The room at the Charles E. Smith Center was packed with student-athletes dressed in their workout wear. They were here for breakfast, and on this Wednesday morning, there was quite the spread — assorted cereals, oatmeal, turkey bacon, potatoes.
Not far from an omelet station stood a 62-year-old man with a mustache. He was not here for the eggs. Mostly, Thomas J. LeBlanc seemed to be interested in what these college students had to say.
"Are there enough healthy options?" he asked. "Do you eat any of those?"
LeBlanc did not stay long, but made the most of his time he had at the breakfast. He was invited to an upcoming event. He chatted up tables of athletes. Before he left, he spoke with a volleyball player, who slipped him a handwritten note from a teammate.
"Volleyball is very excited to have you as our new president," it said.
This day was like so many others occupying the schedule of LeBlanc, newly minted as George Washington University's 17th president. His appointment represents a changing of the guard at GW, a rare shift at the top for a school approaching its bicentennial.
"Tom's a pro," Donna Shalala, his old boss and mentor at the University of Miami, said in a phone interview. "He understands universities. He's not going to be a radical. He's not going to fire a huge number of people and try to replace them with his own team.
"He's a real grown-up in a town that doesn't have a lot of them."
LeBlanc is not the only university president embarking on a new tenure in the District. There's also Sylvia M. Burwell at American University in Northwest Washington. They both have spent the past few months settling in, discovering their new campus, learning.
After the student-athlete breakfast, LeBlanc shuffled through campus, bound for a chat with Peak Sen Chua and Sydney Nelson, president and executive vice president of the George Washington University Student Association. Among the items up for discussion: food. Issues surrounding food loom large at GW. LeBlanc has noticed.
"There was just more talk about food in my transition period than I have heard in 20 years in the academy," LeBlanc said. "So I started wondering why."
George Washington, with its urban campus and 26,000 graduate and undergraduate students, has a dining scene that is less traditional than the usual dorm dining room. There are vendors that GW students can visit — restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops — and that can present challenges and complications for students, such as learing to budget their food dollars.
LeBlanc told the student leaders that he had visited a dining hall on the school's Mount Vernon campus. He went to District House, which has fast-casual options. The issue of food has come up in town hall meetings, too.
"I have a great appreciation for the problem," LeBlanc said. "Now the question is, what do we do about it?"
The day's schedule was fairly packed — even LeBlanc's lunch was booked up. He sat at a conference room table, boxed lunch unpacked in front of him, and listened to students who were involved in a fellowship program.
In the middle of the day came a chat with two university officials, in which LeBlanc went over details of an upcoming trip. The biggest surprise of that meeting was not an agenda item. It was a piece of paper that LeBlanc was handed.
When LeBlanc was named president, old classmates and others from his past came forward to offer congratulations and support. In this case, LeBlanc had received a note from a former professor. He learned about it while going over correspondence.
"He says, 'Dear Tom, I am overjoyed to learn of your recent accession to the presidency of George Washington University,' " LeBlanc said, reading the letter. The note continued: "I have clear memories of the day that you, as an undergraduate student in computer science, came into my office and proclaimed, 'Someday, I am going to sit in your chair.' "
LeBlanc, who also remembers that moment, started off as a computer science professor at the University of Rochester. He went on to serve as department chairman, then as a dean. And he was pretty happy doing that — until the University of Miami came calling about the provost job there.
"And I said, 'Hmm, I haven't really thought about that, maybe I should at least do some homework,' " LeBlanc said. "They actually called me three times. The first two times I said, 'No, thanks.' "
Eventually, LeBlanc decided to make the leap to South Florida, where he was executive vice president and provost, and a professor. Being provost meant that he frequently fielded calls about presidential jobs, but he had a pretty strict checklist of what he wanted: a private, research university in an appealing city. And it had to be an opportunity that topped his position in Miami.
"A lot of calls came in, but very few of them fit this requirement," LeBlanc said. "And then GW called."
In their years working together, Shalala said, she and LeBlanc never had an argument. She described him as a "really nice guy," humble and data-oriented.
Shalala, who served as U.S. secretary of health and human services during the Clinton administration, said she did not think LeBlanc needed specific advice — she just told him to have fun. And he listened.
Once, when walking across campus, he stumbled on a photo shoot for the gymnastics team. Another time, he and his wife, Anne, hosted students for Thanksgiving dinner, treating them to a traditional meal and s'mores.
"I don't really need the calories," he said of the campfire dessert. "I did eat a marshmallow."
Personally and professionally, LeBlanc has been shaped by his experiences as a student. In high school, LeBlanc took part in a study-abroad program that sent him to Brazil. So he can relate to students who might feel alone. He and his wife were first-generation college students, so they understand those struggles.
"The role of higher education in society is really, really important," LeBlanc said. "And I use as example number one, myself."
LeBlanc was inaugurated in the Smith Center, the same building where he would meet students-athletes at that breakfast a couple of months later.
From the stage during his inauguration, LeBlanc told the crowd that if they encouraged someone to think differently, or more creatively, they could "change a life." If they developed an idea that changes the understanding of a tough issue, it can "endow society with health, industry, beauty and wisdom."
"If we open doors to a first-generation college student, we can change forever their opportunities in life, and who knows what that person might become," he said. "Maybe even a university president."
There was so much to celebrate, LeBlanc said.
"But the world has not yet seen everything we can do," he said. "And everything we can become."
"The role of higher education in society is really, really important. And I use as example number one, myself."
Thomas J. LeBlanc, new president of George Washington University