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The optics already weren’t great for George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc. As the university moves forward with its plans to address an anticipated budget shortfall of more than $220 million due to COVID-19, they have only gotten worse.
Critics and community members remember his half-million-dollar inauguration in 2017, the secrecy around the cost of a culture audit, the racist comment caught on video, and the announcement this month that LeBlanc intended to hire a woman who allegedly covered up sexual abuse at Michigan State University as GW’s new vice president of communications.
During a virtual meeting last week, hundreds of faculty and staff voted in a straw poll in support of pushing for a vote of no confidence in the university’s leadership, including LeBlanc, according to multiple faculty members who participated in the meeting. An open letter signed by 171 professors, adjuncts, and staff members calls for the Faculty Senate Executive Committee to hold a vote of no confidence in LeBlanc.
“This is unusual to have such a widespread faculty rebellion,” says Andy Zimmerman, a history professor who signed the letter but does not sit on the Faculty Senate. “I’ve been at GW for 20 years, and I’ve never seen an administration that seems so eager to antagonize faculty and is just uninterested in doing any kind of shared governing.”
LeBlanc became GW’s 17th president in August 2017 after stints as an executive vice president, provost, and professor at the University of Miami. His tenure has been rocky from the get-go, as the university welcomed him with a three-day, $500,000 inauguration celebration.
The Student Association Senate passed a resolution condemning the half-million-dollar party thrown when academic programs faced budget cuts in recent years, the GW Hatchet reported in 2017.
A little more than a year into the job, LeBlanc announced a partnership with the Disney Institute to conduct a survey of the university’s internal culture. The $300,000 price tag, which LeBlanc acknowledged to the Hatchet was “not inexpensive,” ruffled feathers among faculty and students.
GW officials announced in February 2019 that they were extending the contract with the Disney Institute, but refused to reveal the cost or even say what services the Disney Institute would provide, the Hatchet reported. GW spokesperson Crystal Nosal refused to release those figures and details to City Paper this week.
In February 2020, LeBlanc stepped in it again when he was captured on a cell phone video making a racist comment in a conversation with a student. In that discussion about fossil fuel divestment, LeBlanc attempted to make a point about the impracticality of majority
rule in some cases by describing a hypothetical scenario where all students voted to “shoot all the black people here.” He later apologized and has resisted calls for his resignation.
Touted as a leader for his accomplishments in Miami, LeBlanc has surrounded himself with some familiar faces. As the GW Faculty Association pointed out in March, LeBlanc has hired no less than eight people with ties to his former employer in Florida. GWUFA is an independent group that represents about 30 percent of GW faculty members and functions like a union (GW’s full-time faculty are not unionized), whereas the Faculty Senate, whose members are elected by the faculty, plays a role in the university’s governance.
Then, in the midst of a pandemic-induced hiring freeze, GW hired Heather Swain as its new vice president for communications and marketing. The backlash to that move was swift. As a VP of communications at Michigan State University, Swain allegedly played a role in helping the university cover up its handling of Larry Nasser’s sexual abuse of athletes.
In the announcement from GW, which has since been removed from the university’s website, LeBlanc’s statement highlighted the role Swain would play in telling the university’s story and translating “our strengths and aspirations into a comprehensive marketing and communications strategy.” The university and Swain severed ties within days of announcing her hire after backlash from students and faculty.
In addition to Swain, GW hired two more high-level administrators since the hiring freeze went into effect on March 25.
Through a spokesperson, LeBlanc declined City Paper’s interview request. Instead, Nosal emailed a statement LeBlanc released on Tuesday about the Swain scandal.
“I sincerely apologize for the distress and distraction that this has caused many in our community,” LeBlanc’s statement says in part. “I should have recognized the sensitivities and implications of this hire. It is a mistake I deeply regret.”
All of the controversy surrounding LeBlanc, including the short-lived Swain scandal, has been compounded by his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has included mass layoffs, salary cuts, and suspension of retirement benefits. It all came to a head during the virtual faculty meeting last week.
“It’s hard to find one word,” Zimmerman says when asked to describe LeBlanc’s tenure. “But shocking? Dumbfounding? This goes beyond the normal disagreements that faculty are naturally going to have with the president. It’s a total disconnect about basic values of the university.”
The full and precise picture of GW’s budget-slashing strategy is difficult to pin down. LeBlanc announced he would take a 20 percent salary cut starting in July, the Hatchet reported in May. Other members of senior leadership agreed to reductions of 5 percent or more.
LeBlanc made about $1.45 million in Fiscal Year 2019, according to the university’s tax records. Five other employees received more than $1 million in total compensation.
Since March, GW has announced several steps to address its expected budget shortfall, including salary and hiring freezes and the suspension of retirement matches and capital projects. GWUFA warned of a potential 10 to 15 percent pay cut for faculty, though the administration has yet to officially announce
such a move.
According to a chart shown during the same virtual meeting where faculty and staff took the straw poll, GW is expecting a total of $224.7 million in lost revenue in FY 2021.
Among the expenditure reductions to lessen the gap are $82 million in cuts to non-faculty compensation. That figure represents 26 percent of GW’s original FY 2021 budget for non-faculty pay, according to the chart, which is marked “CONFIDENTIAL.” The Hatchet confirmed last week that GW eliminated at least 70 staff positions in career services, facilities, and the Continuous Improvement and Business Advisory Services office, which was eliminated completely.
The same chart shows $27 million in cuts to faculty compensation, an 11 percent reduction from the original FY 2021 budget.
Nosal, in an email to City Paper, says layoffs will likely reach the “low hundreds,” and are expected to be completed by the end of August.
Physics professor Harald Griesshammer, who serves on the Faculty Senate, says staff who support grant research applications and administration are also being cut, though he could not give a precise number.
“Which is amazing,” he says. “I would have thought I would be in a position to actually know this,” as a member of the Faculty Senate. Griesshammer says grant support staff were notified on Friday, July 31, that their jobs were in danger and that they could reapply for a limited number of positions the following Monday.
“And because they knew this was the busiest time to submit grants, they scheduled a meeting for Friday afternoon to make sure that among all the chaos, the grants will still be submitted on
time,” he says. “That’s how much community spirit those people have. They deserve better than an email without any real explanation, which tells them they are laid off and need to reapply.”
Employees who planned and organized events were also laid off, City Paper has learned. One events employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they hope to work for the university again in the future, says events staff were told in late July that GW was whittling down nearly 60 positions to just nine.
The former employee says they were notified during a video conference call on a Tuesday and told they could reapply for the open positions by the end of the week.
“The salaries offered for the positions comparable to the positions where I left were considerably lower,” the former employee says. “One of my thoughts is they were hiring based on salaries, not experience.”
The former employee applied for four positions and interviewed for three, but was not hired.
While the former employee understands the university is trying to navigate unprecedented circumstances and that events staff are an easy target for layoffs, they worry the strategy may be shortsighted.
“There’s nobody there. There’s no work, so I get it,” the former employee says. “However, they are moving forward as if the students are never coming back to campus. That’s a lot of institutional knowledge that is walking out the door and may never come back.”
And considering the money the university shelled out for the Disney Institute’s help in evaluating and improving the internal culture, the former events employee sees a bit of irony.
“They spent all this money with the Disney Institute trying to change the culture of the university,” the employee says. “They said, ‘We’re going to be people first. That’s our best commodity.’ And one of the first things they do to cut the budget was to start firing people.”
In June, GW senior Erin Cieraszynski received her financial aid package just like she had each year before. When the university announced in July that it was reducing undergraduate tuition by 10 percent for students who did not return to campus, she says she heard “rumblings” from the financial aid office that the university needed to recalculate students’ aid packages.
In mid-August, Cieraszynski received her new financial aid package, and the $16,000 grant she was awarded was cut in half. She later learned through friends that she could fill out a form online and submit additional information to the financial aid office to ask for another recalculation.
Cieraszynski’s final package is about $1,000 less per semester than the amount she received in June. She only has one semester of classes left and says she’s able to make up the extra thousand bucks in order to graduate in December.
Cieraszynski knows other students who aren’t as fortunate. She is one of dozens of students who posted about their financial aid experience in a public document. Some wrote that the changes to their aid made the tuition cost insurmountable.
During a phone conversation on Aug. 21, Cieraszynski told City Paper the university didn’t explain why her financial aid was cut. She says she only received vague emails alerting her that the amount was being recalculated and learned through friends about the extra step of providing information on her housing and income.
“A lot of people are still trying to figure out the forms to submit and how to go about this,” she says.
Shortly after the interview, Cieraszynski received an email from Vice Provost of Enrollment and Student Success Jay Goff, one of the administrators hired during the hiring freeze, explaining the recalculations. It was the first official communication from the VP regarding changes to financial aid that Cieraszynski received, she says.
“Given GW’s decision to reduce tuition by 10 percent for undergraduate students who do not live on campus, the overall cost of attendance for the fall semester was reduced for many undergraduate students,” Goff writes in the email. “To stay compliant with federal student aid and loan regulations, the university is required to recalculate student aid packages to reflect each student’s actual cost of attendance for the academic year.”
The email says GW planned to host virtual forums this week to answer questions about financial aid.
Nosal says in an email that GW recalculated 4,700 financial aid packages and believes every student’s new aid package is adjusted so that they’re paying just as much or less than the cost included on their July bills. If that’s not the case, Nosal says students should contact the financial aid office.
For Griesshammer, the physics professor, the pushback the faculty is giving LeBlanc’s administration stems at least in part from the lack of effective communication and collaboration.
“We understand layoffs are necessary, but it would be good to have communication from the administration saying, ‘We need to do this, and this is the rationale,” Griesshammer says.
LeBlanc has provided updates throughout the pandemic, Nosal points out. But at the same time, the Faculty Senate has passed several resolutions since February demanding more say in decision-making.
Zimmerman, the history professor, adds that the administration seems to have ignored suggested solutions to the budget shortfall that the Faculty Senate proposed in June. The Senate proposed $21.5 million in cuts and $94 million in new revenue sources, including elimination of bonuses for FY 20 and FY 21, an end to special benefits for administrators, and elimination of competitive athletics. Zimmerman and other faculty members have also suggested drawing from GW’s $1.78 billion endowment and using a newly acquired $300 million line of credit.
Nosal says the latter two steps are not financially prudent or necessary.
“It is important to note that the duration of the pandemic is unknown,” Nosal writes in an email. “We will continue to evaluate all options as the pandemic continues and its effects on the university continues to evolve.”