Thomas J. LeBlanc spoke about the university’s accomplishments, the COVID-19 pandemic and his favorite “only at GW” moments in an interview with GW Today.
George Washington University President Thomas J. LeBlanc reflected on what the university has achieved under his leadership, his favorite “only at GW” moments and what the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated about the future of higher education as his time at the university comes to a close.
Dr. LeBlanc, the university’s 17th president, will retire at the end of this month. He recently answered questions for GW Today and shared the message he would like to leave with the university community.
Q: What accomplishments achieved during your time at GW bring you the most pride?
A: I think if you look back on this era, everybody's going to look at how universities handled COVID-19. It is the defining event of this era and will have a long-lasting impact. Without calling it my accomplishment, because it’s our university community's accomplishment, I think we have been handling COVID remarkably well. We took advantage of our expertise in public health, medicine and nursing to not only advise and guide us but also to implement testing and distribution of vaccines. We were even involved in trials for the Moderna vaccine.
The GW community rallied together, with the faculty going to virtual instruction overnight and the staff learning to do their jobs and keep our institution moving forward with telecommuting. It's just a remarkable story. If you look around the country at places that—in fits and starts—brought people back, sent people home, I think that overall, we have been making good decisions and implementing them well. The whole community ought to take a bow.
Beyond that, there are several things I think will have a long-lasting positive impact. The Thurston Hall renovation is a major project, and I think it's emblematic of an emphasis and a focus on the student experience. I could list many things that were on the wish list of the Student Association and other student representatives for a long time. We started tackling them one by one, including the request to register for 18 credit hours, concerns around dining or the complexity of the housing plan, or the number of transactions and charges levied by the university, and just a host of other things. The most recent completed wish is the U-Pass initiative.
I hope that we have created a mindset that says the students are really important and their experience is important, and it should be a positive experience. I hope that the organization as a whole will continue to be conscious of how our decisions impact students and how we make decisions in the best interest of students.
There's a third area where there's been a lot of activity, but it hasn't been as visible, and that is in the clinical medical enterprise. It's a very complicated area because it involves other partners, but I think we've made a lot of progress in improving our ability to deliver high-quality medical care and to do teaching and research in medicine. These efforts are represented publicly by, for example, our partnership on the new hospital at St. Elizabeths East and with some of the work we're doing around quality clinical care.
President LeBlanc addresses graduates during commencement on the National Mall. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
Q: What do you think will be the lasting impact of your presidency?
A: The three things I just mentioned have a lasting impact that will be with us for a while, but I also think the structures we put in place and the decision making we developed, hopefully, will serve the university well. We don't know what's coming next, but I think we have great people and decision-making structures in place so we can handle whatever comes our way.
Q: What has been your favorite “only at GW” moment?
A: There are a lot of them, but I would say one that really sticks out is graduation on the National Mall. When we say “only at GW,” I think people who are part of our community understand intrinsically what we're talking about, but it's really exemplified by graduation on the Mall. There's nothing like it. We were able to do the two commencements safely with that great backdrop of the National Mall for the classes of 2020 and 2021 in beautiful weather in early October. I just think that's a remarkable combination of everything that GW is, because it took all of our COVID expertise to even have the commencement on the Mall at that time.
I thought President Macron's visit to campus was a great example as well. The students had a wonderful time interacting with the president of France, whether it was walking down G Street toward the Smith Center and just being stopped and answering questions from students on the way, he did 45 minutes of personal Q & A on his way out of the Smith Center, and then he spent two hours talking to students. We're the only university in the country that had that experience. I could go on and on, but I think those two really do stick out.
Q: What did leading the GW community through the COVID-19 pandemic teach you about the future of higher education?
A: I think higher education responded remarkably well, better than some of our government structures and other institutions. I'm biased because I happen to believe in science, and so I start with the science and then go from there—not everybody does—but I think it's shown how resilient higher education is. We have the faculty who overnight had to change how they teach, and the students had to change how they learn and interact with the faculty. Across that spectrum, I think higher ed did a remarkable job, and our resiliency was critical.
I thought the university played a critical role in helping with the District of Columbia response. Our public health experts were in constant communication with District officials. I thought the mayor and her team did a fabulous job in managing us through COVID. We never reached the point where our hospitals were overrun. The mayor was conservative in her approach with policies like mask mandates and limiting gatherings and all the things that we know can help stop the spread. I think universities were very helpful in that regard, and once again, you can see that we're critical to solving big problems.
The inequitable impact of COVID hit our student body just like it hit the rest of society, whether it's health care or vaccines or just resources to help deal with the family situation associated with COVID. We learned a lot as an institution, and hopefully we'll put those lessons in play going forward. I remain bullish on higher education. It is the future of our country, it's our future generation being trained to think, to be critical about any statements that are made by government officials, to understand what's really going on. Hopefully, people saw the many benefits we brought to the table as a result of COVID and don't link higher education to the political polarization of COVID.
President LeBlanc and Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights, J.D. ’82, celebrate 200 years of GW. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
Q: What message would you like to leave with the GW community as your tenure as president comes to a close?
A: This is a great institution with tremendous potential, and it continues to be one of the great universities in this country. We celebrated our 200th anniversary, and that's a very big deal—a lot of universities never make it to 200. Because of our location, because of our name, because of our history, because of the many areas in which we've developed extraordinary expertise, we have an opportunity here, and I see it in the students that come here. I was just talking to one recently who said, “I knew that whatever I did, if I did it in Washington D.C., it would have a bigger impact.” I think that's really the message for our community.
We're a place of tremendous opportunity, and I hope we will continue to try to grab those opportunities and run with them. The university is worthy of that kind of effort, and just as I'm bullish on higher education, I'm bullish on GW. I'm pretty confident we're going to have a 300th anniversary in another 100 years, and I'm pretty confident we'll do great things between then and now.