President LeBlanc


Photo by William Atkins, George Washington University


Past, Present, Future: A Conversation with President Thomas LeBlanc

GW Magazine talks to Dr. LeBlanc about what it means to celebrate two centuries, where the university is now and what he envisions for the future.


What is the significance of the bicentennial?

The bicentennial is a historic milestone for our university. There aren’t a lot of institutions of higher education that have made it to their 200-year anniversary—and even fewer have tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff, and more than 300,000 living alumni in over 150 countries! Every member of our community is a reason to celebrate our past, present and future this year.

When we think about our past, our history here at GW is really the history of the United States. I’ve heard stories from alumni who were here during the Vietnam War, for example, staying in Thurston with the students who came from around the country to protest. Today, we are participating in history in many ways. Our community is on the front lines fighting the pandemic and contributing the research to help end it. And our community is advocating for racial and health equity, climate justice, truth in political discourse—you name it. In the future, this positive impact will only continue to multiply.

To put it another way, our 200th anniversary is the anniversary of celebrating GW as the university that was founded on George Washington’s vision to train future leaders right here in our nation’s capital.



As you alluded to, we are commemorating our bicentennial at a singular time in history that is changing many institutions. How would you characterize the university today?

I firmly believe that we are entering our third century in a position of strength. We are a top, comprehensive, global research university that uses our teaching and research mission in service of the public good, and in service of our communities, democracy, equality and justice. We also are a university with a strong community that has supported one another through these difficult many months, and we are a university that is collaborating to advance our academic mission and move GW forward. I can’t emphasize enough just how important our community is to our future.



What will GW look like in its third century?

In our third century, our community will continue our tradition not only of studying the world but also of actively working to change it for the better. We will be teaching, doing research and advocating in ways that serve our communities. There is no question about that. Still, there are some unknowns and areas of opportunity based on lessons we have learned during the pandemic and how our community wants to shape the GW of the future.

Flexibility is one. We are thinking about everything we do, the policies or practices we have in place, through the lens of flexibility. What can we do to make a GW education and experience more flexible, whether in degree requirements, mode of instruction or in some other way? I also believe strongly in the continued importance of the residential college experience, particularly for GW. The pandemic has taught us how much our students want to be together in person and just how much they value that experience. Our campuses will always be important, especially considering our location in D.C. 

When we talk about virtual instruction, which is great for flexibility, I think we're all saying, “and,” not “or,” or “instead of.” If we’ve eliminated the 400-person lecture hall after the pandemic, that's a good thing, but we're not going to eliminate the eight-person seminar, the access to our laboratories and art studios, performances at Lisner, competition at the Smith Center, internships on the Hill or even the pizza party in a residence hall. These are formative parts of our students’ experiences.
In our third century, we also must continue to build on our progress in diversity, equity and inclusion. I’m deeply concerned about racial and economic inequality in our country and how these inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. We need to continue to address these problems through our admissions, our financial aid, and our faculty diversity and student success efforts. 

Several years ago, we ended the requirement in our admissions for standardized tests in order to make GW more accessible. That was an important step, but we also are learning more about what we need to do in financial aid, such as meeting more of the demonstrated need of our student body than we are able to today, through philanthropy and reallocating our resources. This will be another important step. We also need to diversify our faculty more, so that our faculty body better represents the diversity of our student body. We will continue to advance on our progress in recent years to help our students feel more comfortable here, academically and socially.



Can you share some of your favorite “only-at-GW” experiences during your time as president?

Many of my favorite memories involve our students. Watching them ask French President Emmanuel Macron thoughtful, challenging questions at a town hall event on campus was a real only-at-GW moment. Another moment I love every year is Commencement, when I am able to say to our graduates, “by virtue of the authority granted by the Congress of the United States of America … I hereby confer your degrees … ” That is a powerful statement, and it is the level of recognition that our graduates have very much earned.

But one of our Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship days stands out as being particularly special. Handing out a full scholarship to a student whose mom did not speak English except for “thank you”—which she repeated over and over while holding my hand—is truly memorable. There is no greater joy than seeing the impact of higher education, not only on a new student but also on that student’s entire family. 



What are you most looking forward to during the bicentennial celebrations?

The bicentennial is an opportunity to recognize the incredible story that is the development of our university. We don’t often pause to reflect, to understand and to appreciate our growth from a small college into the renowned university we are today. Learning more about our history and hearing stories and memories from our community has been really fun.

Over the next several months, I am most looking forward to more opportunities to connect with our community! While I wish we were celebrating together in person right now, the virtual environment does offer more options to meet with our students, faculty, staff, alumni, families and friends across the globe. Our past, present and future revolve around our community. And this community, and our efforts to create a greater world, is deserving of a lot of recognition and celebration this year.



Bicentennial Opening Ceremony



Bicentennial Opening Ceremony

Visit the Bicentennial Website to watch the GW Bicentennial Opening Ceremony, featuring appearances from prominent alumni, musical performances, insights from university leaders past and present, interactive features and more.