GW’s new provost grew up working at his dad’s gas station.
By the time he was 13, Brian Blake was responsible for several aspects of the station’s upkeep – controlling inventory, managing the adjacent convenience store, keeping the station clean and ensuring the station abided by environmental regulations. Meanwhile, he helped keep an eye on competition from other local stations and gradually picked up on every aspect of running the shop.
Blake said that while he spent enough years at that station to probably run his own, he doesn’t have the same level of familiarity with serving as provost of an institution of higher education – yet. Since he took over as provost last semester, Blake said he has spent time visiting each of GW’s 10 schools to acquaint himself with the University and plans to get to know the goals of students and deans.
“I feel like if I had to start a gas station, I probably could do it,” Blake said. “I don’t think as a provost I’m at that level yet, but after five years, you have a comfort with the role, and you’ve dealt with all these different places.”
He said that one thing he knew when he entered the role at GW in November was that he didn’t want to simply repeat what he had done in his four and a half years as Drexel University’s provost.
“That would be your natural inclination,” Blake said. “So I fought that.”
First months as provost
In his first few months in the post, Blake said he has engaged in “half-day visits” to observe each school and meet with their respective deans and department chairs. He said the visits include a tour of the school’s building and open forums for students, faculty and staff to discuss school-specific needs.
“I honestly listen,” he said. “I go, I sit with everyone and I ask questions. I try to talk and have a conversation with everyone I see.”
Blake said he has visited all but three of GW’s 10 schools – the Elliott School of International Affairs, GW Law School and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences – and plans to conclude the tour by the end of March. He added that he is planning to reach out to some of the students he met on the tour after it concludes to discuss their thoughts on ways to improve the University.
“I think that group would be really interesting because all of them had different perspectives,” Blake said. “Bringing that information together, I’ll write up something to the community about what I think I heard and then write a fresh perspective on their concerns or considerations.”
Blake said one of the endeavors he wants to tackle in the upcoming months is to track where the University is making financially “significant investments” for research and present the information to the GW community and reconsider which areas officials should prioritize.
Officials released the results of GW’s first-ever faculty-led review of the University’s research ecosystem last April, calling for a series of changes like improving communication among faculty, staff and students and adding trainings about GW’s research policies.
“I’d like to inventory all of it – to see where we’re making significant investments – and then give that back to the community and say, ‘Look, we’re investing in this,’” Blake said.
He said he is also seeking to learn more about GW’s 10 deans and their goals for their respective schools. Blake, GW’s chief academic officer, said he is considering holding a set of retreats and breakfast meetings with the deans to discuss their vision for GW as a whole as well.
“I’m just getting to know the deans more and more and what their aspirations are and trying to figure out how to do that centrally,” Blake said.
In addition to the listening tour, Blake named hiring Dayna Bowen Matthew as the law school’s new dean – the first woman to lead the school – among his first accomplishments in office.
Blake said he found the diverse range of candidates for the position “stunning” – applicants included people from several ethnic backgrounds and representing different fields of law, he said.
“It’s a significant bonus to me for us to get a woman dean to be the first – that wasn’t easy,” he said. “And to get someone that has a national reputation that aligns us really closely with the work we do in D.C. and what we see as the vision for the law school is good.”
Another endeavor Blake said he has overseen is the Future Enrollment Task Force, which he said emerged from the listening tour he conducted when he arrived. Blake said he felt the task force was a necessary aspect of the strategic planning process after visiting three or four schools.
“Everyone is trying to get more concrete information about how that plan is going to be implemented, so I’m delighted for that task force to be in its fourth or fifth meeting and for them to be bouncing around ideas,” Blake said.
Blake gave a presentation on the task force’s progress to a special session of the Faculty Assembly Tuesday, where he said members are discussing ways to improve the academic experience for future students given the enrollment changes under the next strategic plan.
He also announced last month at a Faculty Senate meeting that he is considering raising the minimum GPA requirement for students to keep merit-based scholarships and aid from 2.0 to about a 2.7 average.
Blake will be responsible for hiring a new dean of the Elliott School after Reuben Brigety steps down at the end of the semester. He will appoint an interim dean “in the coming weeks,” according to a University release.
Involvement in strategic planning
Blake said he has heard concerns from faculty, particularly in the Elliott School and CCAS, about the 20/30 Plan, which will cut undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent over the next five years while increasing the ratio of STEM majors to 30 percent.
He said the professors on his enrollment task force, which he created in December, are mostly non-STEM faculty, which he said is appropriate because the plan boosts GW’s STEM presence, and the committee’s membership can help offset that emphasis by adding voices familiar with concerns of non-STEM faculty at large.
More than 10 professors in the humanities and social sciences said earlier this year that they were concerned that the 20/30 Plan could lead to less funding for non-STEM departments.
The Faculty Association, a group of faculty who aim to serve as an informal labor union for employees of the University, released a petition last week – which has since been signed by at least 82 faculty members – to call on LeBlanc to resign partially based on his support for the 20/30 Plan.
Blake said the fraction of STEM students at GW will naturally increase to about 30 percent of the undergraduate student body over the next five years anyway, so the 20/30 Plan will not displace many students from non-STEM disciplines. He said the trend is based on student interest and the creation of degree programs like the bachelor of science degree in international affairs.
“At the end, it’s not a lot of change,” he said. “It sounds more impactful than it really would be based on what the target was given. We would probably get 30 percent over five years if you did nothing at all.”
Blake said that by taking action proactively to reduce the undergraduate population, officials are ensuring they have the flexibility to adjust the discount rate or the number of students enrolled in the future, as applications from high school seniors are projected to decrease.
“I think to do that systematically now under a controlled circumstance, that really puts us in a better position now,” he said.
Parth Kotak contributed reporting.