Q&A: Thomas LeBlanc

Marjorie Malpiede / July 10, 2018

The president of George Washington University on building a campus community

Newly inaugurated college presidents, particularly those new to the school, have a window in time before the impact of their decisions eclipse that of their predecessors. This affords them the objectivity of an outsider while still being the person in charge. Tom LeBlanc, the new president of George Washington University, is making the most of that objectivity, asking questions and listening carefully to the university community, particularly the students, about how to make GW an even better place to go to college.

The undergraduate experience tops LeBlanc’s list and it is clear he has carefully considered how that experience unfolds here in the nation’s capital. For a computer scientist and a serious academic, LeBlanc has an uncanny understanding of the social and environmental dynamics that impact a person’s college years. He says it is the interplay of these dynamics that result in how a university presents itself to its students, down to food options and community spaces.

LeBlanc talked of great lessons learned during his tenures at the University of Miami and the University of Rochester; about how to make campuses more equitable; and how to make diversity something students know how to achieve, not just talk about. He applies these lessons to his new job with an acknowledgment of the difference between urban campuses and those “inside the hedges” of leafy suburbs.

LeBlanc has so many aspirations for GW, it will be interesting to see if, after his inaugural year comes to an end in August, he continues to question and innovate or he settles into the job of running things. From our brief and poignant conversation, it is likely to be a combination of both.

Mary Christie Quarterly: As a new president, what are some of the areas you are focusing on, in terms of change and/or improvement?
Thomas LeBlanc: Let’s start with the undergraduate student experience. One of my colleagues had a great line. He said, “You may get married multiple times but you only go to college once.” It really is a defining period in your life and the question is, “Is it a positive experience or not?”

The challenge for university administrators and faculty is that the vast majority of us don’t share the undergraduate student experience with our students. We don’t live in the dorms. We’re teaching classes but we’re not taking them. We don’t experience the registrar and student accounts and all these offices in the same way that our students do.

And so we always need to make sure we’re on the look-out. I have been spending a lot of time talking to students and you can learn so much just by asking them.

MCQ: What is coming to the surface from all of these conversations?
TL: One of the things I’ve heard that has been such an important element of my previous work, particularly at Miami, is the need to better define and cultivate community. We’re in Foggy Bottom at the heart of Washington DC. It is the value proposition in many ways that attracts students to George Washington but we need to know how to make this a positive experience all around, including how to create community in an urban environment.

That is a challenge because there is no “inside the hedges and outside the hedges” here. These are public city streets. A metro system. Our dormitories look like apartment buildings.

Believe it or not, I spend a lot of time thinking about food because in my day, it was the classic college dining hall where you went to connect with your fellow students, not just your roommates and friends. But here, there is no dining hall. There’s a food court and you’ve got your G World card that you can use at Whole Foods or other vendors. There must be a new way to use the market-driven food options, together with social media, to continue to make having meals a community exercise for students. I’m working on it.

MCQ: So how do you create an identity and sense of belonging when you have no “bubble”?
TL: I asked the students about this early on and they talked about the banners. “We think the banners on the buildings help create a sense of community here.” The four corners of our campus have statues of George Washington. Along the streets in between you will see banners on all the light poles that have some message about George Washington and you will see a lot of the buildings have awnings with our signage on it. The fact that the students said they really liked this tells me it’s all a part of creating a campus identity in an urban environment.

That got me thinking about community spaces. When I got here, I took my early tour with an eye towards what we have for community spaces. And what I saw were an incredible number of examples of potential community spaces that were under-utilized.

I went into an event with a great outdoor patio space that was completely empty. The next time I went, there were umbrellas on the patio with people all around. I said to the folks organizing the event, “Great, it is good to see you have umbrellas here. Now people will use this space.” They said, “Yeah, but we just brought them out for this party.” I said, “Let’s keep them here all the time and maybe students will use this plaza. Especially when the weather’s nice.” Simple example of community space.

My provost went to another campus and he took this great picture of a parking spot that’s been turned into a living room. I’ve got some great parking areas that I could turn into outdoor student spaces and little living rooms. So, it’s thinking about community not just from a dining hall perspective but thinking about community from a space perspective. Think about what you need to get people to go out there. I see people using the limited community spaces we have, which makes me think they would use them if we had more of them.

MCQ: Why do you think creating a sense of community is so important to the college experience?
TL: There are a number of reasons. Socio-economic factors are a big part of it. I went to college on scholarship; so did Donna Shalala (former president of the University of Miami) who, in my view, was the most student-centric president in America. We were very sensitive to the needs of the broad socio-economic classes represented on our campus. We tried to develop a philosophy that said once you’ve covered the full cost of attendance, possibly through scholarship, and you’re inside our hedges, we want you to have equal access to opportunity. One of the first things Donna did was she stopped charging for laundry. She said, “I don’t want rich kids wearing clean clothes and poor kids wearing dirty clothes.”

We provided free shuttles to football games. We provided free tickets to the games. Every lecture on campus, including national outside speakers, was free for students. What we couldn’t do was address socio-economic barriers outside our campus. Some of our students came to school with very expensive cars and some of our kids were homeless in high school. We couldn’t change that but we could change the socio-economic difference you might see on campus.

Here, the opportunities for differentiation among students are much greater in the city because you have less ability to control the environment. Some students can afford to eat prepared meals three times a day at Whole Foods, but the average student can’t. Here, you could walk across the street to something and it might be expensive and some students can go and some students can’t go. We have different housing options and they vary significantly by cost. A single apartment with a kitchen in the city is enormously expensive compared to six people in a small suite with no kitchen.

The other reason this is so important is I think students are yearning for community, perhaps more than ever. I am a computer scientist, not a psychologist or a behavioral health expert, but I spent my whole life around young people. And, if you create opportunities for them to get together and be part of a community, they welcome it, particularly freshmen.

One of the things I am working on with the freshman experience is to create a sense of community around D.C. We are in one of the great cities of the world with tremendous opportunities and it’s right outside. If I walk out of the presidential residence and go three blocks, I’m on the National Mall. Three blocks the other way, I’m at the White House. We need to bring our students to D.C. -- not simply plop them in a dormitory and say, “Hey, you’re in D.C.” We need to show them how to turn D.C. into a living experiment and a living community for them.
One can imagine a freshman year experience in which you feel completely overwhelmed. You’re in this city, you’re in this dormitory with 1,000 students in it. You’re in this urban environment for the first time in your life. A lot of kids say, “I want go to college in the city because I didn’t have the city experience before.”
It’s a whole different thing when you’re here. Instead of simply putting them there and hoping the right thing happens, assuming the right thing happens, I think we need to program it more. And that helps create community. There’s nothing like going to a museum with 20 floor-mates, as opposed to finding it on your own.
And so, I’m working with our leaders here to re-think the freshman year in this regard.

MCQ: Does your effort to integrate students more firmly into the urban community dovetail with your goals around equity on campus?
TL: Yes. We have a lot of students who come to college now saying I want to go to a diverse environment, the subtext being I came from a non-diverse environment. But, in many cases, I don’t think they know what that means. They just know diversity sounds good and it is good.

But what happens is we take all these kids and we put them together and then it doesn’t always work so well. They don’t understand the sensitivities of each other’s cultures. So, we’ve talked about how to not only do alcohol awareness and sexual assault awareness, but how to raise awareness around diversity issues — really teach how you achieve this — because you can’t just throw 18-year-olds together and think everything will just work out.
Again, back to the urban community: I can tell you one of the greatest tools for thinking about race in America is the African American History Museum, and it’s four blocks away.

MCQ: What are your views on Greek life?
TL: It tends to be a strong social community for students. There can be support systems there. But it also comes with pressure to conform. It comes with a structure that is inherently discriminatory — I will choose you, or not, on any basis that I decide. So that’s a problem, from my point of view.

Then there’s the fact that they tend to be heavily associated with alcohol. When I hear that we’re talking about the third or fourth death in the country this year from hazing, I’m asking myself, “What world are we living in?”
So if the Greek life positives were all there and the negatives weren’t, that would be great but I think a lot of times the problem is that Greek life is the only option. And its an option that says “I want you. I don’t want you.” Think of the amount of health effects that come from the first thing that happened to me at college was I got rejected by the people I wanted to like me. Student organizations aren’t allowed to do that and that’s a huge difference.

MCQ: Talk a bit about today’s students. Are they less resilient than other generations?
TL: I actually happen to be one of the people who has great faith in this generation. I’m tired of people putting them down. I look at all the things that our generation did to hand them a sour apple. We haven’t been great stewards of the climate. We haven’t been great stewards of the economy. Family incomes are stagnating.
We had a generation of people graduating over the last ten years who probably started 20% farther back than their parents did on a comparable basis. So, we haven’t always been great for them and yet many of them are still idealistic. They want to change the world. And, so, I’m very positive about this generation, despite the fact they have many significant challenges.

Many of them are struggling in this transition from what was an analog world to a digital world. From what was a physical world to a virtual world. Many adults are struggling with it too but they have the option of opting out. Young people don’t. We’ve created a whole different society among these folks and I don’t think we’re doing a great job at helping them adapt to it and that’s what college is really about.

MCQ: I read somewhere that you want GW to be less process-oriented and bureaucratic. Is that true?
TL: Yes, that’s what the community told me. But it is not unique to GW. It’s just that here, we have an excuse. We’re in Washington so our excuse is, “Well, we’re surrounded by the federal government. It’s natural that we take on characteristics from the federal government.”

But being in DC and serving a student population that is so idealistic and so convinced of the power of the government to change the world, we have an obligation to be better than that. And, I think I’m starting to understand a little bit more about how we ended up where we did. People who are not empowered get very risk-averse and so you need to have a culture that empowers your employees.

I think that what I’ve heard from this community is we have been so focused on the bottom line that we haven’t had a good way of putting the student experience in the equation and, as a consequence, the students will tell you, and they tell me, they feel like a transaction. They have cards for everything that they constantly swipe and some of that is just inevitable but we need to change that feeling.

One of the things that I think characterizes today’s students, and the best of today’s students, is they don’t want to do one thing. So, we need to facilitate access to a different kind of curriculum and a lot of what I’ve been hearing is there are barriers that are artificial to that in many cases.

When you hear “I’m in international relations and I also want to do public health, or I’m in chemistry and I also want to do something in engineering, or study abroad,” we need to remove any artificial barriers to students’ ability to fully sample what we have to offer.

It used to be that we talked about producing well-rounded individuals. Steve Jobs was not well-rounded. Bill Gates was not well-rounded. I don’t have a problem, as a computer scientist and as an academic leader, with people who aren’t well-rounded. So I don’t mind people with edges.

But you’ve got to allow people to create edges and create well rounded-ness that fits them and their goals. That means you have to allow flexibility because they’ll design things that you never would have thought of.