GW’s incoming president talks about his preparation for the job, GW’s strong points and other issues.
Thomas LeBlanc, who was named the 17th president of George Washington University last month, will begin in the new job Aug. 1. But Dr. LeBlanc has begun the transition process, and that has included meeting small groups of the GW community. Last week, GW Today was included in one of those meetings. Here are five takeaways from that session in his words:
Prepping for the Job
I’ll be coming to campus for two- or three-day periods between now and Aug. 1. We are trying to meet as many people, groups, etc. during those visits. I’ll be traveling to meet some of the trustees. Everybody who works at GW who has a reason to be in Miami is stopping by campus. I’ve already had two or three of the deans traveling down there for other reasons. I have a transition team that is helping to gather materials for me to study and to learn about the university. I’m reading budget documents. I’m trying to meet as many of the staff as I can, especially my direct reports. So, given that I technically have another job, and [Miami is] paying me to do that other job, it’s not like I can drop everything and say I’m just going to focus on GW. But I’m certainly hoping to get as much packed into my brain as I can before I get here through what I can do from a distance and in my few days here.
President vs. Provost
I do a lot of interviewing of individual faculty as provost, and I’ll probably have to do less of that as president. I really enjoy hearing from faculty about their work. I’m the chief budget officer at Miami, so I spend an enormous amount of time saying yes and no to requests. I don’t mind giving that up because, frankly, after 12 years of saying yes and no, I’m ready to help with a strategy that grows the pie and let somebody else say yes and no on each slice. I’m responsible for the admissions process, and so I spend a lot of time recruiting individual students as provost. Probably, as president, I’ll be able to do that less. I hope to still do some of it. I think the president can be very effective in recruiting in a small number of special cases.
As provost, I spend a lot of time in the faculty governance process. I understand here the president does chair the Faculty Senate, but I suspect it’ll be less time in the faculty governance overall than I was at Miami where it’s really a primary part of the job. I did do alumni events and things like that as provost. I expect I’ll do more of those as president. I enjoy representing the institution to constituents. Higher education is big and complicated, and I like simplifying it and talking about it to people who care about it.
Strengths of the University
Everyone I talked to at Miami has said, “Wow, you’re going to a great institution.” That not only made me feel good about my choice, it should make you all feel good about your university because people [in Miami] are all saying, uniformly, great city, great institution, great move.
In the grand-scheme of things, there are roughly 4,500 institutions of higher education in the United States. GW is in the top 60 no matter how you count. That’s a big deal. There’s a pyramid of higher education in the entire world, and we’re at the top of that pyramid, and we ought to be proud of that fact. We have some very distinguished faculty. We have some very distinguished and well-known schools. Every time I turn around, I see a GW faculty member on TV talking about this issue or that issue.
People I’ve known through my 12 years at Miami, they come up and say, “I’m a graduate of GW. Let me tell you how it changed my life.” And these are people I had no idea they were graduates of GW. One of my trustees at the University of Miami is a graduate of GW. I didn’t know she was a graduate until I was announced as president and she said, “I’m an alumni of the university.” So, the reach of GW is pretty pervasive. We certainly educated a vast cross-section of the folks who work in government here in D.C. That ought to be a point of pride. There are a lot of things to be proud of about GW.
GW as Social Mobility Engine
There’s a recent study about the role of higher education in social mobility, and I think that was an important study. It was the first time that they linked enrollment to economic outcomes in social mobility. They looked at universities and [asked] is this university an engine for social mobility or not an engine for social mobility? If everyone you admit comes from the top 1 percent, and after they graduate they are in the top 1 percent, I don’t know what you’ve done, but you haven’t done social mobility. The way you do social mobility is that you admit some fraction of your student body from the lowest quintile, the second lowest quintile.
This study looked at the bottom 20 percent and the bottom 40 percent, and you actually produce graduates who end up in the top two quintiles - that’s social mobility. I think that’s an admirable goal for higher education. I think I’m a product of social mobility through higher education. Donna Shalala, one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met, an incredible academic leader, incredible servant of the United States, longest serving Health and Human Services secretary, Medal of Freedom winner. She went to college on a scholarship. She joined the Peace Corps. Her whole life is social mobility through higher education, and she would get up and she would talk about that. So I think that’s an admirable aspiration.
You’ve got to figure out [whether] you have the talent and facilities to do this in-house or do you need an outside partner. The marketing can be enormous. Some of these online programs get $30 to $40 million marketing plans behind them. The question as a university is whether you’re partnering with someone who is putting up the $30 million or are you putting up the $30 million? You actually have to have a reason and a strategy behind what you are doing…and not a knee-jerk reaction because someone released a MOOC and our whole business model is under threat. I believe very firmly in my lifetime, that the vast majority of 18-year-old kids will continue to choose to go to college, live with other people of their age group in a living, learning community like this and that the kind of educational offerings GW offers will be in-demand 20 to 30 years from now.
The big revolution in higher education is not in fundamental changes to the undergraduate experience, but that now, with so many people wanting to get a college degree, more and more the differentiator is a master’s degree. That’s where you see a lot of students coming back to school for a master’s or Ph.D. where it used to be that you had to have an [undergraduate] degree. Someone needs to educate all of those people. Now many of them are working full time so they can’t attend classes on a normal schedule. Many of them may be working in different cities so they can’t come to class on a regular basis. So there’s a lot of ways that online I think will impact our day-to-day work, but I don’t think it will fundamentally change the fact that parents are not going to want their children growing up and going to college by watching a TV screen.