Year in review: Biggest stories of 2020

Media Credit: Lillian Bautista | Senior Photo Editor

Students said the University's in-house COVID-19 testing center has been quick and reliable services to those living on and off campus.

2020 was a year like none other for GW.

Nearly every aspect of campus life has been upended as the coronavirus pandemic pushed the University community to remote learning. Students and faculty have adapted to keep up with classes remotely while departments across the University have dealt with drastic budget cuts and layoffs to stay afloat.

Here are some of the biggest events the community witnessed throughout this year:

COVID-19 strikes the District

File Photo by Alexander Welling | Assistant Photo Editor

D.C. officials confirmed the District’s first case of COVID-19 in early March, prompting officials to instruct students to transition classes online for at least two weeks. Less than a week later, administrators announced that the remainder of the spring semester would be conducted remotely.

After initially planning to bring students back to campus for the fall semester, officials changed course and announced late July that the fall semester would be conducted entirely online. Officials decided in early October to continue online learning for the spring semester as well.

Administrators have not made any formal announcements about whether classes will remain online for the upcoming fall semester, but University President Thomas LeBlanc said he is hoping for an in-person fall semester in time for the completion of the University’s bicentennial celebrations.

Throughout the year, officials have also been working to address the financial impacts of the pandemic on GW through varying measures like a hiring freeze, a salary freeze, a pay cut for top administrators and hundreds of staff layoffs. Officials announced in early December that they have concluded all expected layoffs implemented in response to the pandemic’s financial challenges.

GW responds to the virus

File Photo by Zach Brien | Staff Photographer

A nurse performs a nasal Covid 19 test on a patient on the first day of testing on GW campus.

Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the GW community has found ways to persevere and help one another through stages of the pandemic.

Students and faculty have quickly adapted to the online environment, picking up part-time jobs and adjusting their schedules to accommodate their families’ needs. Community members throughout Foggy Bottom also stepped up to provide meals and financial assistance to some of their most vulnerable neighbors.

A group of students banded together at the start of the semester to create a mutual aid fund to provide financial assistance to students in need.

GW’s research infrastructure took a front-seat role in the race for a vaccine when a group of researchers from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences joined research teams across the country to take part in a Moderna, Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine trial. The trials are a part of Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ COVID-19 vaccine development initiative.

GW’s trial exceeded its targets for including a diverse group of participants in its study, with more than half of the trial’s participants identifying as Black or Latino. Moncef Slaoui, the chief adviser for Operation Warp Speed, spoke at a press conference on campus with the researchers in October, thanking the trial’s participants and encouraging members of the public to participate in a trial.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the Moderna vaccine earlier this month, and health officials have started distributing vaccines to frontline health care workers throughout the District.

Athletics adapt to pandemic 

File Photo by Eric Lee | Staff Photographer

A sign is posted on the door of the Smith Center reading “Building closed indefinitely." A-10 officials announced Friday that fall sports are held until the spring semester.

The COVID-19 pandemic played a major role on GW’s sports teams, canceling the remainder of spring sports in March and announcing in July that fall sports would be postponed to spring 2021.

Officials announced in late September that GW will cut seven sports programs at the end of the 2020-21 season due to financial concerns in light of the pandemic. Men’s rowing, sailing, men’s and women’s squash, men’s indoor track, men’s tennis and women’s water polo will be eliminated, affecting more than 100 student-athletes.

In response, alumni from the men’s and women’s squash teams wrote an open letter and launched a petition in August urging officials to reconsider their decision to remove the programs, arguing that squash did not pose a financial burden on the University.

After spending the summer staying in shape from home, the men’s and women’s basketball teams came back to campus this semester under strict safety protocols to participate in the season.

Tensions build between LeBlanc, faculty

File Photo by Grace Hromin | Assistant Photo Editor

LeBlanc has faced criticism from students, faculty and staff throughout his tenure at GW, but their frustrations came to a head in 2020.

LeBlanc was recorded using a racially insensitive analogy during a conversation with a freshman about the possibility of GW divesting from fossil fuels in February.

The video, which circulated on social media, showed him comparing support for fossil fuel divestment to hypothetical support for shooting “all the Black people here.” LeBlanc apologized for his remarks amid backlash from the Student Association, advocates for divestment and other community members.

Support for LeBlanc dwindled throughout the remainder of the year as students, faculty and staff launched dozens of petitions and letters calling for him to resign or reverse recent layoffs and financial decisions resulting from the pandemic.

The petitions and letters criticized LeBlanc for the University’s partnership with the Disney Institute and for his plans to cut undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent. His plans to cut undergraduate enrollment were part of his broader strategic plan, which also included aims to increase the ratio of undergraduate STEM majors at the University to 30 percent.

The Faculty Senate passed a resolution in February criticizing officials for violating principles of the shared governance while making decisions for enrollment changes linked to the 20/30 Plan.

Due to the pandemic, officials put the plan on hold in April and planned to reassess its goals but have since concluded it has been likely “rendered obsolete” as the pandemic has changed many of the plan’s key assumptions regarding enrollment and GW’s financial status.

Faculty, staff and students have also criticized officials’ lack of transparency amid ongoing layoffs of staff members at several offices like the Center for Career Services, Events and Venues and academic advising.

Faculty lambasted LeBlanc and other administrators in August for the hiring of Heather Swain, who was ridiculed for a lack of transparency in the Larry Nasser sexual abuse case at Michigan State University, as GW’s vice president for communications and marketing. Swain rescinded her job offer less than a week later after widespread backlash from GW community members.

Faculty senators debated a resolution in September to censure LeBlanc for hiring Swain but instead voted the next month to express “extreme disapproval” of LeBlanc over outright censure.

Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights defended LeBlanc at a Board meeting in October after SA President Howard Brookins signed an executive order calling for LeBlanc to resign.

Students continue push for divestment, name changes

File Photo by Lillian Bautista | Senior Photo Editor

Prompted by student activism, the GW community also underwent a wave of social change this year.

The SA senate passed a resolution in January calling for the University’s divestment from fossil fuels and for GW to cut ties with the Regulatory Studies Center, which has been accused of promoting an anti-regulatory stance. Nearly 86 percent of students voted in favor of a referendum calling for divestment during SA elections in March.

Sunrise GW has held numerous protests throughout the year calling for divestment. After years of student activism, the Board voted in June to divest GW’s endowment from fossil fuel companies by 2025.

Following a slew of student-led petitions urging administrators to re-name buildings named after controversial historical figures, LeBlanc established two committees to evaluate the name change requests for the Marvin Center and the Colonials moniker.

Student leaders expressed hope that officials would revamp the University’s diversity and inclusion practices after a history professor revealed in September that she had falsely claimed a Black identity. But they also suffered from exhaustion at a continuation of racial incidents at the University.

Jessica Krug, a professor of history who specialized in Black, Latin American and African American history, admitted in a Medium post that she had falsely claimed to be Black for years.

Students who took Krug’s class said they felt “betrayed” that she had lied about her identity. Krug resigned from her position a few days after her post was published.

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