Charles Garris is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, a member of the Faculty Senate and a former Chair of the Faculty Senate executive committee.
It is with great sadness that I learned of University President Thomas LeBlanc’s decision to retire from his position at the end of the 2021–22 academic year. At the beginning of his presidency, there was a palpable excitement that he would build on the upward trajectory of excellence left to him by the administrations of predecessors Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and Steven Knapp. LeBlanc was provided by the presidential search committee with a detailed analysis which defined a series of major historical challenges that had prevented GW from joining the top tier academic institutions of the nation and limited the future trajectory of the institution.
With undaunted courage, he took on each one of these challenges, and achieved considerable success, although his tenure was short and the problems deeply ingrained. He was confronted with dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the health, mental wellbeing, economic standing and the academic plans of the GW community. Thanks to President LeBlanc’s leadership, we are emerging from the pandemic strong, healthy and eager to get back to normal. Further, we still have the possibility to enjoy a bright future despite this sad event if we make the right decisions at this critical juncture.
Over the 43 years that I have been at GW, we have adhered to the tradition of shared governance defined by the Faculty Code. The Faculty Code has been continually upgraded over the past half century in accordance with the University’s needs through negotiation between the faculty, administration and Board of Trustees. The Faculty Code has always been special at GW and was considered a model for shared governance. It encouraged faculty, administration and trustees to develop plans, policies and programs that benefited the GW community, often through the Faculty Senate committee structure. Such relationships rely on trust and mutual respect. Nevertheless, there always has been a clear understanding that, ultimately, the management, direction and government of GW is vested in the Board by virtue of the University Charter. This latter point is not debatable but has never been an obstacle thanks to the dedication and wisdom of our Boards over the years.
Unfortunately, the past year was a terrible aberration where the shared governance principles of the Faculty Code were disregarded. Civility, fairness and due process have too often been betrayed by some in the faculty leadership. An ill-conceived notion of shared governance emerged from a self-selected group of faculty which demanded of the administration the abrogation of its decision-making responsibilities to the same group. This group successfully and mendaciously poisoned the environment of President LeBlanc’s presidency through a series of unscrupulous attacks, the dissemination of misinformation and continuous public perverse criticism. It exploited the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic to breed dissatisfaction. It made it impossible for President LeBlanc to continue. As part of their modus operandi, the group used the Faculty Assembly to upend the Faculty Senate committees and the Faculty Senate itself. Internally, while extolling “shared governance”, they silence dissenting voices from among the faculty – myself included. The Faculty Senate proceedings of the past year were a highly nonproductive misuse of GW governance processes designed mainly to bring down the LeBlanc administration. These actions have negatively impacted GW’s reputation and have set us back substantially.
To move forward, GW must return to our unique model based on the Faculty Code, which relies on shared governance through trust and collaboration that had served us so well for so many years. I was very gratified to read Board Chair Grace Speights’ memorandum to the GW faculty of May 19 which clearly articulated these principles. I am also confident, having worked with the Board during my service as chair of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, that the Board has the knowledge and wisdom to exercise its power to bring the University back to its upward trajectory while promoting a meaningful voice for the faculty, staff and students in decision-making.
Clearly, we need a new president who will establish the long-term strategic directions of the University with the collaboration and support of the University community. The Faculty Senate should move quickly to initiate the appointment of a faculty consultative committee that can assist the trustees who will be conducting the search. A student consultative committee and a staff consultative committee would be a good addition to the processes used in the past.
The University needs a preliminary strategic plan, and should begin by building from the very thoughtful faculty studies embodied in Vision 2021, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education accreditation self-study and the reports of the four strategic planning committees that were appointed in 2019. Such a preliminary strategic plan will illuminate the aspirations of the GW community. GW’s faculty is a source of strength – they should be encouraged to offer their ideas of innovations that can be included in the preliminary strategic plan. Such a report would help potential presidential candidates determine if GW is a correct match for their own aspirations and to lay a foundation for a formal strategic plan which will be developed by the new president and their administration.
Thanks to the leadership of President LeBlanc, GW is in an excellent position to continue an upward trajectory. But we are at crossroads, and must acknowledge the destructive errors made in the past year. We must move forward with a spirit of collaboration and trust between faculty, administration and trustees. I am optimistic that in GW’s 201st year, we will avoid the mistakes of its 200th year and return to the positive trajectory we all aspire to.