Wrighton is a solid choice for interim president

GW is getting a new president sooner than expected. Outgoing University President Thomas LeBlanc will depart on Jan. 1 and be replaced by Mark Wrighton, the former chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. The search for a permanent replacement will be delayed until the spring.

The Board of Trustees justified their decision in part by citing a tight pandemic-era job market for university presidents and said bringing in a seasoned administrator like Wrighton to steady the ship for up to 18 months would help set GW on the right course.

The Editorial Board has not historically had much praise for the Board of Trustees, but we think they made the right call here. Their reasoning was sound, the decision was communicated honestly and transparently and Wrighton seems like a well-qualified pick for the job of interim president. The Board should keep working at shared governance and consulting the GW community, but things genuinely seem headed in the right direction.

In many ways, Wrighton seems like a welcome departure from LeBlanc. In his four years as president, LeBlanc made unilateral decisions that were unaligned with the GW community’s overall vision for the University. LeBlanc’s 20/30 Plan, which was intended to tilt GW toward STEM, and his decision to bring over his former colleagues from the University of Miami to work in GW’s administration were two significant decisions that marred his presidency from the beginning. On the other hand, Wrighton has a reputation for being a “stable” force with few controversies in his 22 years at WashU.

Wrighton seems to possess some qualities that LeBlanc could have used during his tenure. He was a long-serving head of a major university, and his tenure lasted longer than the average of about seven years for a university president or chancellor. Wrighton will not be serving as president at GW for anything close to 20 or even seven years, but the length of his tenure at WashU is a heartening sign of his ability to handle the pressures of the role without making too many enemies. At this point, GW needs a president who is flexible, one who can make peace between the GW community and the administrators until the next president is inaugurated. Perhaps LeBlanc is leaving a much-needed void and giving the GW community time to reflect both on what kind of president we want to represent our school. If that is the case, Wrighton’s goal should only be to heal the trust between the president and the community without making any major policy decisions.

But there are still some caveats that we should be aware of as the interim president settles in anywhere from one semester up to 18 months, depending on how long it could take to find a new long-term president. Several aspects of Wrighton’s track record cast doubts on his attitude toward issues like socioeconomic diversity, fair pay and sustainability.

For years, WashU was the least socioeconomically diverse school in the country, with more than 20 percent of the student body falling in the top one percent of the country in terms of wealth. Though GW is not much different in this regard, with 14 percent of our student body coming from the top one percent of earning families in 2017, the lack of socioeconomic diversity in Wrighton’s 22 years at WashU casts doubt on his interest in diversifying wealthy private universities.

Wrighton also faced controversies over paying low wages to students who worked for WashU and refusing to divest in fossil fuels. The WashU Student Worker Alliance went on an eight-day hunger strike to protest low wages in 2005. In the end, Wrighton ultimately allotted $500,000 toward increasing wages. With regard to sustainability, Wrighton’s track record is also worrying. Though GW has already divested from fossil fuels, Wrighton’s opposition to the cause again raises questions about his overall sentiment on sustainability. GW is taking steps to become more sustainable, and Wrighton’s disappointing attitude toward the urgency of the climate crisis should not inhibit those steps.

As far as the process by which this took place goes, there are both areas where praise is deserved and some points of concern. From a communications standpoint, the email sent out to the GW community was honest and frank. Speights plainly said that GW was not yet in a position to bring in the best possible talent to run the University in a permanent capacity, and nodded to thawing the icy relations that administrators have had with faculty and students. This was a departure from the opacity that the Board has exhibited in the past, and it is a welcome one.

Speights also had words about what the presidential search process will look like when it resumes in the coming months. She said in an interview with The Hatchet that the process will focus heavily on diversity and inclusion, as well as soliciting a broad range of input from the GW community. Earlier this month, the Editorial Board called on trustees to espouse these values in the path to find a new president, so we see fit to praise the Board for heading in that direction. These verbal commitments, though, should be substantiated with concrete action once the process advances because words are not enough on their own.

About the same time as the Board rolled out their plan for an interim president, Speights and a group of faculty senators also laid out a new approach to shared governance. Speights committed to more transparency and a “fresh start” amid long-standing tensions between administrators and faculty. This is excellent, it shows legitimate good faith on the part of the Board. It would immensely benefit the entirety of the GW community if these discussions between faculty and administrators go well.

But the Board unilaterally postponing the presidential search and installing an interim chief administrator without faculty input directly cuts against the spirit of this proposed and long-overdue “fresh start.” The Board is simultaneously extending an olive branch and violating their new commitment to placing shared governance in a more important role in decision-making. Some faculty noted that, even though they found this to be dissonant, they recognized that the particulars of a decision to bring in an interim president were not conducive to a drawn-out consultative process. This seems like a fair stance, but the Board does need to make sure it sticks to the shared governance commitments it made.

On the whole, this is good news at the University’s administrative level. Wrighton seems well-qualified to keep GW on track, and the Board seems like it is poised to approach the search in a way that will maximize the chances of picking a permanent president that the entire GW community can be proud of. Let’s keep going on this path.

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