By Ruth Steinhardt and Kristen Mitchell
George Washington President Thomas LeBlanc hosted three frank and wide-ranging community meetings with students, faculty and staff on Thursday and Friday, saying that his early priorities will include improving the undergraduate experience, leveraging GW research and updating the relationships among the School of Medicine, GW Hospital and Medical Faculty Associates.
“I believe we all share an aspiration for this institution: We aspire to preeminence as a comprehensive global research university,” Dr. LeBlanc told an audience at the Jack Morton Auditorium.
After a brief introduction by Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell, B.S. ’85, Dr. LeBlanc opened the meetings by outlining five areas on which he intends to focus in the early years of his presidency.
Improving the undergraduate student experience
“Undergraduates here at GW play a particularly important role,” Dr. LeBlanc said on Thursday. “They represent a key part of our mission, and we need to make sure that they don’t experience the university as a series of offices and silos.” Academic departments and administrative offices, he said, can “make decisions in isolation” that add up to frustration for undergraduate students. Dr. LeBlanc said he has already begun speaking to student constituents to identify commonalities of experience.
The Board of Trustees also has formed a task force on the student experience to look into areas for improvement.
When Dr. LeBlanc arrived on campus, he toured all the residence halls and is working his way through GW’s dining options to understand better what students experience in their day-to-day lives. To do this, administrators need to go where students go, eat what they eat and ask themselves what more could be done.
“We owe our students a first-rate undergraduate experience and want to look collectively at how well we’re doing in that regard,” he said.
Supporting and leveraging GW research
Dr. LeBlanc praised predecessor Steven Knapp’s establishment of the Office of the Vice President for Research, which provided GW with its first formal research structure. In the next few years, he said, he intends to establish metrics of success and to “look very carefully at how well those structures are serving our faculty and serving the research mission of the university.”
Evaluating resource-raising abilities
GW’s successful billion-dollar campaign puts it in company with only about 35 other private universities, Dr. LeBlanc said. And the end of that campaign creates an opportunity to reassess the efficacy of all aspects of GW’s fundraising apparatus, he said, including donor development and alumni relations.
If GW can improve the undergraduate student experience, Dr. LeBlanc said Friday, he believes alumni will be more engaged with the university after they graduate.
Rehabilitating a partnership
Most are not aware that the GW Hospital, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Medical Faculty Associates are three distinct corporate entities that work in close partnership, Dr. LeBlanc said. But partnership, “formed in the ‘90s to solve the problems of the ‘90s,” is not well positioned to deal with the landscape of 21st-century health care, he said. For the good of all three institutions and the university as a whole, Dr. LeBlanc said, the partnership needs to move in “new directions.”
“Our medical school and our faculty practice plan are really struggling,” he said. “They’re struggling financially, and they’re struggling in their ability to achieve the level of preeminence that we would like them to have. That’s something that can’t just wait. It’s going to require immediate attention.”
Reforming GW’s institutional culture
“Universities don’t often talk about institutional culture, but they all have one,” Dr. LeBlanc said. Although new to GW and quick to stress that all his interactions with individuals had been “warm and welcoming,” he said he feared the university culture “has not created processes and operations that reflect the true warmth and welcoming nature of our people.” Overall, Dr. LeBlanc said, he has heard the overall culture described as “risk-averse,” not focused on individual service and “defined by our financial limitations.”
“These are not problems that are unique to GW,” Dr. LeBlanc said, but they are problems that need to be surmounted in order to tackle the coming challenges to higher education. Dr. LeBlanc also said he is determined to install campus-wide banners that will signify campus boundaries and foster a sense of community pride and is looking at how to create more community space in the residence halls. “If we want to have a GW community, we need a sense of place, we need a sense of programing, and we need a sense of community,” he said.
Many questions at the meetings came from students, though faculty and staff also spoke. Common concerns included the DACA repeal and the student resolution to divest university funds from firms that extract fossil fuels.
On DACA, Dr. LeBlanc said, the higher education community is in consensus. Universities and professional education associations have almost unanimously spoken against a repeal and in support of their undocumented students and community members. GW has offered and will continue to offer resources to affected students, including pro bono representation if necessary from GW’s Immigration Law Clinic.
Divestment, Dr. LeBlanc said, is a more complex problem than it might appear. “In general, divestment resolutions are very difficult to implement,” he said. An outside firm handles GW’s investment portfolio and detangling the web of investments from companies that profit—often indirectly—from fossil fuels can be a complex and costly process.
“I always say that I’m happy to listen to students, but I don’t always agree with them,” Dr. LeBlanc said. On this issue, he said, he would need more time and more information to make a definite statement.
On a lighter note, one questioner asked how Dr. LeBlanc pronounces his last name. To the surprise of some audience members, it is with a nearly silent final letter: not “LeBlanck,” but something closer to “LeBlanh,” a remnant of the family’s Quebecois French origins.
Dr. LeBlanc said the name was common where he grew up. His father has 96 first cousins, all LeBlancs with the soft-c pronunciation. “It’s a very productive family tree,” he said. “Where I come from, everybody knew how to pronounce it, so it never occurred to me that people might not know.”
On Friday, a sophomore double majoring in computer science and political science asked Dr. LeBlanc what he is doing to encourage students to explore various academic disciplines that don’t necessarily overlap.
Dr. LeBlanc said he wants to make it easier for students to complete double major study programs by eliminating unnecessary barriers that require an exorbitant number of credit hours and challenging guidelines.
“I believe that a lot of students come to college today with very broad intellectual interests, and we’re seeing that more and more students are not pigeonholed in a traditional discipline,” he said. “There are some really interesting career opportunities and really interesting intellectual opportunities in bringing together things that are not just interdisciplinary but far ends of the spectrum.”
Following the Friday Q & A session, which was streamed live on Facebook, Dr. LeBlanc was surprised on stage by mascot George and several cheerleaders, who presented Dr. LeBlanc with a cake for his birthday.
The president will hold additional town halls on the Mount Vernon Campus at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 5 and on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus on Wednesday, Oct. 11.