University Community Provides Feedback in Presidential Search Town Halls

Board of Trustees hosts 11 town halls to hear from students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Presidential search town halls
Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell talks with attendees who provided feedback on the qualities they hope to see in the next GW president. The board hosted 11 town halls this week for the GW community. (William Atkins/GW Today)
September 15, 2016

Hundreds of GW community members brought their wish lists for the next university president to 11 town halls this week, emphasizing a transformational leader who embodies GW’s academic mission and values, enhances the student experience, leverages the university’s location and strengths, and can work through budget obstacles and identify new ways of bringing resources to the university—all while supporting the varied needs of students, alumni, faculty and staff.

The feedback from the town halls, hosted by the Board of Trustees, will be used to create the desired profile of the next president. The profile—which will be approved by the board and shared with the community—will guide the Presidential Search Committee in identifying a diverse group from which to recommend candidates to the board. The board is charged with electing the president.

“We’re using these town halls to help us with the first step, which is drafting that description of the qualities that we’re looking for in the individual, what we expect them to do, what the opportunities and challenges are going to be for them,” Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell said in opening remarks during one of the staff town halls.

GW community members who were unable to attend a session or want to give recommendations to the board can submit feedback at any time during the search process on the presidential search site.

The Board of Trustees will host additional town halls over the fall, including sessions for Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon community members as well as additional sessions for alumni, including one next month in New York City. The board also is attending faculty meetings in each school or college as well as meeting with local business and community leaders and elected officials.

Over the last three days of town halls, some common themes emerged.

GW’s next president should be a visionary thought leader, a strategic thinker who understands and anticipates changes in higher education, and is nimble in leading a university through those changes. He or she should be able to manage competing priorities and navigate a large, complex organization where all stakeholders get time on the schedule. And an open-minded, people person who meets staff, faculty, students and alumni where they are is also important, many said.

A steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion is a must as well. While programs and initiatives to support diversity and inclusion are important, some said these values should be woven into the fabric of the institution.

Mr. Carbonell told attendees this is a priority for the search committee and the board, too.

“The ‘why’ for diversity for us is really simple: It’s the world that we live in and if we want to be the best at what we do, we have to have an environment that supports everyone. And it starts with the president but it goes down to the faculty, staff, students, everybody,” Mr. Carbonell told a group of students during one of the town halls. “That's something that we hold as a core value.”

Looking at academics, many said the next GW president will need to be able to lead a comprehensive university with many strong undergraduate and graduate programs and a growing research portfolio. Some said they believe the next GW president has opportunities, particularly given the university’s location, to further position the university as a leader in public policy, as well as expand its footprint internationally and in online education.

Exploring how the university can make an impact when it comes to social justice and service also emerged as a theme. Some said GW should enhance local and regional partnerships that support communities. And with the state of inequality in the country, some said GW’s next president must be willing to ask what more the institution can do to “level the playing field.”

Expanding the university’s access and success initiatives would be crucial for the president, and he or she will need to, for example, look at the student experience, many said. What more could the university do to support students, beginning with their first day on campus? Some mentioned ensuring the institution supports students financially; academically; and in terms of extracurricular activities, such as student organizations and athletics, and personal and professional development. That will help lead to a more engaged network of alumni, some said.

A new president will not only need to be be adept at working through budget challenges but also be creative about ways to bring resources to GW, some attendees said.

Mr. Carbonell agreed, saying the president will need to be “innovative” in getting the resources GW needs to continue to be a top institution.

“We discussed a lot that higher education has historically relied on three resources: tuition, sponsored research and philanthropy. If those are the only three that we are going to rely on going forward, they are going to be insufficient,” he said. “We need somebody who is innovative around getting resources to the institution.”

The board launched the presidential search process in late June after President Steven Knapp announced he would not seek to renew his contract as president when it expires in summer 2017. During the town halls, many said the new president would have the opportunity to build on Dr. Knapp’s accomplishments, particularly around sustainability, diversity and inclusion and research investment and growth.

Trustee Madeleine Jacobs, B.S. ’68, D.Sc. (Honorary) ’03, serves as chair of the Presidential Search Committee, made up of trustees, faculty members, alumni and a student and staff member. National executive search firm Isaacson, Miller is assisting in the search.

The board is expected to make its selection in spring 2017 with input from the search committee; Faculty Senate Executive Committee; and a Faculty Consultative Committee, which was elected, in part, last week by the Faculty Assembly. Additional members will be named later this month.