George Washington University President Mark S. Wrighton never liked the term “interim.”
He was clear on his mission when he officially took office on Jan. 1, 2022. After serving for nearly 24 years as chancellor and chief executive officer at Washington University in St. Louis and five years before that as provost at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wrighton was charged with steering GW through a transition period—in other words, sustaining a foundation of world-class faculty, staff and students even as the university conducted a search for his successor.
“A new president does not normally say, ‘My job is to prepare for the next president,’” he said in an interview with GW Today. “But that was my assignment, and I embraced the responsibility.”
But while he may have been a temporary president, Wrighton never approached the position as a “caretaker,” he said. Stepping on to a campus that had recently celebrated its 200th anniversary while weathering the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, he committed himself to strengthening the GW community.
During his 18 months in office, he assembled a senior leadership team and spearheaded priorities from enhancing interdisciplinary research to expanding financial aid resources to developing philanthropic partnerships. Along the way, he became a familiar face in Foggy Bottom, whether attending basketball games at the Smith Center and student musicals at the Betts Theatre or walking his dog Spike by University Yard.
As he prepares to preside over Commencement on the National Mall—among his favorite GW traditions—before Ellen Granberg becomes GW’s 19th president on July 1, Wrighton was lauded for his transparent and collaborative leadership style as he surehandedly shepherded the transition.
A Faculty Senate “Resolution of Appreciation” singled out his “extraordinary wisdom, perseverance, transparency, kindness, good humor and leadership.”
And at the Board of Trustees meeting on Friday, the Board cited Wrighton’s “distinguished service and his ongoing dedication and commitment to the university” in another resolution, which named one of the university’s new endowed professorships in the academic medical enterprise the “Mark S. Wrighton Professorship” in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. The Board also named Wrighton president emeritus, effective July 1.
Meanwhile, colleagues praised Wrighton’s experience and vision.
“We have all been the beneficiaries of President Wrighton’s remarkable leadership and ability to bring everyone together under a common purpose,” said Provost Christopher A. Bracey. “He is what legendary excellence in university leadership looks like in action, and he has charted the course as we have embarked upon our third century.”
For his part, Wrighton pointed to retaining and recruiting key leadership as a major accomplishment that will impact the university into its third century. He credited a vibrant community of students, staff and scholars—along with stakeholders like GW alumni and donors—with supporting him while he guided the university’s teaching and research mission, and enthusiastically looked forward to GW’s next steps. “I’m very grateful that I had this opportunity, and I feel that the new president, Ellen Granberg, will be able to do a great job here,” he said. “I see a university with enormous potential… GW has the opportunity to take its place alongside the most outstanding universities in America.”
Inspirations and experiences
From the moment he arrived on campus, Wrighton said he was continually inspired by GW students. “They’re diverse, academically talented, very engaged and aspiring to make a difference in the world,” he said. Indeed, his favorite GW activities often involved student showcases like the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s recent NEXT Festival, where he viewed graduating students’ artwork at the Flagg Building. “I think any college or university would be proud of the creative expressions that were exhibited that night,” he said.
On his long list of only-at-GW moments, Wrighton recalled campus lectures by Anthony Fauci on the COVID pandemic and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on U.S.-China relations. He was particularly struck by this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service where Vice President Kamala Harris joined GW students for volunteer activities at the University Student Center—an “extraordinary” event, he said, that highlighted GW’s distinctive location in “this unique place, Washington, D.C.” While living in the District, Wrighton said he was privileged to enjoy experiences like being invited by the ambassador from Japan to go to the embassy to celebrate the Cherry Blossom Festival and attending a gala dinner at the Swedish embassy for a Nobel Prize-winning chemistry colleague. “Those are moments that only occur right here,” he said.
Perhaps most of all, Wrighton said, he’ll miss his campus walks with Spike. In the mornings, he routinely stopped to chat with staff members on their way to work. In the evenings, he was often approached by students. He recalled a student stopping him to pet Spike along his 20th Street route—and asking if the president wouldn’t mind being interviewed for his School of Media and Public Affairs project. “I did [the interview] right there on the street,” Wrighton said, laughing.
After completing his tenure, Wrighton will return to Washington University and one of his first loves: teaching chemistry classes. “I’m stepping up to the very best job at a university—namely professor.” With family in the area, he expects to be back in D.C. from time to time. “I’ll be prowling around the GW campus and hoping that I see someone who remembers me.”
But first he anticipates a bittersweet Commencement ceremony, one of his last official duties as president, as he watches students graduate on the Mall.
“I was proud to be their president,” he said.