Ellen Granberg named president of George Washington University

Ellen Granberg named president of George Washington University

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A sociologist who helps lead a technology-oriented institution in New York will become the next president of George Washington University and will be the first woman to hold the position.

GWU announced Wednesday that Ellen Granberg, a Rochester Institute of Technology professor, will take office July 1 as the 19th president of the largest university in the nation’s capital. Granberg will arrive with a major goal set by the governing board: To move GWU toward, and eventually into, the top ranks of the nation’s research universities.

Granberg will succeed Mark Wrighton, a veteran education leader who stepped into the presidency a year ago to stay at the university after his predecessor’s sudden departure.

Thomas LeBlanc’s four-year tenure as president was marked by controversy, including the bumpy unveiling in 2019 of a plan to reduce undergraduate enrollment at GWU’s DC campuses by about 20 percent, with a greater focus on recruiting students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. LeBlanc also drew accusations of racism in 2020 after he made a remark to a student, caught on video, in which he presented a hypothetical situation of the majority of students agreeing to “shoot all the black people in here”. The remark came as LeBlanc was discussing the university’s stance on fossil fuel divestment. LeBlanc later apologized for the remark, but he lost the trust of many faculty members.

The coronavirus pandemic caused GWU to halt its plan to shrink enrollments. Now, a new president will lead the way for a private university that had 25,939 students in the fall, including 2,941 freshmen. The number of first-year students is the largest for the university, surpassing the previous record of 2,845 in 2018, according to federal data.

Granberg, 60, has been provost at RIT since 2018 and previously spent 17 years on the faculty and in leadership positions at Clemson University in South Carolina. As provost, she is the chief academic officer of a university with approximately 17,000 students, including 14,000 undergraduates. Her biography on the RIT website lists her “major initiatives,” including “increasing undergraduate student success, expanding doctoral education [and] improving facilities for teaching and research.”

She received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of California at Davis, and master’s and doctorate degrees in sociology from Vanderbilt University. Her scientific expertise is in the sociology of self, identity and mental health.

“I’ve known and admired GW for a long time,” Granberg said in a phone interview. “It’s a university with history in a famous city.”

Grace E. Speights, chairwoman of the university’s board of trustees, said Granberg will bring “energy and excitement” to the university as it seeks to become one of the nation’s leading research institutions. “We’ve set our sights high,” Speights said.

Built into the job description as GWU conducted the presidential search was a very specific goal: to raise the university’s profile enough to qualify it to join the Association of American Universities. The AAU, an invitation-only group with a somewhat opaque membership selection process, includes 63 universities in the United States and two in Canada. Its members include private institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and public flagships such as the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia.

None of its current members are located in the District of Columbia, although Catholic University was a founding member of the AAU in 1900. It left the association in 2002.

For GWU, known for its strengths in fields including international affairs, political science and public health, the decision to join the AAU helps define its next steps in the near future. It wants to expand its reach into science and engineering, an ambition that has been apparent for more than a decade. And it wants to become more selective and prestigious.

Private urban universities, such as Boston University, Tulane University in New Orleans, and New York University, all belong to the AAU. They also happen to be ranked higher than GWU on the US News & World Report list of national universities. GWU ranks 62nd on that list. The presidential job description highlights the US News rankings as a metric to watch, although the rankings’ methodology has long been a topic of intense debate within higher education.

US News’ college rankings attract complaints and new competitors

“GW’s next president will be expected to recruit and retain a diverse, world-class faculty to enhance—quickly and significantly—the reputation, stature and ranking of all GW academic units in order to be competitive with research universities comprehensively ranked in the top 50 by US News & World Report,” the description read. “This will be the first step toward GW’s ambitious goal of becoming the only AAU university in the nation’s capital.”

GWU officials acknowledge that pursuing AAU membership will probably take years. Granberg said the key will be to showcase the university’s strengths in a comprehensive way and redouble efforts to recruit top faculty and students. “It’s really about building deep centers of excellence, in more and more areas,” she said.

As for the size of the university, Speights said the record number of freshmen is an anomaly that won’t necessarily determine future enrollment targets. Granberg said the census is “an extremely important part of any major planning exercise” and noted it would be one of the first questions she would consider. She said the “quality of the student experience” will be a top priority.

Faculty and student leaders released statements praising the board’s selection.

James Tielsch, a professor of global health who was on the presidential search committee, said: “Her record of academic leadership at major research institutions demonstrates her priority to increase the impact of all disciplines, and she clearly communicated the importance of the work of together to advance GW.”

Christian Zidouemba, president of the student association, said: “I believe she will be a champion of inclusion and someone who listens, meets students where they are and addresses issues that are important to us.”

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