University Update with President Thomas LeBlanc

September 16, 2019

Hello and welcome!

I am delighted to see that so many of you are here today, especially given the heat outside. I understand we also have members of our community joining via live stream, so welcome to the virtual community as well.

We are just a few weeks into a new academic year. It’s a demanding time for us all, and it also is a time when we each bring fresh energy, new ideas and perspectives, and it’s a chance to start to work together again in this academic year. So the first thing I want to do is thank you—not only for what you do for GW but also for being an active participant in our future today.

We are at an historic moment in the life of this institution—full of potential and possibilities, change and challenges.

Today we officially launch our formal strategic planning process, which will guide GW’s direction over the next five years—leading us toward our bicentennial celebration in 2021 and shaping the institution we present to the world at the threshold of our third century.

This discussion kicks off our planning process by gathering our community for three things. First, to summarize where we are today; Second, to outline what we need to do together this year; And third, of course, to take your questions.

The first important understanding at the center of our planning—the thing that allows us to have this conversation about our future today—is this:

GW has a very strong foundation.  Thanks to the contributions of the many people who came before us—the faculty, the students, the staff, administration and alumni—and thanks as well to the work you all do on a daily basis, we have a strong foundation on which to build toward our aspirations.

We have been adding to that strong foundation these past few years with continued improvements. There are too many to mention, so in the interest of time, I will offer a few examples.

First, we are making our campuses better places for living, learning and working.

I hope you have noticed some of the changes around campus. We dedicated, with the support of the Board of Trustees, an additional $10 million this past summer to campus improvements in the belief that our facilities should reflect the caliber of our students, faculty and staff. This investment is just the first step in a thorough process to continually assess and improve campus infrastructure.

Second, we are laser-focused on improving the student experience.

When students returned to campus this semester, they discovered a new Student Services Hub that brings together the offices managing financial assistance, registration and military student support into one customer-facing place in the Marvin Center. That place transforms into a study space at night.

They are seeing new common spaces to study and create community. They are experiencing fewer financial transactions in their day-to-day lives on campus because we answered their call to reduce or eliminate charges for laundry, printing and venue rentals.  

We made it possible for students to take 18 credit hours in a semester, or six courses.  The brand-new Bachelor of Science degree offering in the Elliott School will now allow more students to do a second major in a STEM discipline. Again, responding to a specific request from students in the Elliott School. 

The course Python for All will allow every student the opportunity to learn critical programming skills no matter what major they are pursuing. Again, this was a direct response to requests from students.

And perhaps most visibly, we will change the defining characteristic of the freshman experience with the planned renovation of Thurston Hall beginning next summer, opening no later than fall of 2022.

Third, our faculty are leading new areas for research and discovery.

A couple months ago GW became home to one of five new institutes in the country to receive support from the Knight Foundation to examine technology’s impact on democracy. Under the leadership of Steve Livingstone and Frank Sesno, we received a $5 million grant to establish our Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics.

We did not earn this investment in a vigorous national competition solely on the basis of our strengths in policy, journalism or data analytics. We were selected because of our strengths in each of these fields and because our faculty are working together across disciplines to address seemingly intractable but critically important problems, like digital disinformation, election attacks and ongoing threats to our political discourse.

Fourth, we are building a stronger GW community on our campuses.

Faculty and staff have spent considerable time in the past year discussing the culture on our campuses and ways to strengthen it. We developed our common purpose and values to guide us as an institution. And now we will work to build a stronger culture, improve the ways we work together and ensure we are putting our institutional values into practice individually and collectively.

And last but not least, we are building a stronger GW community beyond our campuses.

All of this exciting progress is energizing our alumni families, friends, and donors. We are working hard to create new ways to engage our broader community, to welcome them back to our campuses, and involve them in charting our path forward as an institution. We will continue to grow and strengthen connections with all of the communities that are crucial to our success.

So let me reiterate:  Our foundation is strong. GW, unlike some other institutions in higher education, is not experiencing a crisis. We are in a good place, and that allows us to think strategically about our future.

In some ways, our strong foundation makes it harder to act and to plan our future. People act in crises because they have to. They make difficult decisions because they have to.

We have an opportunity to act on our terms and on our timetable to plan carefully for the future without dealing with a crisis at the same time.

And we have an opportunity to see ahead to the institution we want to become, to anticipate our role in the ever-evolving world around us. Rather than be content with being strong, we are reaching for something greater.  We are poised to take proactive and bold action.

I want to challenge our community to see beyond the status quo. Together, let us look at our strengths and opportunities unbounded by the here and now. Let us imagine how we can become the university the future demands and to which we all aspire.

We have a choice as we enter our third century. Over the past two years, I have heard loud and clear the need for us to reach higher and be better.  In our conversations, the community has made clear that we aspire to preeminence as a comprehensive global research university.  That’s a lofty goal.  But for GW, it is a worthy goal.

So what does that look like? That is what we must now determine.

We have developed a framework for planning our future, but we need to design the specifics together.

That means we need you to be involved. My number one goal is for you to walk away from this gathering today feeling inspired and ready to engage as the strategic planning process unfolds.

First, let me summarize how we got here.

During my first year here at GW, I listened to you and together we developed a shared aspiration.

We came together in town halls and in many meetings with faculty, staff, students, alumni and trustees. And I can sum up in three words the feedback I have heard from faculty, students, staff and the Board of Trustees: “Better, not bigger.”

During our meetings I would also ask, does this accurately reflect your view of GW: "GW aspires to preeminence as a comprehensive global research university."

The resounding response in every single gathering was yes.

I want to break down this statement of aspiration into its component parts.

First: Preeminence. This community really wants excellence to be our goal. Many of you pointed to areas where you felt we could improve. And many of you pointed with pride to areas where we have incredible strengths already. Many of you pointed out other areas that if we aren’t aiming for preeminence, why are we bothering?

Comprehensive is our belief that knowledge is built on the strength of many disciplines. That discovery happens in the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and in the Science and Engineering Hall. And that a GW education offers an experience that embraces a broad understanding of the world.

Global is the impact, the reach, of what we do here. It is the view our students have when they graduate. It is the horizon of so many of our faculty and alumni. And it is the power of the capital that we call home.

And finally, Research has always been and will continue to be core to our mission as a university. It is through research that we generate new knowledge, new solutions for the world. We have been and we will continue to be a research university.

So there it is, our aspirational statement: GW aspires to preeminence as a comprehensive global research university.

Moving on to this past year, my second year here, we did a lot of work to understand the university’s resources. Any realistic plan must be grounded in that reality, so along with articulating our shared aspiration, I’m responsible for finding and aligning the resources to help us get us there.

Thankfully, we have a healthy endowment with strategic investments in real estate and other areas. We have an annual operating budget of more than $1.4 billion.  We raise more than $100 million in philanthropy each year. We have resources! However, over the years we have allocated those resources in ways that result in too little discretion. Too little is a euphemism for none. Without discretion, there can be no aspiration.

We need to be able to deploy our resources where they will make a difference.

We need to be responsive to the needs of our community—from the $10 million of additional funding we received for our campus facilities this summer to funding for faculty research to student services like laundry and printing.

And we need to be able to make significant investments in our future.

So what are those specific needs, and what are our wants?

I asked some big questions, thought experiments, to get everyone in the community thinking about these issues.

For example: Our Foggy Bottom campus, in the heart of D.C., is incredibly valuable. Knowing the value of our location, how do we maximize the potential of being right here, to get the most out of this precious resource?

Another question I posed was: What should we do if we were so lucky as to receive a $1 billion unrestricted gift? Now, that’s not currently on the horizon, but in the meantime, the thought exercise forces us to think carefully about what we want to be and what our next investment should do.

I also asked: With a compact, urban campus and in the face of a headcount and residency requirements, what is the ideal size of the faculty and student populations?

And where should we invest in our academic and research missions to have the most impact?

From all of those discussions we developed a basic framework to support our planning process.

There are two ways to approach a planning process. We could begin with a blank piece of paper and invite any and all ideas, or we could begin with an initial framework and a couple of strategic directions. In consultation with the academic leadership and the Board of Trustees, we chose to start with an initial framework that we based on what I have heard from you during the past two years.  

The framework, which you can see on the screen, starts with our aspirational statement, what are we building toward: preeminence as a comprehensive global research university.

It includes the context for our work, which is our university mission statement:

The mission of the George Washington University is to educate individuals in the liberal arts, languages, sciences, learned professions, and other courses and subjects of study, and to conduct scholarly research and publish the findings of such research.

The framework also includes the foundation of our work:

  • Our values that were developed through the culture initiative: integrity, collaboration, courage, respect, excellence, diversity and openness.
  • It includes the understanding that all planning must take place in the context of responsible stewardship of our resources. We will not take our endowment and go to a casino and bet on red, ten consecutive turns, in the hope of garnering the resources that will allow us to achieve our aspirations tomorrow. That would not be a responsible approach, and it’s not the approach we will take.
  • We will also base our plan on our physical and technological infrastructure on all three campuses.
  • And of course our continued progress on each of our five strategic initiatives that were launched early upon my arrival, that are the beginning point for everything we need to do to achieve our aspirations: the initiatives on the student experience, the research ecosystem, philanthropy and constituent engagement, the clinical medical enterprise and our institutional culture.

Now in the center of this framework are four pillars:

  • World-Class Faculty
  • High-Quality Undergraduate Education
  • Distinguished and Distinctive Graduate Education
  • And High-Impact Research

These areas are the components of every preeminent university, and these are where we must focus our efforts moving forward.

So that’s the framework. It is now up to us, across our schools and various units, to create a strategic plan to drive distinction and excellence in each of these areas in pursuit of our aspiration for preeminence.

We don’t yet know exactly what that plan will look like and that is the work we will do together this year. But to reach our shared aspiration for preeminence, we must focus all of our efforts on quality.

With that in mind, there are two specific elements to this plan that are critical to moving the university toward preeminence.

The first is gradually right-sizing the on-campus undergraduate student population. This is essential to support the high-quality experience our students expect and deserve.

During the past five years, we have grown our on-campus undergraduate student body significantly, stretching our facilities, services, faculty and staff to accommodate that growth. Now, we need to right-size the on-campus undergraduate student population by reducing it by 20 percent over five years. 

And the second objective is to increase our commitment to STEM, specifically by increasing the number of undergraduate students who complete a STEM major from 19 percent to 30 percent.

We continue to see the power of innovation and technology to revolutionize the way we live our lives and how we do our work.

Consider this: In 2011 the Washington Post employed 4 engineers.  In 2019, the Washington Post employs 300 engineers. Reporters power the Post, but engineers help them get their stories to readers, listeners and viewers around the world.

The world is changing, and STEM is an accelerator. We should all want every student at this university to have access to the skills necessary for the quantitative analysis of data using technology. These skills are transforming every discipline and even the nature of work. Regardless of students’ field or industry, their success in our modern world requires this knowledge.

This can be achieved in many different ways. It will include first and second majors, for example. It will be up to the planning process to recommend how best to achieve this goal.

Now, I want to emphasize that our STEM aspiration is an “and” not “or” effort.

GW is known around the world for exceptional strengths in political science, journalism, law, public policy and many other areas. I have no intention of undermining what has defined this university for generations. In fact, just the opposite.

We need to enhance our strengths in those areas. We must bring together expertise across an array of disciplines to compound the influence of our traditional strengths. Our new Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics is a prime example, with its team of researchers spanning political communication, journalism, physics, international affairs, computer science and engineering.

Let me be clear: in right-sizing the undergraduate population and increasing our focus on STEM, we have defined but two goals for our future.  That does not mean that we have defined precisely how these goals will be achieved, or limited the plan to these two goals. We have a lot to figure out together about how we want to achieve preeminence and what specific actions we must take.

And that brings me to this year. Now is the time to chart our path to preeminence.

Now is the time to be intentional and purposeful. Achieving our aspirations will not happen without deliberate action. We have the chance to think big and be bold. But we must choose to lead.

Today I am announcing the formation of four university committees—one for each pillar of our plan.

Each committee will include faculty, staff and students and will be charged with three main tasks:

  1. Gathering input from our community
  2. Assessing the current state of that area of our work, examining best practices
  3. Proposing recommendations to achieve preeminence and identifying challenges to doing so

I am delighted to announce that we have chairs and vice chairs for each committee:

  • World-Class Faculty:
    • Chair: Scott Kieff (Law School)
    • Vice Chair: Nancy Gaba (SMHS)
  • High-Quality Undergraduate Education:
    • Chair: Gayle Wald (CCAS, American Studies)
    • Vice Chair: Jason Zara (SEAS)
  • Distinguished and Distinctive Graduate Education:
    • Chair: Carol Sigelman (CCAS, Psychology)
    • Vice Chair: Liesl Riddle (GWSB)
  • High-Impact Research:
    • Chair: Alan Greenberg (Milken Institute SPH, Epidemiology)
    • Vice Chair: Diana Burley (GSEHD)

We are in the process and will continue to work to recruit the faculty, staff, and students to serve on these committees, and the full makeup of the committees will be posted on the strategic planning website at in a few days.

As I mentioned, the committees are charged with gathering community input. To solicit feedback from the university community, the committees will offer multiple avenues for engagement, including town halls and other meetings as determined by the committee. More on this soon.

Ultimately, the committee work will directly feed into the Board Strategic Planning Task Force, and each of the faculty members leading a committee will join this task force. Committees also will provide regular updates to the community throughout the year, which will be shared with the Board of Trustees at meetings in October, December, February and May.
This work will be an important focus this year. I hope by February to have draft recommendations from committees so we can discuss with the board and align our budget planning for next year with our plan’s goals. We will finalize the plan and seek board approval in May 2020.

Now, this is my request to all of you: We need your ideas and input. Our future starts with you.

We need your active engagement. Take advantage of opportunities to get involved. If you are interested in engaging in the work of a committee or want to submit ideas now, please use the feedback form on the strategic plan website at This site will be updated as more information about the planning process becomes available.

I urge you to share your feedback on the site now, and share it often. Share it every time you have an idea. Tell us what we have to do. Tell us what you think is the absolute worst thing we could do and tell us why.

This will be a rigorous community discussion. We aren’t all going to agree on everything, and I welcome a robust debate about our choices. We are going to have to make some tough choices; the status quo is not an option.

The George Washington University is at the threshold of its bicentennial. 2021 is right around the corner. We face a moment of choice, and we must choose to lead.

This is an historic time for our university. We have an incredible opportunity to shape our university as it enters its next century. We may never have another opportunity quite like this to have this amount of impact on our institution in this way.

Let’s come together to chart a path to preeminence.