Over the course of University President Thomas LeBlanc’s tumultuous and controversial tenure, everyone from students and faculty alike seemed to recognize that he was not the person fit to materialize the University’s core values. From LeBlanc’s first days when he dropped half a million dollars on his inauguration to his last days when he, making just shy of a million dollars in pay before an unspecified pay cut, decided to lay off workers to cut University “fat,” GW’s students, faculty and staff correctly held him accountable.
Notably absent from this coalition demanding accountability was the Board of Trustees — the people who gave him his position in the first place. While the University community successfully ousted LeBlanc, we have not resolved the problem of administrative leadership that does not stand for or advocate for the University’s core values. Our next problem to reckon with is the questionable judgement of the Board – more specifically, the insensitive and even alarming judgement of the woman in charge of it: Grace Speights. Students should be just as concerned with Speights in University leadership as they were with LeBlanc.
Speights has been an ardent ally to LeBlanc throughout his tenure. After LeBlanc’s continued critical lapses in judgement, to characterize them generously, one would have expected Speights to have recognized that perhaps the Board had made an error in their choice for president. But the opposite happened. For example, LeBlanc decided to hire a woman who hid evidence about a purported sexual predator and exhibited a demonstrative lack of common sense in using an absurd analogy during a confrontation with a student where he analogized divestment to “killing all the Black people” on campus. In response, then-Student Association President Howard Brookins signed an executive order calling for a no-donation pledge to alumni pending LeBlanc’s resignation. Speights’ response wasn’t to condemn LeBlanc for his lack of awareness of student sensibilities, but rather to condemn Brookins’ order as “divisive” and praise LeBlanc for his “strong leadership.” This is not the reaction one would hope to see from the person charged with making key decisions about our University. In fact, it represents a lack of identification with and understanding of the values of students and faculty.
Her questionable reactions to the community’s advocacy do not stop there. To further solidify her support for LeBlanc following his resignation, during a period when he received criticism for the University’s poor treatment of workers during the pandemic, Speights sent out an email to faculty describing her being “troubled by the actions of a faction of self-appointed faculty spokespersons whose contributions to this process more closely resemble a campaign to foment discord rather than civil dialogue.” As a result, Speights along with the Board will embark on a “review of the Faculty Code to determine the appropriate avenues for input from the faculty at large.” In other words, to Speights, the issue was not LeBlanc’s poor leadership but rather the tremendous faculty, specifically the GW Faculty Association, a faculty collective that was crucial to delivering LeBlanc’s departure. Now, she wants to change the code to determine where faculty input is “appropriate.” These are not the concerns of someone interested in a model of shared governance, but rather someone who refuses to accept responsibility for their error in judgement that was Thomas LeBlanc.
Speights’ defensive responses to feedback from the University community, especially in the context of how they’ve treated workers, is unsurprising given her background as a successful employment attorney at Morgan Lewis, “one of the most powerful anti-union law firms in recent U.S history,” of which Amazon is a client. In a response email to Speights, the GWFA not only identified Speight’s anti-union background but also highlighted how Speights “served as the lead counsel for General Motors in a lawsuit brought by Black workers at GM who protested after they were told that bathrooms were for ‘whites only,’ and after one of them found a noose hanging on the shop floor.” Her background and decision-making both in her professional capacity in and outside the context of the University is alarming. This is not someone who should be in such an important decision-making capacity at GW.
After evaluating Speights’ judgement, students, faculty, professors and other University workers should campaign to demand a reorientation of Speights’ leadership, even to the point of her stepping down as chair. This reorientation should encompass more shared authority given to faculty in strategic planning and decision making, something that has evidently been lacking in Speights’ leadership. The first step toward truly committing to this reorientation would be by building a diverse presidential search committee composed of faculty, students, staff, alumni and trustees. The search committee that chose LeBlanc was composed of 10 trustees, 6 faculty, a staff member, the Alumni Association President and the SA President.
For a search committee to be a true testament to shared governance, it should contain a broad range of voices that are representative of who will be affected by the policies of the next president. As such, trustees should not make up more than half of those serving on the committee. Instead, an alternative structure might look like a committee that contains equal parts students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Additionally, there should be gender, racial and academic discipline diversity within the representative groups serving on the committee. The degree to which shared authority is given to these different facets of the University will inform whether Speights has an interest in shared governance at all. And if she doesn’t, then her value to the University should be called into question.
We saw the extent to which effective collective organization can be effective and we absolutely should not be satisfied with just removing LeBlanc: the problem may be endemic to the administration’s structure.
Karina Ochoa Berkley, a junior majoring in political science and philosophy, is an opinions columnist and the assistant copy editor.
This article appeared in the June 4, 2021 issue of the Hatchet.