Ellen Granberg: GW Community’s Ambition is ‘Inspiring’

The university’s 19th president addressed members of the GW community on Wednesday, saying she is eager to work together for even greater impact.

January 13, 2023

Granberg welcome

Ellen Granberg, the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), will start her tenure as the 19th president of George Washington University on July 1. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Moments after Ellen Granberg formally introduced herself to the George Washington University community, a student emerged from a line full of them and greeted the university’s soon-to-be leader with words never heard in the 200-plus year history of the institution.

“Welcome, Madam President.”

Granberg, who will begin her tenure as GW’s 19th president on July 1, addressed a capacity Jack Morton Auditorium crowd Wednesday afternoon shortly after the GW Board of Trustees announced her presidential appointment based on her strong record of bolstering teaching and research excellence across disciplines, supporting a diverse and inclusive community of students, faculty and staff, and collaborating with all stakeholders to drive transformative change and increase institutional prominence.

She boasts plenty of experience running key initiatives and overseeing academic departments during her higher-education career that includes her current role of provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology as well as a former position as senior associate provost and associate provost for faculty affairs at Clemson University. But she’s rooted in sociology and human interaction.

And Granberg spent plenty of time interacting with the community on Wednesday—including with a softball player who had just met Granberg and ran over to tell her teammates that “she makes me want to win for her."

Perhaps that’s because her own nonlinear story is relatable. Admittedly entering higher education by way of an untraditional path, Granberg spent the first 11 years after earning an undergraduate degree in history from the University of California, Davis, working for the Fortune 500 telecommunications firm Pacific Bell. While there, she found leading large-scale system conversions an opportunity to understand leadership in the context of complex and high-risk environments. The job provided her valuable experience in decision making, team building and communication, she said.

But as the child of a college professor and an attorney, life as an academic stayed in the back of her mind.

She left her home state of California for the first time and headed to Nashville, where she worked toward and eventually received an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from Vanderbilt University, thus launching a career in higher education and specifically research focused on the sociology of self and identity and its influence on physical and mental health.

What attracted her to GW, she said, was its storied history of advancing its impact and prominence every day. She noted how the university, which was founded by an act of Congress more than two centuries ago, has grown from a faculty of three professors and a tutor to a thriving, Carnegie R1 research institution with high-quality academic programs and research across a wide array of disciplines.

“Today, the university’s global reach and its location in the heart of our nation’s capital provide even greater ability for impact through teaching, research, patient care and service,” she said.

But staying true to her background in sociology, she and her wife, Sonya Rankin, are especially excited to work with and meet the people of GW.

“As Sonya and I are already quickly learning, this community is one of warm and welcoming people working together to have a positive impact on society and to create a more just and equitable university, nation and world,” Granberg said. “Your commitment to this work and your ambition to achieve preeminence as an institution together is inspiring.”

Granberg and Rankin quickly got to work making the rounds after the formal event, meeting GW community members at an open reception in the Media and Public Affairs building’s first-floor lobby for attendees wishing to chat and introduce themselves—many of them students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

“She seems like she’ll really be able to connect with students on a personal level,” said Mike Ferrier, B.A. ’20, an organizational leadership graduate who now works at GW’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The board, informed by the work of the Presidential Search Committee, Faculty Consultative Committee and the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, was drawn to Granberg’s collaboration skills and eagerness to listen and partner with the GW community to advance shared aspirations.

“At the dawn of the university’s third century, we knew that we needed a leader who would reinforce our commitment to academic excellence, enhance our academic reputation and help us achieve our aspirations for preeminence,” said Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights, J.D. ’82. “In Dr. Granberg, we have found that leader.”

Granberg will succeed President Mark S. Wrighton, who has served as GW president on an interim basis since Jan. 1, 2022. He said he looks forward to working with Granberg to ensure a smooth transition of the GW presidency. Aristide Collins, GW’s vice president, chief of staff and secretary, will lead the transition process.

“I believe [Granberg] will represent a significant contribution to accelerating the progress of the university,” said Wrighton, who received a standing ovation from the GW community present Wednesday for his efforts guiding the institution.

Granberg is eager to accept those challenges as she prepares to take the mantle from Wrighton this summer.

“There is a phrase I’ve already heard a lot here—Raise High,” Granberg said. “It is a theme that permeates everything we do at GW. It exemplifies the idea that we strive for excellence not just for ourselves but also for one another—in other words, ambition within community. This is the ethos that characterizes who we are and where we are going, and I could not be more proud or more grateful to be joining you on this path.”