Dissent Over an Institution's Future

Vocal students and faculty members at George Washington University believe the administration's strategic plan is a step backward for diversity and will make GW "whiter and richer." They want the plan and the university president gone.

March 9, 2020
 
The Washington Post via Getty Images
George Washington University president Thomas LeBlanc

A number of George Washington University students and faculty have lost confidence in President Thomas LeBlanc and are calling for his resignation over what they perceive as negligence toward meeting the university’s diversity and inclusion goals.

A wave of opposition to LeBlanc’s plans for GW reached a breaking point in early February after he made a racially insensitive comment on video that was widely shared on campus and cemented critics' impression of him as insufficiently committed to those goals. They point to the administration's five-year strategic plan as a stark example.

Under the plan, commonly referred to as the 20/30 plan, undergraduate enrollment at the university would decrease by 20 percent while enrollment of students majoring in STEM subjects would increase by 11 percent and raise the total proportion of STEM students to 30 percent.

The plan has been fiercely questioned by members of two GW faculty associations, who point to projections of significant revenue loss and a decrease in diversity as a result. Tuition for incoming undergraduates will no longer be fixed starting next fall, and students and faculty members worry the university will not be able to provide as much financial aid because of revenue loss from the enrollment reduction.

Many fear that by making the university less affordable, GW will undo years of efforts to diversify the student body, said Harald Griesshammer, a physics professor and member of the Faculty Senate’s educational policy committee.

“We will become whiter and richer, which means that we are now suddenly confirming a stereotype that we have been fighting for 20 years,” he said.

Eptisam Kassim, a member of the Progressive Student Union, or PSU, which represents a relatively diverse group, said taken together, the projections of reduced numbers of students of color on campus and the controversial analogy LeBlanc used to argue that majority rule should not be used to silence the views of the minority -- "What if the majority of the students agreed to shoot all the black people here," he said in a conversation with a student -- are evidence that LeBlanc does not "value having a diverse community," Kassim said.

Griesshammer analyzed scenarios in the plan and determined that one of the most likely outcomes is an 8 percent drop in first-year nonwhite, non-Asian students, GW’s most underrepresented groups, and a 5 percent drop in international students, he said. This data has not been disputed by the administration, Griesshammer said.

Of the 12,546 undergraduates ​enrolled at GW in fall 2018, 50 percent were white, 11 percent were Asian, 10 percent were Latino and 7 percent were black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Bryce Maples, a member of the PSU, is concerned about the end of fixed tuition for incoming students and the possibility of reduced financial aid as a result of the 20/30 plan. Maples uses a wheelchair and said he would not be attending GW without university-provided financial aid, which helps offset the cost of living in accessible housing.

“It’s time for LeBlanc to leave,” Maples said. ​“This is not a diverse school as it is now. This is an incredibly rich and incredibly white school. It’s almost unfathomable the idea of making it even more white and rich. It doesn’t seem possible. The administration’s own models have shown that that’s what the 20/30 plan will do. We need to move forward, and this is moving us back.”

The percentage of first-year students at GW who are eligible for federal Pell Grants, a widely used indicator of low-income status, would decrease from 22 percent to 10 percent under the plan, based on projections Griesshammer presented during a Feb. 25 faculty assembly that LeBlanc and Provost Brian Blake attended. Blake and LeBlanc were not available for comment, said Maralee Csellar, director of media relations.

According to minutes from that meeting, Blake said enrollment diversity is up this academic year compared to previous years. He also said the scenarios on which Griesshammer based his analyses are “models on the margins and included targets GW does not intend to implement” despite the fact that the outcomes were provided to the Faculty Senate by the administration.

The GW Faculty Association, or GWUFA, a grass-roots organization that is separate from the Faculty Senate, began circulating a petition calling for LeBlanc’s resignation shortly after the Feb. 25 assembly. The petition denounces the president’s “unwillingness to listen” to faculty members’ repeated requests for more information about the 20/30 plan, said Andrew Zimmerman, a history professor and interim president of GWUFA. The timing of the petition for LeBlanc to resign, however, is tied to the president’s “racist remarks” on Feb. 1, Zimmerman said.

While speaking to a student activist and member of Sunrise GWU, an environmental organization, about demands for the university to cut ties with fossil fuels, LeBlanc used an “insensitive example” to make an argument “that majority rule should never suppress the human rights of others,” he said in an apology the next day.

“What if the majority of the students agreed to shoot all the black people here?” LeBlanc said. He was unknowingly being recorded, The Washington Post reported.

The apology did not resolve any of the “underlying issues” that students of color face at such a white institution, said Kassim. She said she frequently feels she has to justify her presence on campus as a black Muslim woman who wears a hijab. She made a connection between LeBlanc’s comment and the strategic plan.

"There has been a lot of conversations about inclusivity and acceptance and things that are appropriate to say," Kassim said. "If there was implementation of the strategic plan, it shows the school will become a richer and whiter school, on top of you not understanding what’s appropriate to say."

This sentiment was echoed in GWUFA’s petition, which calls LeBlanc’s comment the “latest evidence of his disregard for both diversity and democracy at GW.”

“Lots of faculty of color and students and staff too felt that was making light of their basic safety and right to be at GW,” Zimmerman said. “People who don’t have respect for democracy also lack respect for diversity, and that seems to be the case here, too.”

Some 115 faculty members had signed the petition as of March 3. The petition also noted that the selection committee that hired LeBlanc as president in 2017 did not include any faculty members of color, Zimmerman said.

Griesshammer does not think LeBlanc is malicious in pushing forward with the 20/30 plan despite projections of decreased diversity, and he said it could be explained as "stupidity."

The GWUFA’s calls for LeBlanc’s resignation could jeopardize the “productive discussions” the Faculty Senate has been having with administration members about the plan, Griesshammer said. He ended his membership with the association because of the petition.

“GWUFA is too radical for its own good,” Griesshammer said. “We need to see how the administration reacts. If the administration makes constructive alternative proposals and not only listens but also digests what students and faculty tell them and act accordingly, then GW can move forward productively. If the administration just hunkers down and says, ‘We have the board behind us, we can do whatever we want,’ then nobody knows what the next steps will be.”

Zimmerman said the GWUFA sees the pursuits of both faculty associations as a “parallel struggle.” He hopes the petition pressures LeBlanc into giving the Faculty Senate the information they've been seeking for months.

In a March 4 letter to faculty members, LeBlanc and Grace Speights, chair of the Board of Trustees, committed to increased cooperation in decision making and providing more data on “key metrics” associated with the 20/30 plan, such as diversity and student financial need. LeBlanc and Speights said the results of the plan will be reassessed annually as it is implemented. The board will vote on the plan at the end of June.

“If the circumstances do not support the current strategy, the administration and the Board of Trustees will adapt the plan and targets as appropriate,” the letter said. “These commitments reflect our belief that our faculty is indispensable -- integral not only to our mission of teaching and research but also to the vigorous discussions that will guide our future.”

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