The GW president was among D.C. area university presidents on a Washington Business Journal panel that shared lessons learned during the pandemic.
By Briahnna Brown
One of the biggest lessons that George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that higher education can and must be incredibly adaptable and find more ways to support students in need.
All of the implicit assumptions about how higher education works were threatened when the pandemic hit, Dr. LeBlanc said, such as the ability to bring students together to learn in the same room. GW and many other universities made a successful transition to virtual learning due to the efforts of faculty and staff, but that transition also brought to light the systemic inequalities that many people already face.
“In our society, people experience the pandemic differently,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “It depends on their family resources, and in many cases depends on their race or their access to health care.
“We’ve seen how universities try to construct these bubbles, where within the bubble we build an ideal society,” he said. “Then the pandemic comes along, and it blows away the bubble. We had students who were trying to do virtual instruction but didn't have access to bandwidth. We had students who are trying to study but they're living in a home when they don't have quiet study space.”
This is why GW decided to give the funding from the CARES Act directly to students, focusing on those with the highest need, Dr. LeBlanc said, despite the financial challenges the university is experiencing as a result of the pandemic.
Dr. LeBlanc shared his insights during a virtual panel discussion with other university presidents in the D.C. metro area, including President Ronald Mason Jr. of the University of the District of Columbia, President Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University, President Darryll Pines of the University of Maryland, College Park, and President Gregory Washington of George Mason University.
The virtual panel discussion, which Washington Business Journal hosted, brought the university presidents together to discuss budgeting, diversity and inclusion, and health and safety when looking at the future of higher education amid the pandemic.
(Clockwise from top left) UDC President Ronald Mason, Washington Business Journal editor-in-chief Vandana Sinha, GMU President Gregory Washington, GW President Thomas LeBlanc, Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire and UMD President Darryl Pines virtually discuss the future of higher education.
GW has played a key role in responding to COVID-19, Dr. LeBlanc said, from health care workers providing care on the front lines to the Milken Institute School of Public Health’s contact tracing tool and education about the science behind the virus while combatting dangerous myths. Faculty expertise allowed GW to develop in-house testing capabilities, he said, which allows the university to test university community members with campus access and get results quickly.
“What we do in higher education matters; we have a positive impact on society,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “Arguably, the greatest threat to our society today is this pandemic, and higher education is taking the lead and helping to deal with it.”
The pandemic has brought virtual instruction to the forefront, Dr. LeBlanc said, and that will likely continue to be the case after the pandemic because students, especially graduate students, appreciate the flexibility that online learning offers. It is also likely that more schools will shift to breaking up traditional degree programs into more certificate programs like the GW School of Business has already started doing.
Even though there likely will be changes to the way students learn that extend beyond the pandemic, Dr. LeBlanc said that he is optimistic about the future of colleges and universities and especially the future of GW. He cited the university’s high-quality education paired with its D.C. location, as well as the continued importance of the residential student experience.
“The pandemic has taught us just how badly our students need to be together and just how much they value that experience,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “I don't think our campuses are obsolete. When we talk about virtual instruction, I think we're all saying, ‘and,’ not ‘or,’ or, ‘instead of.’
“If we've eliminated the 400-person lecture hall, that's a good thing, but we're not going to eliminate the eight-person seminar, the pizza party in the residence hall, etc.,” he said. “Those, I think, are fundamental to the college experience.”