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Top administrators, faculty and students will soon have a chance to weigh in on University President Thomas LeBlanc’s performance.
Nelson Carbonell, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, said at a Faculty Senate meeting earlier this month that the board will launch a community review of LeBlanc’s progress this spring – the first two-year, in-depth review that is part of the president’s contract. Carbonell said the process – which was not the norm for previous presidents – will give the community a chance to help LeBlanc identify his strengths and weaknesses and possibly pursue new goals.
The two-year review was put into LeBlanc’s contract when he was hired because trustees decided the community should not have to wait for a new presidential search to give feedback, Carbonell said. During presidential town halls in 2016, staff, faculty and students asked for a candidate who embraced diversity, prioritized fundraising, responded to student activism and valued international recruitment.
“Let’s give the president feedback so he can be a better president,” Carbonell said at the meeting.
Members of the board are building a plan for the review and will have more information about how the review will be conducted closer to the spring, he said. Carbonell said he wants the process to be similar to the town halls that shaped the presidential search because the meetings supplied the basis for LeBlanc’s priorities.
The review will occur in addition to LeBlanc’s annual performance review with the Board, he said.
“Our expectation is that after two years here, we will have some things that have changed, maybe there’s a couple of those things that we’ve gotten checked off and done – it gives him the opportunity to kind of reset how he moves forward,” Carbonell said.
Carbonell declined to say whether officials will produce a report after the review and how the findings will be communicated to LeBlanc and the public.
LeBlanc said the review supports a culture of transparency that is not common in higher education. He said he welcomes the review as a chance to demonstrate what he has done – and that while others may “get spooked” by similar evaluations, he looks forward to hearing feedback from the community.
“You want to know – if you have someone who leads an organization – what do the people who work for the leader think?” he said. “What do the people who work for the people who work for the leader think?”
Charles Garris, who served as the chairman of the Faculty Senate when LeBlanc was hired, said during the presidential search, committee members discussed priorities like improving the relationship between GW’s medical enterprises and expanding the University’s research profile. LeBlanc incorporated these ideas into his list of his five strategic initiatives: philanthropy, research, student experience, the medical enterprise and institutional culture.
Since arriving on campus, LeBlanc has invested more than $500 million into refinancing GW’s $1.5 billion debt. He restored faculty research funding that was depleted during the University’s budget cuts that began three years ago, and last month, officials started GW’s largest-ever research review.
LeBlanc has also overseen a series of initiatives to improve the student experience, including combining the enrollment and student affairs offices, revamping the dining plan and overhauling student health services.
Garris said it has been important to members of the Board of Trustees to evaluate leaders on a more regular basis, starting with the evaluation of deans at least once every three years.
“The president is setting the vision for the entire University and sets in motion a lot of the culture of the University, and I think they feel it’s very important to be sure that things are on track every step of the way,” he said.
He added that regular reviews are useful as long as the reviews do not become so intensive that the leader has to drop everything else they are working on to collect data and answer questions.
Former GW Alumni Association President Jeremy Gosbee and three faculty members who served on the presidential search committee declined to comment. Former Student Association President Erika Feinman and two other faculty members on the committee did not return multiple requests for comment.
Higher education experts said regular, comprehensive reviews are important to ensure that a president is constantly working to address the current concerns of the University community.
Rebekah Burch Basinger, a consultant for fundraising and board education at Basinger Consulting, said universities can avoid getting rid of a president who is not measuring up by evaluating their performance and letting them know where they can improve, she said.
She said it is “impressive” and unusual that GW would prioritize evaluations by putting the two-year reviews in LeBlanc’s contract. Comprehensive reviews are expensive and time-consuming because employees or consultants have to develop surveys, analyze data or interview faculty and staff, making frequent reviews challenging, Basinger said.
“It should be designed in a way that it’s really pulling out suggestions – you’re already doing a great job at this, but maybe you can spend a little more time over here,” she said.
Michael Poliakoff, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said how frequently a board performs a comprehensive review can be tied to how engaged the board is in a university’s daily operations and decisions.
He added that on top of measuring LeBlanc’s success in tackling university-wide goals, the board should also look at how the president is responding to national issues, like concerns about increasing college costs and producing students who are ready for the workforce.
“The fact that the GWU board wants to have this regular procedure could well be an indication that it is doing its job well on being engaged and informed in the governance of the institution,” he said.