Concerns have festered throughout the president’s tenure. He faced blowback in 2019 after unveiling a now-defunct plan to shrink the student body and grow the share of majors in science, technology, engineering and math — a dramatic measure that professors said would decrease diversity.
Last year, more than 120 faculty members called for LeBlanc’s resignation after he made racially insensitive remarks in response to a question about divestment, for which he later apologized. Tensions reached a peak that summer after GWU hired a marketing executive from Michigan State University who state prosecutors say was part of an effort to stonewall an investigation into disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar. Employees also have voiced concern about slumps in fundraising and recent drops in national rankings.
Now, following a tumultuous year for all of higher education and as GWU prepares to celebrate its bicentennial, faculty are unsure about the university’s future.
With LeBlanc’s first four years in office under review — a standard process required by the trustees — some professors hope the survey will convince the university’s governing body to take the school in a new direction.
“I don’t see a bright future for the university under the present leadership,” Bernard Wood, a professor of human origins, said in a recent interview. “I used to be proud of GW, and I used to enjoy saying I worked at GW. Now, I’m less so.”
Grace Speights, chair of the school’s board of trustees, declined to comment on the results of the survey but said it was shared with the consultant who will assist in LeBlanc’s assessment.
LeBlanc, through a university spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed for this story. He has not publicly addressed the survey, which was sent to 1,781 full-time faculty in December.
About 1,200 faculty participated in the anonymous survey. Their responses revealed a culture in which professors are blindsided by major decisions. About 61 percent of professors who answered a question about the president’s decision-making said LeBlanc is not transparent about his actions. More than half said the president does not work to promote a culture of trust.
More than one-third of professors who weighed in on the university’s mission said the school is missing a clear vision for the future.
Faculty responded positively to questions about the president’s handling of the pandemic, with two-thirds saying they received the support they needed to teach virtual classes. Seventy-seven percent of professors said the school’s leaders have prioritized health and safety throughout the public health crisis.
More than 700 professors who provided about 4,000 written responses also responded to issues including finances and the pandemic.
“The president has some vision and structure in the covid-19 crisis, but it seems to be mostly about the finances and corporatization of the university rather than about the academic mission and the people at the university,” one professor wrote. “The president also appears agile, but mostly in the sense that he will shoot first and ask questions later.”
Other responses took aim at specific incidents in LeBlanc’s tenure: “The president has shown exceptionally poor decision making. His lackluster apology after his racially insensitive comments, his bullish response to faculty concerns and the icing was the hiring of Heather Swain,” one professor wrote.
Swain was a communications official for Michigan State during the Nassar investigation, and state prosecutors found that she directed a trustee to copy the university’s attorney on an email to “maintain privilege,” a move that could hide the messages from investigators. Nassar is now serving a de facto life sentence for sexually abusing his female patients.
Following uproar from GWU students and faculty, Swain withdrew her offer. She said she understood the pushback from the community.
“While I am confident about my record and ethics handling all crisis situations, I also understand issues surrounding sexual assault are something every institution in America must grapple with,” Swain said in August.
While the survey has revealed the administration’s shortcomings, Sylvia Marotta-Walters, a professor and chair of the department of counseling and human development, said the feedback is normal for an organization such as GWU.
“Anytime you have a complex organization like a university, you’re going to have humans with very different viewpoints and tensions,” Marotta-Walters said. “Faculty are always going to disagree about something, and with valid reasons for their agreement and disagreement.”
Still, some faculty have criticized the survey and its results. Steve Charnovitz, a law professor and former Faculty Senate parliamentarian, cast the effort as a “one-time snapshot” of the way professors felt earlier this year.
He added that faculty could have used the time spent organizing the survey to instead deal with the problems plaguing the university.
“Rather than try to work constructively on the many issues facing the university, there was a concerted effort to criticize our current president,” Charnovitz said. “A lethal pandemic, to me, is a time to work together.”
Future remains unclear
LeBlanc was tapped in 2017 to continue the mission of his predecessors, who took a regional commuter campus and turned it into a nationally recognized research university. Enrollment this school year sat at 27,017, a roughly 2.9 percent drop from 2019, on par with national trends that experts attribute to the pandemic and economic recession.
The president brought with him nearly a decade of experience as chief academic and budget officer at the University of Miami, which underwent a similar transformation as GWU.
Faculty were hoping LeBlanc would continue to accelerate the school’s growth. But, at some point, the upward trajectory at GWU slowed, faculty said.
Professors point to drops in national rankings and fundraising. During the 2019-2020 fiscal year, fundraising fell to its second-lowest point in a decade: roughly $102.5 million. The school raised $122.6 million and $115.7 million during the previous two fiscal years.
Crystal Nosal, a school spokeswoman, said the university considers last year’s gifts “an impressive accomplishment given the economic uncertainty and challenges of the pandemic.” She added the university raised $1 million last month on Giving Day — more than three times the school’s goal — and has ramped up fundraising for scholarships by 25 percent since 2019.
GWU ranks among the top 25 campuses in the country for many of its online programs — including its MBA and master’s in engineering — but the campus has fallen 10 spots on the U.S. News and World Report list of national universities since 2017, from 56 to 66.
And after dropping six places on the National Science Foundation’s list of schools and their use of federal research funds, faculty fear the university could be losing its competitive edge.
“We are concerned about the concrete support for research that we need while we are coming back out of covid,” said Harald Griesshammer, a faculty researcher who teaches in the physics department. “A number of universities have actually taken the opportunity to invest heavily into their faculty and into students so they can ramp up their research.”
Proposed budget restrictions stand to cause further damage, according to researchers in the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, and alienate “some of our most gifted faculty.”
Nosal said the school has convened a task force to recommend ways to strengthen GWU’s academic mission as the campus continues to navigate the pandemic. LeBlanc told the Faculty Senate in April that the university puts research and teaching first.
As the school year comes to a close, Marotta-Walters said the university can benefit in the future from more collaboration between administration and faculty.
“Involve us sooner and earlier and deeper,” Marotta-Walters said. “Then we can create these decisions together and resolve some of the tensions when decisions are made without sufficient faculty input.”
But others say there is too much distrust.
“I don’t expect to like the president, I don’t expect to want to go on vacation with the president, but I need to be able to trust and respect the president,” Wood said. “I need to be able to rely on the fact that whatever they do, it will be competent, and it will have integrity. I want them to be straight with me.”
Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.