GW President Thomas LeBlanc spoke with students about his path from computer science student to university leader.
By Kristen Mitchell
After several years as department chair at the University of Rochester, Thomas LeBlanc decided it was time to take a step back from the leadership role and explore what other opportunities might exist for him in the field of computer science. When he was asked to serve as an interim dean, however, he rose to the challenge.
That role led him on an unexpected path to becoming George Washington University’s 17th president. He turned down a dream job with the National Science Foundation and instead channeled his energy into the administrative mission. He was soon named permanent dean at Rochester and later, executive vice president and provost at the University of Miami.
Dr. LeBlanc saw the interim position as an experiment in academic administration—a chance to find out if it was a good fit with few long-term implications. Looking back, taking the role was the biggest risk of his career.
“I call myself an accidental president,” he said.
Dr. LeBlanc spoke about his journey from computer science student to university president with members of GW’s Association for Computing Machinery student chapter, a national professional organization for computer scientists, at Science and Engineering Hall Wednesday afternoon.
Dr. LeBlanc was part of the first large wave of undergraduate students majoring in computer science, he said. Before he started college, the field was mostly concentrated with masters and doctoral students. As an undergraduate, he got a part-time job in the university computer center after realizing this came with the perk of more access to the mainframe and thus increased opportunities to tweak his programs.
Dr. LeBlanc encouraged students to seek out ways to build on the skills they are learning in the classroom through internships and other experiences. Budding computer scientists should seize any opportunities that come their way.
While many of the top leaders in higher education have a background in law, expertise in computer science has become a more common trait among top university presidents over the past decade. Dr. LeBlanc said he still regularly uses the skills he has acquired through computer science.
“A computer science background is really helpful when you’re going to run a large, complicated organization,” he said. “They are skills that allow me to analyze the complexity of the university and solve big problems.”
Dr. LeBlanc said he views his career—from being a graduate student managing his peers while the program director was on maternity leave to being provost—as training for the role of president. Everything he’s learned about management, communication and being an administrator have led him to be successful today. Just like in computer science, Dr. LeBlanc emphasizes transparency and avoids ambiguous language.
Dr. LeBlanc must manage the needs of the entire university as president, but he is still looking for ways to stay involved in computer science at GW. He worked with faculty at the University of Miami to create one of the top university centers for computational science. So far, Dr. LeBlanc has been impressed by the interdisciplinary potential around big data at GW.
“I’ve been talking to the department and to the dean, trying to figure out ways I can stay connected while still doing the job they hired me for,” he said.
Dr. LeBlanc said he is willing to do whatever he can to help the department, but will continue to rely on the dean and department chair for their vision.