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Paul LeBlanc, a light-skinned man with white hair and a gray mustache
Paul LeBlanc

Southern New Hampshire University

Paul LeBlanc, who as president of Southern New Hampshire University helped transform a struggling private residential institution of 2,500 students into one of the country’s largest online providers, announced Wednesday that he would leave the job next June after more than 20 years.

The university also announced Wednesday that Lisa Marsh Ryerson, the university’s provost and former president of Wells College and of the AARP Foundation, will succeed LeBlanc as SNHU’s president.

LeBlanc is one of a relatively small number of campus leaders—think Leon Botstein of Bard College, Michael Crow of Arizona State University, Freeman Hrabowski of the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University—whose names have become almost synonymous with the institutions they have either built or refashioned.

“Paul’s two decades of leadership have not only transformed SNHU, but also the landscape of higher education,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, whose board LeBlanc formerly chaired. “His dedication to student success and willingness to challenge the status quo underscore a legacy that will resonate far beyond his tenure. Paul has not just led, but he has redefined what it means to be a true innovator in higher education.”

When LeBlanc became president of Southern New Hampshire in 2003, it was one of numerous independent colleges in New England whose ability to survive for another decade might have been a coin flip. (Quite a few of the others have since closed.)

The institution had begun offering online courses before LeBlanc arrived, but LeBlanc and his colleagues kicked its digital operation into high gear, helping it—alongside Western Governors University—develop into a new breed of private nonprofit universities with enormous online enrollments.

“I’m sometimes asked if in those early years I envisioned what we have become today—a national powerhouse in higher education, a trailblazer in innovation, a trusted name among policymakers and employers, and the place thousands of students turn to improve their lives—and my answer is simple: ‘Absolutely not,’” he said in an email Wednesday.

Under LeBlanc, the university used its scale and spirit of experimentation to play leading roles in efforts to embrace competency-based learning and expand education for refugees and other displaced learners, among other things.

LeBlanc’s efforts to transform Southern New Hampshire did not come without controversy. The university’s explosive growth, which LeBlanc and other leaders acknowledged they had achieved in part by borrowing some operational practices from for-profit colleges, drew scrutiny from politicians and policymakers concerned about potential abuse of students. At two Senate hearings in the 2010s, LeBlanc took heat from Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts over the university’s growth and the revenue from its online operation.

But those moments were largely blips in a 20-year career in which LeBlanc’s counsel was much sought. He served as a special assistant to Mitchell when he was U.S. under secretary of education during the Obama administration, and on the Education Department’s oversight committee for accreditation for several years.

LeBlanc said in an email to colleagues that he would begin a sabbatical next June and would work on developing “new AI-supported learning models” and “a new global data consortium, which we think is critical if higher education is going to shape its AI future as opposed to being merely reactive.”

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