Faculty Assembly Remarks by Board Chair Grace Speights

Ms. Speights delivered remarks at the November 2020 Faculty Assembly.

November 19, 2020

Thank you President LeBlanc.

While the chair of the Board of Trustees does not normally participate in Faculty Assemblies, these are definitely unprecedented and most unusual times, and I appreciated the invitation to join you this year.

I hope you and your families are staying well and healthy.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I want to start by extending a special welcome to all of our new faculty members. We look forward to the scholarship, teaching, energy and ideas you bring to GW.

I also want to thank the entire faculty for your extraordinary efforts, especially since March. I know that the sudden transition to on-line teaching was incredibly difficult, demanding and unlike anything you have ever had to do before.  Thank you for more than rising to the occasion and for coming together so quickly to ensure our students continued to get a great education virtually.

In acknowledgment of those efforts, the Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution last week recognizing our faculty and others in the community for your response to the pandemic.

To quote from the resolution, “the George Washington University Board of Trustees expresses its deep appreciation and gratitude to the entire campus community for its coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and looks forward to a brighter future together as the community will emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever and continues to aspire to preeminence as a comprehensive, global research university.”

Last week brought a ray of sunshine on the potential for a vaccine, so here’s hoping for better times ahead.

I also want to thank the faculty who participated in our Environmental, Social, and Governance Responsibility and Naming Task Force earlier this year.  Fossil fuel divestment from our endowment, which was the initial focus of the ESG Task Force, and a mechanism for considering name changes were both very important issues for our community and with your help, we were able to move forward on both.

The ESG Task Force will continue its work and I hope some of you will continue to engage in that task force with your knowledge and expertise.

I’m also pleased that faculty are leading and participating in the Special Committees that are currently looking at the name on the Marvin Center and the Colonials Moniker.

I am well-aware of some issues that have arisen with some faculty over the past few months and will take a few minutes to directly address some of the questions we have heard from you.

I know that a topic on today’s agenda is an evaluation of President LeBlanc.

Let me first say that serving as president of a university like GW, with a community that holds a diversity of strong and passionate opinions, is difficult in normal times.  The unprecedented challenges of the pandemic have made it even more challenging. The Board of Trustees fully appreciates and supports how President LeBlanc has guided us through the most difficult and challenging times we have ever faced.

Regarding his evaluation, the Board of Trustees has a process in place for evaluating presidents and we will adhere to that process.

While we assess and provide feedback on a president’s performance annually, our process for evaluating the President for purposes of considering whether we will renew his or her contract begins as the President approaches the last year of his or her contract and normally includes wide stakeholder input at the invitation of the Board. For President LeBlanc, we will start that process in the early spring of 2021.

To ensure a comprehensive and fair evaluation, as always, the initial step is hiring a neutral, third-party firm with expertise in this area to oversee and manage the process.

Let me underscore that while we will always consider feedback from faculty and others in the community, which will be solicited and managed by the firm we retain, this process is driven by and under the purview of the Board of Trustees. It is one of our most important responsibilities.

Given this timetable, we will not consider other feedback for the president’s evaluation until the process begins in early spring.

I know that the steps that GW had to take related to staffing have also raised questions, so let me provide some context.

Early on, it became very clear to the Trustees that the pandemic would not only affect health and safety, but also would pose an existential threat to colleges, including GW.

The Board of Trustees asked the University’s leadership to explore and consider all appropriate options to address the immediate needs of the university.

The shortfalls in our budget were large and very difficult decisions had to be made. 

Instead of imposing across the board salary cuts for all faculty or staff, the University Leadership asked leadership of each unit to take staffing actions that prioritized our academic and research mission.

GW was far from alone – last week the Chronicle of Higher Education estimated that colleges across the country have reduced their labor force by at least ten percent.

No one likes to have to make decisions that affect people’s jobs and their families, and we appreciate that the leadership always kept care and concern for the community and the best interests of GW at heart.

Regarding the shared services model, we have every expectation that over the long term it will provide better and more efficient services and will allow us to further prioritize our academic mission.

On the subject of academic planning, given the already demanding challenges of the pandemic, you have all heard from the Provost that this effort has been deferred.

At some point, we will have to come back to it. GW must be as prepared as possible for the post-pandemic future. As the Provost noted, we want the faculty to play a major role in its development.

As we knew that academic planning can raise concerns in the faculty, the Board adopted principles that included the goals of spending a higher percentage on our direct academic mission than currently is the case and of supporting our current tenure and tenure track faculty.

There have been questions about an item in the strategic plan that called for a 20 percent reduction in enrollment and 30 percent of our students majoring in STEM disciplines.

The pandemic has impacted current enrollment in both numbers and the mix of student interest, and that is likely to continue moving forward.  When academic planning resumes, those impacts will likely change or moot many of the assumptions underlying the 20-30 aspect of the strategic plan.

Given the changes the pandemic has and will continue to have on higher education in general and GW specifically, we want to focus on making our academic portfolio as compelling as possible and to consider any lessons learned from the past semester regarding possible innovations in curriculum and pedagogy.

Let me be clear. The Board greatly values our outstanding faculty, which is why we supported President LeBlanc’s recommendations not to require faculty to offer in-person instruction – as many other universities did. 

We followed the science, which told us to prioritize safety first and the heart of our academic mission, which told us to maintain faculty salaries.

It is clear that that is not the case at many institutions. We know these are stressful times both in our personal and professional lives. But we are all called to work together constructively for the long term good of this great university.

Whether it’s academic planning, or all of the actions we take, the Trustees look forward to working with the faculty and administration to ensure that GW continues to achieve its academic and research mission.

I have no doubt that our university will emerge stronger than ever in the post-pandemic world. Raise high!

Thank you.