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, an international law firm that employs about 2,000 attorneys.

At her firm, Speights manages more than 250 lawyers, represents clients in litigation brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and counsels on best practices for corporate diversity initiatives, according to the firm’s website. The American Lawyer, a monthly legal magazine, named Speights Attorney of the Year in December.

“I think it’s really important that we make it possible for Chair Speights to do the work she needs to do and respect the commitment she has to her profession at the same time,” LeBlanc said.

Speights said the board must work to push for large measures – including the ongoing push to improve GW’s institutional culture, several new hires of deans and officials and the enrollment and tuition changes the board made this summer – without worrying employees about the magnitude of the changes being made.

“I think the hardest thing is change,” she said. “For people who have been here for a long time, change can be pretty scary. So I do think that it is our biggest challenge.”

But Speights said she wants to dispel any “fear” or “apprehension” by increasing transparency through constant communication between trustees and the GW community and spending time on campus to hear from students.

Speights said improving the student experience, one of LeBlanc’s five strategic initiatives, is a priority for her as chair. In recent months, trustees have approved renovations to Thurston Hall and $10 million in “urgent” campus improvements.

Speights said she has met with Student Association President SJ Matthews at least once a month since August to gauge student priorities and ensure the board’s work will bring about positive change for students.

“The student experience is a big issue here on campus,” she said. “We can’t just focus on the strategic planning process, getting the strategic plan in place and let other things go by the wayside.”

Speights said Matthews recommended that she meet with several student organization leaders in addition to SA leadership.

“One of the things that we discussed was she advised me that there are many student leaders of other organizations who would like to have the opportunity to meet with me so that I can hear their concerns,” she said. “I’ve committed to that, and so I plan to do that.”

Matthews said in her meetings with Speights, they have discussed the SA’s goals for the year and ways in which trustees can assist student leaders.

“She’s been a great resource for us,” Matthews said. “She obviously has a ton of leadership experience and knows how to engage with different stakeholder groups.”

She added that they also discussed the SA’s new Colonial Moniker Task Force, a five-student committee that Matthews created last month that will examine nicknames that could replace the Colonials. About 54 percent of voting students indicated in a referendum last spring that they supported changing the moniker to a less “offensive” name, but officials have not publicly taken a stance on the issue.

“I explained to her the goal of my committee and how can we work together to actually make progress on that,” Matthews said.

Jared Gans, Parth Kotak and Ilena Peng contributed reporting.

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