By Kurtis Hiatt and Ruth Steinhardt
Since its founding, the George Washington University has worked to honor the vision of its namesake, sometimes struggling early on to simply keep its doors open.
Nearly 200 years later, GW stands proudly among the nation’s oldest and most enduring institutions of higher education, President Thomas LeBlanc said Monday in his inaugural address, and now the university seeks something “far bigger” than survival—or even just a place among the best.
“We will fulfill George Washington’s 18th-century vision for a national university and renew it for the 21st century,” Dr. LeBlanc told a packed Smith Center of students, faculty and staff. “We must be out front, leading—taking risks, making investments, choosing the harder path. It is the difference between membership and leadership. At GW, we will have a clear purpose: We will choose to lead.”
But how, and in what areas specifically?
Dr. LeBlanc had some ideas—living up to the description of him given in introductory remarks by University of Miami President Emerita Donna Shalala, his former boss, as “hands down…simply the best strategic leader in higher education today.”
The university will choose to lead, Dr. LeBlanc said, in scholarship as a comprehensive and global institution that strives for excellence and preeminence in everything it does.
Being grounded in scholarship means supporting all disciplines in the pursuit of not only imparting knowledge but also creating it, shaping the learning that happens here.
Comprehensiveness means offering a full range of excellent programs, from the arts and humanities to the sciences, social sciences, business, law, public policy, engineering, medicine and health.
Global means engaging the world and bringing faculty and students who come from “everywhere” and go on to study or take what they have learned at GW “anywhere.”
And preeminence means being the best—attracting faculty and students who excel in their fields or their class—but it also means being diverse, because “the advancement of knowledge requires the challenges that difference brings.”
“No matter where you were born, the color of your skin, which language you spoke as a child, how you live, who you love, how you vote, or how you pray—you are welcome to make your mark here at GW,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “We ask only one thing in return: You strive for greatness and to bring distinction to this wonderful university.”
Each aspiration will require choices to fulfill them, Dr. LeBlanc said—and they won’t always be easy.
“We can do anything we choose. But we can’t do everything we choose,” he said. “And so let us choose boldly but also choose wisely.”
Those choices will continue to make what Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell described as a truly one-of-a-kind place, which educates students who study the world then work to make it better.
“I could not be prouder of where GW is today,” Mr. Carbonell said. “And I could not be more excited about where we will be tomorrow.”
The speeches by Dr. LeBlanc, Mr. Carbonell, Dr. Shalala and others came during the ceremony installing Dr. LeBlanc as GW’s 17th president. Attendees included former GW Presidents Steven Knapp and Stephen Trachtenberg, as well as family members of former President Lloyd Elliott. Members of Dr. LeBlanc’s family—including his wife, Anne, and mother—also attended, as did representatives from more than 100 colleges and universities.
Members of Dr. LeBlanc's family look on at his official inaugural ceremony on Monday. (William Atkins/GW Today)
Many attendees donned regalia and marched as part of an academic procession to open and close the ceremony. In keeping with tradition, Mr. Carbonell delivered the charge to the president and conferred upon him the president’s medallion, the official symbol of his GW presidency.
“I charge you to take your keen understanding of history, your great appreciation for the academic vocation, your knowledge of the world, your sense of humor, your love of learning and your personal integrity and combine them all for the benefit of this honorable, now nearly 200-year-old university,” he said.
The ceremony on Monday morning was one of several inaugural activities in recognition of the university’s 17th president (more are scheduled for Tuesday, too). They included a Monday afternoon celebration with Dr. LeBlanc at Science and Engineering Hall, where music echoed through the building’s eight floors as students, staff and faculty ate, mingled and celebrated the new president’s installation.
On display were letters of congratulation from universities around the world, open laboratories, student performances and historical artifacts, including a Bible owned by George Washington and a page from his will.
Students said they were excited about the opportunities a new president represents.
“Somebody coming in from the outside can maybe see what people at GW may not recognize, because we’re just so used to it,” said sophomore Elizabeth Georgakopoulos. She said she hoped the new president would be “able to foster more community, more development and to push GW in a good direction.”
Jackie Veatch, a junior in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, came to the Science and Engineering Hall in uniform with her fellow cheerleaders to accompany the university mascot, George, and raise school spirit. “It’s always cool to have fresh ideas, so that’s exciting,” she said of Dr. LeBlanc’s inauguration. “And it’s a good time for the university to reflect and see how far we’ve come.”
Added freshman Abigail Harrison: “He’s super friendly. He sat in the student section at our basketball home opener the other night, which was super cool.”
Sophomore Jan Nowak, six floors away and not a cheerleader, brought up the same event unprompted. “You can tell he’s making an effort to listen to students and be aware of what students are looking for from the school and supporting us, even just by going to the basketball game and sitting in the middle of everyone,” Mr. Nowak said. “I think that’s cool. I like that a lot.”
Dr. LeBlanc’s morning remarks were the keynote to the academic ceremony. A sense of pride in and respect for the university’s heritage and mission and what that means for society today permeated his speech.
He noted the importance President Washington placed on educating American leaders not in Europe but here, so that they would lead and advance the cause of what was the young American republic.
He remarked on the forethought of the university’s founders to prepare students for the world they saw emerging, where science, medicine and the law would dominate, and where democratic values, equality and freedom would shape life.
He spoke in awe of the dedication and contributions of the presidents, students, faculty, staff and alumni who over many years helped GW continue on a path to quality and excellence—which requires a “persistent, gradual process.”
And he emphasized the current place for a university that has long dealt in knowledge, facts and the open exchange of opinions.
“I’m not the only person on this campus who gets frustrated in a fact-free environment. However, you can’t test facts—you can’t evaluate ideas—unless you hear them first,” he said. “That’s why this university must always stand firmly for free speech and open inquiry. Without free speech, and the open and unfettered exchange of ideas, there can be no knowledge, no scholarship, no teaching—and no universities.”
There is no such thing as a final answer or unthinkable thought, Dr. LeBlanc continued.
“That should always be true here. Open, critical inquiry, vigorous discussion and assessment of divergent ideas must, and will, define how we learn, how we teach, how we discover and how we create,” he said. “Without constraint, without compromise and without apology.”
Ultimately, GW has and will continue to depend on people choosing to make an education, career and life at the university—and it should be their best option.
“If we build on this campus a model of how to pursue scholarship with focus, learn with wonder and debate with respect, we can affect the culture not only in this capital city but in this nation and beyond,” he said. “We can do this. But we all have to be committed. We all must choose to lead.”
“The world,” Dr. LeBlanc later said, “has not yet seen everything we can do and everything we can become.”
Members of the university community—representing students, faculty, alumni and staff—also delivered welcome greetings on behalf of their respective groups, including Peak Sen Chua, president of the Student Association; Sylvia Marotta-Walters, professor and chair of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee; Venessa Perry, M.P.H. ’99, president of the GW Alumni Association; and Barbra Giorgini, executive director of GW Libraries.
Read Dr. LeBlanc's full speech.
Watch the full video of the ceremony.