George Washington University President Thomas J. LeBlanc will retire at the end of the fall 2021 semester, it was announced at a Faculty Senate meeting on Friday. Mark S. Wrighton, a former chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, will serve as GW’s interim president starting Jan. 1.
In remarks at the Faculty Senate meeting and in a message to the university community, Grace Speights, chair of the GW Board of Trustees, said the decision to name an interim president with deep experience was made to put the university in the strongest possible position to attract the best talent in the academic marketplace. There are a higher than usual number of vacancies in academic leadership across the country, she said, and as the BOT contemplated the best way to approach the presidential search, Dr. LeBlanc indicated he would be flexible on the timing of his retirement to serve GW’s best long-term interest.
Dr. Wrighton is an “extraordinary leader” with a model academic career, Ms. Speights said.
“I hope you will join me in welcoming and thanking Professor Wrighton for his commitment to the George Washington University that is actually in Washington,” she said in a message to the GW community. “It is our hope that this academic year will be a highly positive and productive one that leads to irreversible upward momentum for our university.”
Dr. Wrighton continues to teach as the James and Mary Wertsch Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he served as chancellor for 24 years. A chemist, he was selected as a MacArthur Prize Fellow and served as a faculty member, department chair and provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has received awards for both his teaching and research and has published more than 300 articles and holds 16 patents.
Dr. Wrighton thanked Ms. Speights and the BOT for the confidence placed in him. He expressed his eagerness to work alongside the faculty, students, staff, alumni and parents who have contributed to the university’s rich history of research and service.
“I look forward to working with all of you and all constituencies to strengthen George Washington University,” he told the senate. “This year wraps up two centuries, and it will be a privilege to begin working on your third century. I know that I will have only a modest part, but I'm looking forward to contributing, and I look forward to working with each of you.”
Dr. Wrighton indicated that he would be willing to serve as GW’s interim president for up to 18 months. A search committee, formed with constituent representation, will be appointed in the spring as GW begins its search for a permanent president, Ms. Speights said.
During this transitional period, the BOT will be focused on establishing a stronger foundation of trust and collaboration with the senate, Ms. Speights said during the meeting. The BOT is committed to strengthening shared governance among the Board, faculty and administration and improving collaborative planning moving forward and will launch—in full consultation and partnership with the senate executive committee—a shared governance task force early in the current semester.
“The board spent a lot of time over the summer thinking about the issue of shared governance and how we could move forward together, the three constituents, to make this an even better university,” she said. “The board, I can tell you, is committed to doing that. We are hoping that moving forward, this is a fresh start for all of us. Let's build on the excitement that is on campus and continue moving it forward.”
Ms. Speights said the Board worked with experts from higher education groups like the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the American Association of University Professors to study shared governance. They also heard from a former university president well-known for his work in the area of shared governance. Trustees will continue the initiative, which will in turn help officials recruit the best candidate for university president, she said.
In other business, Interim Provost Christopher Alan Bracey spoke about the start of the academic year, saying it has been a “real joy to see the community come together in person again.” Overall, GW students and faculty have abided by the mask mandate while in class, he said, with few exceptions. The university has developed a review, tracking and enforcement process that allows for escalation for repeat violations of the mask mandate. He encouraged faculty to remind their colleagues to abide by the mandate in the classroom.
He clarified the COVID Campus Support Team’s contact tracing process in the classroom—saying it’s likely not every person in every class will be contacted about a potential exposure, but faculty members will be informed that someone in the class tested positive. This process allows CCST to devote its resources to working with those most likely to have been exposed, based on information they received and proximity to the student, Mr. Bracey said. He encouraged all faculty to let CCST do its job and trust the process.
“As always, I want to express my thanks to our faculty and their commitment to maintaining a safe learning environment and for their patience as we navigate this new normal,” Mr. Bracey said.
Mr. Bracey also presented an update on enrollment. On the first day of the academic year, 25,983 students were registered for classes. First-to-second year retention improved from 88% to 91%, and the university saw slight increases in the number of new first-generation and low-income students.
In other Faculty Senate news:
● The senate adopted a resolution requesting access to additional information about GW’s buildings and progress on public health and safety enhancements, including a major HVAC optimization project, that are important for many members of the community to feel confident in fully engaging in campus life.
● The senate presented a report aimed at strengthening shared governance at the university through improved transparency and greater communication.
● F. Scott Kieff, GW Law’s Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor of Law, was introduced as a new member of the senate.