The Washington Post
GWU president to exit sooner than planned
Thomas Leblanc will leave the university five months early at year end
The president of George Washington University will retire in December, about five months earlier than originally planned, school officials announced Friday.
Thomas Leblanc, who has led the largest university in the District since 2017, said in May that he planned to retire at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. He said the school needed a leader who could plan for a future post-pandemic.
But school officials, after consulting with Leblanc, decided to accelerate the process, said Grace Speights, chair of the university’s board of trustees. Mark Wrighton, chancellor emeritus of Washington University in St. Louis, will serve as interim president for up to 18 months starting in January, Speights said in a message to the campus.
Speights said the board spent the summer deciding how to handle the presidential search. It could proceed with a traditional year-long search or launch an accelerated process. Concerned by an “unusual number of vacancies” at universities throughout the country — many a result of other pandemic-era retirements — officials decided to find an interim replacement.
“We also felt that the university needed to be in the strongest possible position to attract the best talent. It is clear that there is work to be done for us to be in that position, especially working together to strengthen shared governance and collaborative planning,” Speights said. “Therefore, the board began to explore the possibility of an interim president, with deep experience, to help us all position the university for a permanent president in what we hope will be a better presidential marketplace.”
Leblanc’s decision early this year to leave his post came as a surprise to many in the community. To some, it was a welcome change. His announcement followed the results of a faculty survey that exposed widespread dissatisfaction with his leadership.
About 1,200 faculty participated in the anonymous survey, and their responses revealed a culture in which professors say they are blindsided by major decisions.
About 61 percent of professors who answered a question about the president’s decision-making said Leblanc is not transparent about his actions. More than half said the president does not work to promote a culture of trust. More than a third of professors who weighed in on the university’s mission said the school is missing a clear vision for the future.
Leblanc came to GWU in 2017 from the University of Miami, where he worked for more than a decade as the chief academic and budget officer. He helped the
Florida school make an upward trajectory, raising it through the national rankings and cementing its place as a national research institution.
Since coming to GWU, LeBlanc has been praised for his efforts to support research and improve the student experience. He has solidified the school’s commitments to environmental sustainability, last summer pledging to divest from companies that rely heavily on the extraction of fossil fuels. He moved the campus’s deadline to reach carbon neutrality closer by 10 years to 2030.
Leblanc this year sided with student activists and announced a ban on single-use plastics, including plans to install water bottle refill stations in every building, as well as make investments in bamboo straws, compostable snack wrappers and other plastic alternatives.
GWU’S 17 th president, LeBlanc will have the shortest term as leader in the past half-century when he leaves the university. His predecessor, Steven Knapp, served 10 years.
Before Knapp, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, known best for transforming GWU from a commuter school to a residential campus and research institution, led the university for 19 years, between 1988 and 2007. His predecessor, Lloyd Elliott, was president between 1965 and 1988 — more than two decades.
In the critical faculty survey, many professors commended Leblanc’s handling of the pandemic. More than two-thirds of professors said they received the support they needed to teach virtually last school year and 77 percent said the administration prioritized health and safety.
But Leblanc has also was under intense scrutiny during his five-year tenure. He faced blowback in 2019 after unveiling a now-defunct plan to shrink the student body and increase the share of science, technology, engineering and math majors — a dramatic demographic shift that many professors said would decrease diversity. More than 120 faculty members called for LEBlanc’s resignation in early 2020 after he made racially insensitive remarks in response to a question about divestment, for which he later apologized.
Leadership concerns continued to fester that year after the university hired a marketing executive from Michigan State University who state prosecutors say was part of an effort to stonewall an investigation into disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar.
Meanwhile, professors have pointed to drops national college rankings, as well as fundraising which, during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, fell to its second-lowest point in a decade at about $102.5 million. But officials called the effort “impressive,” given the economic challenges triggered by the pandemic.
Officials also noted the school raised $1 million on a fundraising day this year — more than three times the school’s goal — and since 2019 has ramped up fundraising for scholarships by 25 percent. GWU raised $122.6 million and $115.7 million during the previous two fiscal years.
Wrighton, GWU’S incoming interim president, comes to the District with decades of experience in leadership and research. He has published more than 300 articles, holds 16 patents and his awards include a Macarthur “Genius Grant,” according to his resume.
Wrighton arrived at Washington University in St. Louis as chancellor and chemistry professor in 1995. Before that, he served in various positions — including professor, chemistry department chair and provost — at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“He has had a model academic career, and we were able to convince him that he could do much to help our university,” Speights said.
“The university needed to be in the strongest possible position to attract the best talent. It is clear that there is work to be done for us to be in that position, especially working together to strengthen shared governance and collaborative planning.” Grace Speights, chair of the George Washington University board of trustees