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Wrighton’s pivotal term comes to an end

Sage Russell | Assistant Photo Editor
Interim University President Mark Wrighton’s 18-month tenure ends July 1.

Updated: June 23, 2023, at 2:07 p.m.

While outgoing University President Mark Wrighton knew his tenure would only be interim, he worked to ensure his legacy at GW would be anything but temporary.

Wrighton, the former chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis who replaced former University President Thomas LeBlanc in January 2022, said he omitted the word “interim” on his business card because he approached his term with the “full” authority and responsibility of University president. He said filling vacant administrative positions, establishing 14 endowed professorships and launching a scholarship-matching program during his 18-month tenure were the most valuable moments of his time at GW.

“Sometimes people can say, ‘Well, he’s only going to be here a short time, I can wait him out,’” Wrighton said in a May interview. “I wanted to make clear that I would be making decisions and they would stick.”

Wrighton oversaw what is likely to be a pivotal period of GW history — officials retired the Colonials moniker, steered GW out of the pandemic, worked to rebuild the trust between faculty and administrators that eroded under LeBlanc, transformed the student meal plan to a dining hall-based system and introduced plans to arm GW Police Department officers.

Foggy Bottom also served as a microcosm for national political controversy throughout Wrighton’s time in D.C. He faced backlash for a temporary decision to remove posters critical of the Chinese government, faculty underwent contentious debates over academic freedom and Israel-advocacy group StandWithUs filed a complaint with the Department of Education claiming that officials “failed” to address concerns of alleged antisemitism in psychology professor Lara Sheehi’s class.

Ellen Granberg, a provost and the senior vice president for academic affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology, will begin her term as University president July 1, putting a close to Wrighton’s consequential term.

Wrighton said one of his “proudest” accomplishments was filling vacancies and interim positions in University leadership so Granberg wouldn’t have to hire new officials at the beginning of her tenure. He said recruiting senior leadership was a “challenge” because candidates must be able to adapt to GW’s missions of education, research and patient care immediately and effectively.

GW experienced a small exodus of administrators before and during Wrighton’s term — Vice President of Financial Planning and Operations Jared Abramson, Chief People Officer Dana Bradley and Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Mark Diaz each departed, leaving Wrighton to fill in the gaps.

Wrighton announced in July that Bruno Fernandes, the former treasurer and vice president of finance, would step up to the roles of vice president, chief financial officer and treasurer. He also appointed Sharon Reich Paulsen to the role of executive vice president and chief administration officer, Ellen Moran to the role of vice president of communications and marketing and made interim Vice President for Human Resource Management and Development Sabrina Minor a permanent leader of her department.

“Individuals who are working in an area where the leader is entitled ‘interim,’ they have a degree of anxiety and uncertainty,” Wrighton said. “That transition to more permanent administrative leaders was very calming for the community.”

Wrighton said other “great” accomplishments during his term include the creation of 14 professorships in September and the launch of “Open Doors: The Centuries Initiative for Scholarships and Fellowships” in October, a program that funds need-based scholarships 1:1 with donor contributions.

Wrighton said he faced difficult decisions before his term had even officially begun, like helping make the decision to start the spring 2022 semester with one week of virtual instruction after the first Omicron variant of COVID-19 descended upon the U.S. in the winter of 2021.

Wrighton said he will miss his walks around campus with his dog Spike, where he chatted with students who he believes care about the “future of the world.”

Wrighton attended basketball games throughout his tenure and once joined the George’s Army student section last February, sporting a buff and blue wig.

“I like to go to those, not with some script in my hand giving a speech, but rather just there if anybody wants to come up and talk with me or ask a question,” Wrighton said.

Last month, Board Chair Grace Speights announced the creation of the Mark S. Wrighton Professorship in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences to commemorate Wrighton’s service to the University.

Following his departure from GW, Wrighton said he plans to return to Washington University in St. Louis as a professor, with plans to teach courses on chemistry and energy as well as finance in higher education.

“I’m stepping up to the most rewarding job at the university,” Wrighton said.

Faculty said Wrighton improved their relationship with the administration because he listened to all stakeholders prior to making decisions. But they said his tenure is marked by the Board’s decision to arm some GWPD officers with handguns next fall and the lack of Board action in addressing Medical Faculty Associates’ $200 million debt to the University.

Alexa Alice Joubin, a departing faculty senator and a professor of English, said Wrighton joined GW during a period of “mistrust” between faculty and the administration due to LeBlanc’s plan to increase the amount of STEM majors by 30 percent while decreasing the total undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent. She said Wrighton would set aside time during faculty meetings for senators to contribute their thoughts on administrative decisions.

Wrighton said in September 2021 that he hoped to collaborate with faculty to define a “common understanding” of shared governance. The Board approved the Faculty Senate’s shared governance principles last May, confirming the faculty’s role in University decision making and authority in some areas of academic policy.

She said while Wrighton had “progressed” faculty input, his administration still prioritized STEM education over the humanities because officials loaned $200 million to the MFA from 2021 to 2022 to help recover from pandemic losses when the money could have been used to fund faculty research.

“It is unjustifiable, and it’s simply a lack of vision in leadership,” Joubin said.

She said she hopes Granberg will manage the MFA “crisis” so officials have the resources to provide “balanced” support to all areas of study at GW.

“We’re uniquely poised to accomplish this,” Joubin said. “No matter what specialization you’re studying, achieving a more fair, more just, more livable world is just a core of what we do here.”

Philip Wirtz, a faculty senator and professor of decision sciences and psychology, said the Board placed Wrighton in an “awkward” position in having the responsibility of creating an implementation plan for the arming of some GWPD officers because the Board made the decision without community participation.

Wrighton, who can vote on Board matters, said trustees began discussing arming GWPD prior to his tenure at GW. He said the Board asked him to create an implementation plan for the decision.

Wirtz said Wrighton’s “major” contribution to GW was listening to all University stakeholders before making any decisions, which was a “substantial” improvement from the LeBlanc administration.

“While I am sure that President Granberg has her own style, I would hope that the collegial environment that President Wrighton nurtured and fostered will continue,” Wirtz said in an email.

Grace Chinowsky contributed reporting.

This story has been updated to correct the following:
A prior version of this article incorrectly spelled Wirtz’s first name. We regret this error.

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About the Contributor
Ianne Salvosa, News Editor
Ianne Salvosa is a junior majoring in journalism and international affairs from Lake Saint Louis, Missouri. She is The Hatchet's 2023-2024 news editor for the Administration and Finance beat. She previously served as an assistant news editor for the Administration and Finance beat and a contributing news editor for the Academics and Administration beats for Vol. 119.
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