From Physicist to Administrator

Set to retire at the end of 2010, Donald R. Lehman reflects on how GW has changed since he arrived 45 years ago.

Don Lehman in Kogan Plaza with tempietto behind him
June 25, 2010

By Menachem Wecker

When Donald R. Lehman, Ph.D. ’70, came to GW in 1965 as a part-time doctoral student, the Marvin Center did not exist, the library was divided between Lisner Hall and Stuart Hall, the Academic Center was a parking lot, a row of townhouses stood where Gelman Library is now located and Funger Hall was named Building C.

“I cannot exaggerate what a transformation there has been,” says Dr. Lehman, who will step down at the end of the month as executive vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer. “You couldn’t quite tell then where the campus was and where it wasn’t. Now it’s a campus.”

In an interview in his office, surrounded by boxes but still proudly displaying his photographs and travel mementos, Dr. Lehman, who is also George Gamow Professor of Theoretical Physics, discussed the major changes he has witnessed at GW.

When he started teaching at GW, Dr. Lehman says the students were “very high quality,” but as the university undergraduate population more than doubled during his tenure, he noticed a “bimodal” phenomenon of top students and marginal ones. In the mid- to late-’80s and early ’90s, GW recruited better and better undergraduates, and today, Dr. Lehman says, recent classes have scored higher than ever on SAT tests.  

The faculty too has grown and improved, according to Dr. Lehman. About two decades ago, GW received $37 million in external funds for research. Today, that number has more than quadrupled to $170 million. “We continually hire faculty better than ourselves, and that’s not easy to do,” he says.

After stepping down from his senior staff position, Dr. Lehman is looking forward to spending the rest of the summer with his wife in Maine sailing, hiking, kayaking and taking photos. Elyse Brauch Lehman, M.A. ’67, Ph.D. ’70, professor emeritus of psychology at George Mason University, retired in 2007. “She’s been urging me to retire ever since,” Dr. Lehman says.

After Labor Day, Dr. Lehman will return to GW to serve as a special advisor to President Steven Knapp, with a focus on gaining approval for construction of the science and engineering complex. He plans to retire on Dec. 31, 2010. His retirement plans include catching up on physics reading so that he can return to his research.

Asked to reflect on his years at GW, Dr. Lehman reiterated several times how privileged he feels. “You don’t dream about these sorts of things,” he says of working in the central GW administration, which has helped him make friends across the university. “When you are in a department, your world is pretty small,” he explains.

Dr. Lehman, who has taught thousands of students, says professors can greatly impact their students’ lives in a way that sometimes can only be realized 25 years later. “You only start to think about it when one of the members of the Board of Trustees comes up to you and says, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but you taught me in engineering physics,’” he says of Nelson Carbonell Jr., B.S. ’85, vice chair of the board, whom he taught in the early ’80s. “Nelson can tell you some pretty funny stories about me.”

As a program officer responsible for high-energy particle physics in the U.S. Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research in the ’60s, Dr. Lehman decided to pursue a doctorate at GW, because it allowed him to be a part-time Ph.D. student. He was already writing his dissertation when he completed his military service, and he worked as a graduate teaching assistant at GW and then as an instructor. After completing his degree, he took a position at the Bureau of Standards – now the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Then, in 1972, GW offered Dr. Lehman a position as an assistant professor of physics. Including his year and a half as an instructor, he will complete 40 years on the faculty at GW when he retires.

One of the most striking differences between research and administrative work, Dr. Lehman says, is that administrators often receive more immediate and far-ranging feedback. Particularly in the field of physics, it is very difficult to create original work, so a single problem can take years to solve. Once a paper is published, the author is thrilled if 20 colleagues read it and use it to advance knowledge in the field.

In the administration, though, everyday actions seem to have a potential for a wider reach. “Maybe you don’t have greater impact,” Dr. Lehman says, “but it certainly seems that you do.”

Dr. Lehman is the first to admit that serving in university administration occasionally has negative connotations for faculty. He notes with a smile that colleagues have sometimes asked him, “Why did you ever go to the dark side?”

“One of our deficiencies at universities is we don’t help create career paths for those people who want to pursue administrative careers,” he says. “You have to be as smart as you do in scholarship. It’s just that the problems are different.”

Although Dr. Lehman often hears external criticism that universities never change, he says universities are constantly experimenting and in motion. Whereas it is rare to see corporations that have been around for centuries, many universities are celebrating their 400th or 500th birthdays, he says.

But higher education certainly faces challenges. One “serious problem” is tenure. As people are healthier and live longer, tenured faculty members are teaching well into their 70s and beyond. “I have nothing against tenure,” Dr. Lehman says. “In fact, I think it’s very important, especially in the early career of most faculty.”

But lifetime tenure makes little sense, Dr. Lehman says. If professors continue to teach for longer and longer, they block the new crop of professors from joining the university community. “In order to have a viable and vital organization, you have to continue to have this turnover,” he says. Although he admits it might be a “hope in vain,” Dr. Lehman dreams about fixed length for tenure (perhaps 35 years, and then annual or biannual contracts).

Further, it is critical for people to realize that universities are very different from corporations. Whereas corporations are simply concerned with the bottom line, universities, though they too must worry about the bottom line, have unique missions.

“We don’t make widgets. We educate people, and we create new knowledge. That’s a very special mission,” Dr. Lehman says. “It’s probably the most critical driver to maintaining the financial and economic well-being of the United States.”

The United States has the “best tertiary education system in the world,” and other countries are constantly trying to mimic or import U.S. systems, Dr. Lehman says. To maintain that momentum, it is important to prevent politicians and governmental agencies from placing “undue pressures” on universities.

So is Dr. Lehman worried about what lurks on the horizon for higher education?

“I’m eternally optimistic about universities,” he says, “because they are the lifeblood of this economy, this society and what it means to be free – the whole nine yards. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, and in the end, universities prevail.”

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