How (Not) to Corporatize a University

Corporate culture is incompatible with shared governance.
By Dane Kennedy

For all those aspiring university presidents out there, today’s lesson is about how the introduction of a corporate mode of governance can threaten the institution you lead, not to mention your own reputation. Our case study comes from George Washington University, a private Research I university chartered by an act of Congress in 1821 and located in the heart of Washington, DC. Like almost every other university in the country, it faces serious financial problems because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those problems, however, have been exacerbated by the policies that the university president has pursued over the past two years. Drawing on corporate models and consultants, he has sought to radically reshape the character and purpose of the university through a series of peremptory actions. Even before the pandemic struck, these actions had precipitated a crisis of confidence in his leadership, spurring faculty members and students to call for his resignation. Now, as the university struggles to cope with the challenges posed by COVID-19, there is widespread suspicion that he intends to use the crisis to advance his corporatist agenda, stirring even deeper distrust and division.

Step 1: Find a Throat to Choke

Thomas LeBlanc was appointed president of George Washington University in July 2017. He came from the University of Miami, where he had served as executive vice president and provost. Taking a page from the playbook of the modern CEO, he purged most of the previous president’s upper-level administrators and brought in his own team from Miami, which number at least nine senior administrators. They include his majordomo, Mark Diaz, executive vice president and chief financial officer, who reportedly bragged about how he got results—by finding “a single throat to choke.” Management gurus recommend more euphemistic language, of course, and a good example of that is evident in the title and duties of another of the administration’s new appointees. The assistant vice president of talent and organizational development is responsible for “onboarding, succession planning, performance management . . .  and employee engagement,” which are classic examples of management speak. Noticeably absent from such business jargon or the unbowdlerized version preferred by Diaz is anything resembling the notion of shared governance.

Step 2: Apply the Shock Doctrine

Every university president knows it’s best to reveal unpopular decisions during the summer, when faculty, students, and alumni are dispersed and distracted. In summer 2019 LeBlanc made a stunning announcement: he intended to reduce George Washington University’s undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent while increasing the proportion of students in STEM disciplines to 30 percent. This decision caused shock and dismay for several reasons. First, George Washington University is a tuition-dependent institution with a relatively modest endowment. Any reduction in the student body means a reduction in revenue, which almost certainly means staff and program cuts. With less revenue, the pool of funds for need-based financial aid shrinks as well, diminishing student diversity. Second, the university has built its reputation by concentrating on the opportunities that are uniquely available in the nation’s capital. The cosmopolitan character, political dynamism, and cultural riches of Washington, DC, attract particular types of students, and their interests are mirrored in the university’s strengths, which include its programs in international affairs, political science, and history. Increasing the proportion of STEM students will likely erode those strengths. And STEM programs are expensive: they have higher start-up and operational costs, and the nationwide competition for STEM students prompts institutions to offer them deeper tuition discounts. Prior to being pushed out of office, the university’s previous provost ran financial models that predicted the proposed changes would lead to revenue losses of as much as $36.2 million per year. More recently, a faculty study suggested that the changes could reduce annual income by $80 million.

Why in the face of these facts was LeBlanc so intent on pursuing this plan? He never gave a satisfactory answer. He suggested that the reduction in enrollment was necessary to prepare for a projected decline in the pool of college-bound students, though applications to the university were strong. He also argued that it would “improve the student experience,” though he failed to explain how admitting fewer students would accomplish that goal—or why 20 percent was the optimal percentage. LeBlanc’s case for increasing the proportion of STEM students to 30 percent rested on the claim that it was necessary to bring George Washington University in line with its peer institutions, though why that should matter remains a mystery. It also ignored the inconvenient fact that neighboring Georgetown University falls short of the 30 percent threshold for STEM students as well, suggesting that location may have something to do with this anomaly. Lastly, LeBlanc sought to assure the faculty that the university had the financial resources required to carry out his “20/30 plan,” though he refused to share much of the data his team had run on the plan’s economic implications. It is hardly surprising, then, that many members of the university community concluded that the president’s plan was a recipe for disaster. The real question was whether this disaster had been set in motion by design. Had LeBlanc and his Miami colleagues concluded that the radical institutional change they sought required the sudden shock of “disaster capitalism,” as Naomi Klein famously put it in The Shock Doctrine? Had the corporate world’s infatuation with downsizing and “creative destruction” infected the thinking of George Washington University’s leaders? And if so, was it a harbinger of the future for other universities?

Step 3: Compel Compliance

Even though the president’s plans were almost certain to cause substantial revenue losses and significant program cutbacks, they didn’t stop him from enlisting the services of the Disney Institute, a consulting agency that advertises itself as the “professional-development and external-training arm of the Walt Disney Company.” (LeBlanc steadfastly refused to reveal how much he paid the agency, claiming contractual constraints, but rumors suggested that the amount might have been as high as $3 million or $4 million.) What George Washington University got for its money was a survey of sentiments among staff and faculty, which purportedly revealed that they suffered from a culture of negativity. What followed was a plan to rectify the supposed problem through a series of Disney-designed workshops collectively dubbed the “culture initiative.” It should be stressed that the Disney Institute’s idea of culture had nothing to do with scholarly or even popular understandings of that term. Rather, it was all about corporate culture, a concept that has been all the rage in the business world—and now has begun to worm its way into our universities. The professed aim of corporate culture is to instill a sense of shared purpose among employees, but its real objective is far more coercive and insidious.

All university staff members and managers were ordered to attend the culture initiative workshops, and faculty members were strongly “encouraged” to do so. Each of the workshops, which ran for nearly two hours, was held in a campus ballroom large enough to accommodate about a hundred employees. What the attendees experienced was a cross between a pep rally and an indoctrination camp. With great fanfare, they were introduced to the university’s nonsensical new slogan, “Only at GW, we change the world, one life at a time.” (We change the world only at GW?) This was followed by another clumsy branding exercise, this one draped in the tinsel of inspirational words. “Our GW Values” were revealed to the assembled masses as “integrity,” “courage,” “respect,” “excellence,” “diversity,” and “openness.” (Did the Disney team discover this banal list of words in the dusty file cabinets of the long-defunct Mickey Mouse Club?) It goes without saying that these consultants from the corporate world had no idea that the values universities actually aspire to honor and promote include innovative research, teaching excellence, critical inquiry, and new ideas.

Yet the most disturbing aspect of the workshops was revealed when they turned to the university’s three “service priorities.” While the first of these priorities—“care”—was pure pablum (“I support a caring environment by greeting, welcoming, and thanking others”), the other two offered insight into the culture initiative’s real agenda. One of these priorities was “safety”; the other, “efficiency.” Both were intended to get employees to improve their job performance. The first safety recommendation was an injunction to “keep areas clean, well maintained, and inviting.” An important measure of efficiency was a willingness to “embrace change” and be “open to new ways of working.” One wonders whether work efficiency would have been improved by redirecting the millions of dollars paid to the Disney Institute into staff salaries or bonuses instead. But that misses the point. The main purpose of this corporate-culture initiative is obviously to create a more disciplined and compliant work force. Indeed, workshop leaders confessed as much in one session, acknowledging in an aside that “compliance” was a central, if largely unmentioned, pillar of the project.

While maintenance workers, office staff, lower-level managers, and many of the faculty were herded into their indoctrination camps on campus, administrators and other select members of the university community—those presumably deemed to be opinion leaders—were invited to all-expenses-paid trips to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Here they were given the opportunity “to gain firsthand insight into Disney’s approach to culture.” Exactly how many people took part in this boondoggle or how much it cost the university is a closely guarded secret, but word did leak out about a special two-day “Our GW Leadership Summit” at Disney World in early February 2020. Those who attended this extravaganza were treated to a “Happily Ever After” evening show and granted insight into “how Disney has created a values-vision structure that 100% of the employee population aligns to.” In order to ensure attendees understood that LeBlanc expected them to align with his own “values-vision structure,” the summit concluded with this chilling expression of fealty: “Each of the participants will create a written commitment and action plan to present to President Tom LeBlanc. These requirements will be the start of individual accountability to make a difference with Our GW.”

Step 4: Deflect and Stonewall Dissent

Despite the best efforts of the president, he was unable to obtain the compliance his Disney consultants had promised. In the fall following his summer bombshell, an alarmed faculty packed a university-wide special assembly to voice their concerns about his 20/30 plan and passed a resolution calling on him to reveal the data and rationale for his decision to the faculty senate. Although LeBlanc publicly promised to do so, his promise proved empty. The faculty senate committees that were established to gather information from the administration for an independent assessment of the plan reported on their findings at another highly anticipated faculty assembly the following spring, and their conclusions were damning. The “fragmentary and incomplete” information they had received “does not logically support the 20/30 plan.” Because of the dearth of useful data, the committees could not provide any meaningful evaluation of the impact of the plan “on the curricular, research, and diversity and inclusion missions of the University.” Moreover, the president refused to reveal to the committees how much the Disney Institute’s culture initiative had cost or even how the culture survey it conducted had been designed and analyzed. The faculty senate’s general conclusion was a thumping understatement: the president’s plan “did not properly follow the principles of shared governance.”

While the faculty assembly rules did not permit a direct vote of no confidence in the president, it did allow the faculty to endorse the committees’ reports and recommendations, which they proceeded to do by a vote of 189 to 0. This bears repeating: academics who normally can be counted on to argue and critique and parse almost any resolution imaginable voted unanimously in favor of the committees’ damning conclusions. It was a stinging rebuke of the president. And it was followed soon thereafter by a petition, signed by 135 faculty members, calling on LeBlanc to resign.

Students objected to the president’s plans as well. More than a hundred of them signed the resignation petition, even though it was circulated mainly among faculty, and the editors of the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, called on the president to resign. One student group, the Progressive Student Union, charged that the president’s proposed changes are “destructive and pose an existential threat to the GW community as a whole.” Among its likely consequences, they warned, was a decline in student diversity, leading to an “exclusively rich and white student body.” Sunrise GW, another student organization, targeted the outsized influence of corporate interests on campus as part of its campaign for the divestment of fossil-fuel stocks. When a member of this group confronted LeBlanc as he walked across campus and asked him how he would respond if the student government voted in favor of a divestment resolution, his bizarre response drew national media attention. He asked, “What if the majority of students agreed to shoot all the black people here?” and added, “Do I say, ‘Ah, well, the majority voted?’ No.” The sheer insensitivity of this racially charged, not to say strange, comment sparked widespread outrage and forced LeBlanc to issue a public apology. But no one remarked upon an equally troubling aspect of his reply—its rejection of the premise that the opinion of the majority of the student body merited attention and respect.

The same dismissive attitude was evident in the president’s dealings with the faculty. Members of his administrative team chided faculty critics for being “disrespectful” to him, though LeBlanc himself told a group of employees that his critics were “jerks” and “asses.” A few days before the spring faculty assembly, Mark Diaz, the executive vice president, gave a gratuitous poke in the eye to those who questioned the culture initiative by announcing that the administration was “moving forward to improve GW’s culture” by partnering “with the polling service Gallup to measure [the initiative’s] progress.” Those wondering how much this new corporate partnership would cost the university are not holding their breath for an answer.

In the immediate aftermath of the assembly’s unanimous vote, LeBlanc did adopt a more conciliatory tone, issuing an anodyne letter with boilerplate language about how he had “listened and heard [faculty] concerns.” He also made it clear, however, that he had no intention of reevaluating his policy objectives. Notably, the letter was cosigned by the chair of the board of trustees. It sent the unmistakable message that the president retained the support of the only constituency that evidently matters to him—the trustees.

Corporate vs. Academic Governance

In the opening pages of Reframing Academic Leadership, Lee G. Bolman and Joan V. Gallos make the point that “the differences between business and higher education do matter.” Higher education, they note, has its own “goals, tasks, employees, governance structures, values, technologies, and history.” For many readers, Bolman and Gallos seem to be stating the obvious. Yet a surprising number of university leaders have pursued policies that erode or even deny the differences between universities and corporations. Their reasons for doing so doubtless are related to the structural forces that have transformed universities, along with their own duties, in recent decades. Universities have increasingly established research partnerships with corporations, turned to corporate titans for high-profile donations, and stocked their governing boards with figures from the corporate world. Many university presidents probably spend more time in the company of business bigwigs than they do among their own faculty, students, and staff. It should come as no surprise, then, that corporate models of management have influenced university administrators. For many of them, it must be tempting to assert the sort of authority over their institutions that CEOs wield, to demand the forms of compliance from their employees that large companies require, to carry out the sweeping changes—euphemistically referred to as “creative destruction”—that the business world celebrates as bold and transformative leadership. But emulating corporate practices can cause big problems for universities and their leaders. As Bolman and Gallos point out, shared governance is integral to institutions of higher education, and when the leaders of these institutions fail, they often do so because they do not bother “to take people along with them” by engaging them as partners in the decision-making process.

At George Washington University, President LeBlanc and his team have shown no interest in taking the university community along with them. They have preferred to demand a culture of compliance, to cloak their decisions in secrecy, and to silence those who express dissenting opinions or call for shared governance. Now they confront a crisis caused by the threat of the coronavirus that places unprecedented pressures on the university. While the pandemic has forced LeBlanc to announce a “pause” to his strategic plans, it has not led him to abandon them. In fact, there are indications that he intends to use the crisis as the excuse for the radical restructuring of the university he has sought all along. He no longer needs to manufacture the conditions for “disaster capitalism” through the 20/30 plan now that they have arrived on the wings of the pandemic. The trustees have directed the administration to “consider all appropriate options” (emphasis in the original), and the president has announced that there will be layoffs and furloughs, with programmatic cuts sure to follow. For a storied university that celebrates its two-hundredth anniversary next year, it’s hard to see how this Disney-inspired “values-vision structure” ends happily ever after.

Dane Kennedy is the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, where he teaches and writes about British and world history. His email address is [email protected].