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Wrighton spends first days in office holding introductory meetings, focusing on pandemic

Courtesy of “Student Life”
Mark Wrighton has spent his first few weeks as interim president meeting with a variety of GW community members to prepare to confront the biggest challenges facing the University.

If you wake up before sunrise, you may see interim University President Mark Wrighton walking his dog, Spike, around campus to start his day.

Wrighton, who moved into the F Street House Friday as GW’s third president to reside on campus, said he starts his morning at 4:45 a.m. – part of his new daily routine on the Foggy Bottom Campus. After exercising, Wrighton said his workday starts at 8 a.m. with daily pandemic-related meetings with GW’s Medical Advisory Group, which has decided on major moves like the University’s return to in-person classes Tuesday.

“I’m really very proud of the work that so many people are doing to assure that we are safe and healthy,” Wrighton said in his first interview as president.

In addition to Spike, the F Street House will be home to another furry friend – a cat whom Wrighton nicknamed “Purrfessor.”

He said he hopes his daughter, a School of Business alumna who lives in the area, will bring his grandchildren to stay with him and his wife as they settle into the neighborhood.

“We’re hoping that they will come and visit us and maybe even stay the night, and I’ll encourage them to prowl around with me,” Wrighton said of his grandchildren.

Wrighton’s first two weeks on the job have consisted of regular meetings with senior administrators, trustees, faculty leaders and D.C. government officials like Mayor Muriel Bowser for introductions and discussions on the pandemic.

After seven fall campus visits to prepare for the role, Wrighton began his tenure on Jan. 1, taking a campus tour to mark his first day. The following Tuesday, he convened GW’s deans and senior administrators for a two-hour meeting to overview challenges the University faces in connection with the pandemic.

Wrighton said last week’s remote instruction had gone “very well,” but with in-person social events and other gatherings still restricted through at least Jan. 31, he is “anxious” for the normal college experience to resume. The University’s daily total positive COVID-19 cases reached an all-time high on Jan. 5 with 196 cases, and Bowser reinstated the District’s public health emergency last week.

“The good news is that the positivity rate right now seems to be on the decline in the D.C. environment, and our own testing program is really top notch,” he said, pointing to his recent negative test result from GW’s in-house lab.

Beyond the University-wide leadership discussions, Wrighton has also convened individual meetings with administrators, including the provost, chief financial officer, vice presidents and all of GW’s deans. He said he discussed GW’s contributions to D.C.’s pandemic response in his meeting with Bowser.

“My days here in Washington have been extremely full,” Wrighton said.

Wrighton said he attended an executive committee meeting of the Board of Trustees last week after joining a Faculty Senate executive committee meeting the previous Friday. The next day, he cheered on the men’s basketball team at its game against Dayton, receiving special permission to attend the match even with a pandemic-related ban on spectators.

Wrighton called the experience “incredibly impressive,” saying he had never worked at a school with Division I teams, and he plans to attend future games once fans are allowed back in the stands.

“I use those opportunities for informal interactions, and it helps me to understand what’s on people’s minds,” he said.

At his second game on Monday, Wrighton was embraced by the men’s basketball team after their win against George Mason.

Wrighton said he plans to make building the University’s financial aid resources a priority during his tenure.

Officials launched an initiative in October to make GW more financially accessible for Pell-eligible students, and Wrighton said he has been in conversation with Donna Arbide, the vice president for development and alumni relations, to push those efforts forward. Wrighton also said he attended a GW alumni event in St. Louis before starting as president.

He said his top priorities also include improving diversity, equity and inclusion at GW and helping in the fight against climate change.

“We want to continue to strengthen diversity, build an inclusive community and provide equity in terms of resources that are needed to have the top-notch educational experience and college experience that we want for all of our students,” Wrighton said.

He said he was excited by the “outstanding” academic leaders he saw at GW when he visited in the fall. Wrighton, who started a public health program at Washington University at St. Louis, said the Milken Institute School of Public Health is a “premier” program with “considerable potential.”

He added that he was excited to broaden his experience in foreign relations at the Elliott School of International Affairs, a school he called “one of the most outstanding programs in the country.”

“There are things here that I really need to learn more about before I can help prioritize the academic agenda, but there are really talented people who’ve been here for a while and will help me learn, and I will look forward to that,” he said.

Wrighton said ongoing updates to campus buildings like Thurston Hall can serve as an opportunity for officials to improve heating and cooling systems in the buildings, both in the interest of saving money and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

“We need to be attentive to our expense structure so we can do something positive in connection with carbon dioxide emissions and also lower the operating costs of our facilities,” he said.

Last semester, faculty senators called for officials to release more information about the timeline for updates to HVAC systems made in hopes of limiting the spread of COVID-19 in light of concerns that officials spread “misinformation” about the timeline.

Wrighton said he shared a positive relationship with former University President Thomas LeBlanc – whose tenure was marked by GW’s pandemic response and a growing mistrust between him and the GW community – and Wrighton met with him almost every time he was in the District last fall during the presidential transition.

He said LeBlanc’s leadership handling the pandemic has served the community well, adding that he helped acquaint Wrighton with “many of the issues the University has been facing.”

“We had a good relationship,” Wrighton said. “I think he had some challenges, and he shared pretty openly how I might avoid some of the same kinds of difficulties.”

Student Association Vice President Kate Carpenter said Wrighton met with her and Student Association President Brandon Hill once in October to discuss top issues for the student body, like climate change.

“I see lots of interaction on social media, which is great, and also just a buzz around campus about what this new administration will look like even though it is just for 18 months,” she said, pointing to Wrighton’s active Twitter account. “And I really do encourage everyone to go in with an open mind and really just hold him accountable but also understand that he’s excited to be here on campus.”

Harald Griesshammer, a faculty senator and associate professor of physics, said at a Faculty Senate meeting Friday that based on Wrighton’s resume, his role at the University for the next 18 months will be to re-establish “good relations” within the GW community and to lay the groundwork for a permanent leader. Wrighton will have to address issues like faculty concerns about a lack of GW Information Technology staff, Griesshammer said.

“You have a lot on your plate, it’s a job that I don’t envy you about, but I would like to work with you and I think everybody would really like to work with you,” Griesshammer said to Wrighton at the meeting.

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