GW’s academic enterprise will gain a “thoughtful” leader next month when Brian Blake joins the University as its next provost, former and future colleagues said.
Blake, who has worked as a professor, dean and provost at four higher education institutions over more than 20 years, will bring “warmth” and experience to the position when he becomes the next provost on Nov. 1, colleagues said. They said Blake’s extensive experience will help him take part in the planning process for GW’s next five-year strategic plan, which includes a cut in undergraduate enrollment and an increase in the proportion of STEM majors.
“I think in leadership, it’s good to have nice human beings,” University President Thomas LeBlanc said. “I think he exemplifies that and exemplifies that in his leadership style.”
Blake was selected as the next provost after a monthslong search to succeed Provost Forrest Maltzman concluded last week. Maltzman announced in April his intention to resign as provost and take a sabbatical before returning to GW as a professor.
Blake has previously worked at Drexel and Georgetown universities and the universities of Miami and Notre Dame throughout his career in academia, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Blake has served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs of Drexel since 2015. Under his tenure, Drexel enrolled its largest freshman class and notched its highest retention rate and “research activity” in the history of the college, according to a University release.
Drexel President John Fry called Blake “critical” to his university’s success in a letter to the school’s faculty and staff Tuesday. He said Blake oversaw the recruitment of the “most academically qualified freshman class” in the school’s history and hired more than 10 deans and 100 faculty during his tenure.
“Our loss clearly will accrue to the benefit of George Washington,” he said in the letter. “However, I am excited that Provost Blake will have a unique career opportunity in his new academic home.”
Fry said Blake will leave a “rich” legacy of establishing several programs, like the Drexel Areas of Research Excellence program, which promotes interdisciplinary research, to incentivize community members to become involved in research at the university. Research is one of LeBlanc’s five strategic initiatives and one of his four pillars of the University’s next five-year strategic plan.
Fry said Blake helped to obtain more than $65 million in donations from donors and to establish more than a dozen endowed scholarships for women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math fields. LeBlanc announced plans to increase the ratio of STEM undergraduates at GW from about 19 percent to 30 percent last month.
“Brian has been a trusted colleague and wonderful partner, and I know that he will be missed,” Fry said.
Patricia Whitely, the University of Miami’s vice president for student affairs, said Blake did a “fantastic job” in his roles as vice provost and graduate school dean and demonstrated his dedication to student success. Blake was hired for the role by LeBlanc while he served as Miami’s provost, LeBlanc said in an interview.
“He was always accessible and visible to the graduate students and accomplished numerous initiatives that improved graduate student life,” Whitely said in an email. “He was a mentor for students and a great role model for the UM community.”
Kevin Bowyer – a professor of engineering and computer science at Notre Dame who recruited Blake to the school in 2009 while serving as the chair of the department – said Blake was “thoughtful and astute” in his role as both a professor and as associate dean of engineering for research and graduate studies.
“Brian’s classes were well-taught and popular with students,” Bowyer said in an email. “Brian led a strong research effort in software engineering, and we were able to substantially grow our visibility in the software engineering research community as a result of Brian’s leadership.”
Future challenges and opportunities
Administrators and Faculty Senate members said Blake will need to take time to adjust to GW as the University undergoes a transformation in its academic focus. They said Blake’s experience in several roles – dean, provost and professor – will help him adapt to the responsibilities of his position.
LeBlanc said Blake’s previous positions as provost at Drexel and as vice provost at Miami have helped prepare him to take the provost position at GW. He said Blake can maintain strong relationships with coworkers through his “collegial” yet professional management style and pursue “data-driven” conclusions.
“He’s able to make some hard decisions, and yet afterward he is able to communicate them in a way that people realize it’s not personal – it’s what needs to be done,” LeBlanc said.
Maltzman, the provost, said he met Blake when he worked at Notre Dame about seven years ago and called him a “collaborative, warm person,” which he said is “probably” the most important trait in a good provost. He said he hopes Blake will continue his focus on improving graduation and retention rates at GW.
“It’s a measure of everything we do for students,” Maltzman said.
Faculty and staff noted Maltzman’s emphasis on improving the student experience during his tenure as provost after Maltzman announced he would step down from his position last semester.
Sylvia Marotta-Walters, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee and a professor of counseling and human development, said she hopes Blake “pays attention” to GW’s history of shared governance as he attempts to “fill some very big shoes,” referring to Blake’s predecessors Maltzman and former Provost Steven Lerman, who stepped down in 2015.
She said Blake will arrive at GW during a transition period, as officials plan to cut undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent while increasing the ratio of STEM to non-STEM undergraduates, a move that could cost GW at least $64 million in revenue over four years.
“It’s going to be interesting because he’s trying to learn a place while the place is changing,” Marotta-Walters said.
David Rain, a Faculty Senate member and an associate professor of geography and international affairs, said the experience Blake accrued at large peer institutions like Miami and Georgetown has prepared him to work at an institution like GW because he oversaw multiple schools with different needs.
He said he hopes Blake promotes cross-disciplinary work between different fields to tie STEM and non-STEM fields together as officials work to boost the ratio of STEM majors at GW.
“If anything, focusing on the interdisciplinary is really, really important to break down the walls,” Rain said.