Staff Editorial: GW’s 19th president can learn from the past to outline its future

To the tune of bossa nova and smooth jazz, the crowd in the lobby of the School of Media and Public Affairs shuffled into the Jack Morton Auditorium Wednesday and took their seats to await the introduction of GW’s next president. But they wouldn’t be sitting for very long. Officials introduced Ellen Granberg as the University’s 19th president to a standing ovation and raucous applause at the public event, signaling the start of a new chapter in GW’s history.

After 200 years and 18 presidents, Granberg will be GW’s first female and first openly LGBTQ+ president in the University’s history. So as the University’s next president embarks on an official transition process that ends with her and her wife, Sonya Rankin, moving into F Street House later this year, allow us to impart our own advice as well.

Officials chose Granberg – a former Clemson University sociology professor, department chair, associate provost for faculty affairs, senior associate provost and the current provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology since 2018 – after a presidential search process that began in earnest last spring. But the effort to find GW’s next permanent president dates back to spring 2021, when then-University President Thomas LeBlanc announced he would step down from his position at the end of the year after years of tension with faculty, students and staff.

With Granberg’s takeover later this year making her GW’s third president in three years, LeBlanc’s presidency can seem like a distant memory. But all of us, including Granberg, are living in the GW LeBlanc built, or, depending on your perspective, nearly destroyed. Thus, a whirlwind tour of LeBlanc’s time at GW serves as a what not-to-do list for Granberg.

Once he arrived on campus, the consistent erosion of trust between faculty, the administration and the Board of Trustees marred his time at the helm of GW. A $300,000 partnership with the Disney Institute to assess GW’s culture in 2018 earned the criticism of faculty for failing to accurately measure their feedback and exemplifying arbitrary and top-down decision making. Likewise, LeBlanc’s plan to increase STEM enrollment while decreasing the number of students enrolled across the entire University, particularly within the humanities, divided the Board of Trustees and faculty, who contested the plan would lower the diversity of the student population and harm the University’s revenue.

But issues with shared governance remain even into Wrighton’s transitory tenure, including in the same presidential search process that selected Granberg. Despite unanimously passing a set of shared governance principles in May, the 17-member Presidential Search Committee had one staff representative, Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, and one student, Student Association President Christian Zidouemba. And Laguerre-Brown’s upper-level administrative role did not reflect GW’s staff as a whole, noted one staff member who participated in the community feedback forums held last September. 

Nor were things much better with the student body whom LeBlanc never seemed to get along with during his presidency. He described critical nonscience and engineering students as “privileged” on a hot mic while defending naming National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt as Commencement speaker in 2018. In 2020, LeBlanc announced then later apologized for the decision to hire Heather Swain – a former Michigan State University official criticized for her involvement in the investigation of Larry Nassar, the MSU doctor and USA Gymnastics coach sentenced to decades in prison for multiple sex crimes. Most notably, LeBlanc compared support for fossil fuel divestment among students to hypothetical support for shooting “all the Black people here” in a ham-fisted, racist analogy in 2020.

Respecting the University’s culture and avoiding insensitive remarks are minimum expectations that Granberg must aspire to surpass. Unlike Wrighton – who focused on strengthening GW’s financial aid resources, improving diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campus and generally soothing the discontent LeBlanc’s unpopular presidency created – Granberg will have the time to create a more long-term strategic vision for GW. For as much as we have discussed LeBlanc’s many shortcomings here and elsewhere, it is now finally time to move on from him. This University needs a leader who can guide it into its third century and the 21st century – one defined by cooperation and communication, not antagonism and authoritarianism.

On shared governance, diversity, equity and inclusion and her own strategic vision, Granberg must transform principles and statements into actual reality. But the core of GW’s identity, a world-class education in the nation’s capital, must remain intact. Granberg must enhance and enrich what this University already offers, like its financially challenged medical enterprise or long-suffering humanities department. A focus on transparent and honest communication and a mindset that values the student experience as much as GW’s financial health would be a marked departure from previous administrations, too.

Granberg’s identity as GW’s first woman and first openly LGBTQ+ president also sets her apart from the University’s past 21 permanent or interim presidents, all of whom have been straight, white men. Though who Granberg is cannot tell us how she will lead GW at this early stage, we hope she will be more attuned to the sensitivities of the University community than previous presidents.

We hope Granberg and her wife will be a visible presence around campus, stopping by events in University Yard and attending games in the Smith Center. If they don’t have a pet already, we suggest following the lead of the Wrightons and finding a furry friend who can also appear throughout Foggy Bottom.

For our part, The Hatchet’s editorial board will strive to offer a firm but fair analysis of both Granberg’s performance and Wrighton’s remaining time as president. Good luck to them – and to you – this semester.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by Opinions Editor Ethan Benn and Contributing Opinions Editor Julia Koscelnik, based on discussions with Research Assistant Zachary Bestwick, Sports Editor Nuria Diaz, Managing Editor Jaden DiMauro, Culture Editor Clara Duhon, Design Editor Grace Miller and Contributing Social Media Director Ethan Valliath.

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