Mark Rayton, George Washington University, discusses school goals

“I believe the president should not be isolated in this office,” said Rayton, who began as interim president of GWU in January. “I want to be available to the people who work here.”

Rayton, whose long career in higher education includes years as a professor of chemistry and provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 24 years as chancellor of the University of Washington in St. Louis, came to the university by storm. The tenure of the former GWU leader has been controversial, and his departure from office has left the campus in a state of insecurity.

Rayton, which plans to stay up to 18 months, will now work to stabilize the campus of more than 27,000 students – the largest in DC

“My job is to build momentum for this institution,” Rayton said during an interview in his office. “My ambition is that 2022, the first year of our third century, will be considered a turning point in the pace of progress.”

Last year, when GWU celebrated its 200th anniversary, the campus was in a state of turmoil.

The Corona plague continued to wreak havoc, leading the university to host its second virtual graduation ceremony, even as other DC schools held personal celebrations. The campus came out after a difficult budget year due to a loss of revenue and unforeseen expenses caused by the plague – but managed to break even after “relief efforts” that included layoffs and a staff freeze.

Meanwhile, concerns about the leadership of then-President Thomas LeBlanc continued to rise, and a survey by the faculty revealed widespread dissatisfaction with his administration and a culture of distrust. In interviews, professors pointed to a number of leadership mistakes, including a program that was now shut down in 2019 to reduce enrollment and increase the number of students studying science, technology, engineering and math. The faculty often complained that Blank ignored the principles of co-administration, processes through which faculty – and sometimes students and staff – participate in key decisions.

In February 2020, allegations of racism arose after Blank made an insensitive remark in response to a question about evacuation from the fossil fuel industry – about which he later apologized. In August of that year, the university hired a marketing director from Michigan State University who, according to state prosecutors, was part of an effort to block an investigation by humiliated sports doctor Larry Nassar.

“There have been a lot of challenges,” said Frank Cessano, who leads strategic initiatives at the GWU School of Communication and Public Affairs. “Cubid challenges, budget challenges and challenges of faculty and others who feel that faculty administration has been reduced or that they simply did not have the forum they wanted.”

In May 2021, Blank announced that he would retire at the end of the 2021-22 school year. Shortly afterwards, M. Brian Blake, the provost and vice president of operations for academia, said he was also leaving, to serve as president of the University of Georgia State – and left GWU to fill two of its most senior positions.

In his retirement announcement, LeBlanc said GWU needed a leader who could plan for the future after the epidemic. But school officials, after consulting with LeBlanc, decided to speed up the process and announced in September that he would be leaving about six months earlier than planned.

Concerned about other vacancies at universities across the country – many a result of epidemic retirements – officials have decided to find an interim replacement to put the university in the best position to attract a permanent president, Grace Spits, chairman of the GWU Board of Trustees, said in September.

Enter Rayton, whose job it is to change course when GWU enters its third century.

“I think he has an intermediate degree, but he’s trying to radiate a steady mindset,” Cesano said, adding that Rayton is trying to “assure people he is the bridge to stable and future-oriented leadership.”

More specifically, Rayton said he focuses on fundraising, helping GWU continue to thrive on the epidemic, and filling open leadership positions including deans at the School of Nursing and the College of Vocational Studies. Rayton has already appointed a new provost, Christopher Allen Bracey, a forensic scientist and veteran professor at GWU.

“We had a number of interim leaders who did a great job,” Rayton said. “But, I think, part of the anxiety and uncertainty that is part of the situation here … stems, among other things, from the intermediate roles that some leaders play. Formalizing the leadership team is a very important agenda for me.. “

Rebecca Trembel, an associate professor and director of the school’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics, echoed Rayton’s concern.

“If we are missing a huge number of people in administrative positions, it’s so hard to be able to say, from the faculty’s point of view, that we have understanding and comfort with the direction set at the administrative level,” Trumble said.

The university needs a leader who is willing to be immersed in the community, Trumble added. So far, according to Cessano, the caretaker president is doing just that. Rayton is a regular attendee at campus events, and last Wednesday, held a meeting with staff called “Pastries with the President.”

“That reputation preceded him in being a good listener, and that’s what I saw,” Cessano said. “He’s making a real effort to be a listener.”

Despite Rayton’s breakthroughs at GWU, his short time on campus was not without its complications.

In early February, critical posters of the Chinese government were displayed on campus. The photos showed Olympic athletes – the Winter Games were held in Beijing – snowboarders on a surveillance camera and aiming a rifle at what appeared to be an Uighur activist.

Rayton said the university had received messages from people who were concerned about anti-Chinese racism, and in a message to the student he replied that he was also concerned. Some staff responded to make sure that Posters were removed, but there was never an official mandate to download the photos, officials said.

“People were quite upset that the posters were taking off, and some people were upset that the posters were posted in the first place,” said Zachary Blackburn, a sophomore and assistant news editor for the school’s student newspaper. “It was quite divisive.”

But in a statement to campus, and amid allegations the university was trying to censor students, Rayton said his administration responded too quickly and that he should have tried to better understand the situation before responding. “With full understanding, I do not see these declarations as racist; they are political statements,” Rayton wrote.

Officials said the posters were designed by Australian Chinese artist Badiucao who, in tweet, The posters said topics include “genocide with Uighur,” “surveillance systems present everywhere in the regime” and “the lack of transparency surrounding the COVID-19 epidemic.”

Still, the photos hurt some of the students. The Chinese Cultural Association condemned the posters. “In the United States, everyone has the right to freedom of expression; However, incitement to racial hatred and ethnic tensions, regardless of national boundaries, is intolerable, “the group said in a statement.

The difficult experience has highlighted tensions on campuses across the country as students and faculty clash over issues related to freedom of expression and academic freedom.

“These are not just traditions, but this commitment to the freedom we have in the United States is essential to our way of life,” Rayton said in an interview this month. But, he continued: “We have a responsibility here to make sure that every student feels supported and included, welcomed and given the support he or she needs when difficulties arise. And that includes international students.”

Days after Rayton approached campus on the posters, he wrote again to inform the community of a pilot program for data analysis that tracked the positions of students, faculty and staff last fall. The president apologized for the university’s “failure” to inform the community about the project before it began.

Although the project did not analyze individual data, several outlines, such as gender, were used to evaluate how campus facilities were used. Rayton said he learned about the project after coming to campus.

“All the data collected has been or will be destroyed,” Rayton said this month, adding that the project “was an inappropriate experiment in the use of new technology.”

Under Bracey’s leadership, Rayton said the university would develop a new policy for using data for analysis.

“A lot of people realized that it’s not something Rayton himself did, that it’s a show that only took place under Blank,” Blackburn said. “In general, however, I still think Rayton is popular with the student body and the university community.”

Still, the incidents caught interest. Even when the former leader is out, trust on campus remains fragile.

Many depend on Brighton to repair the ship.

“We definitely need someone who is willing to go above and beyond the usual measures that a university president would have taken, and recognizes that bringing that sense of community and commitment should be a priority,” Trumpel said. “Building community and trust, it’s a high and high order.”

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