"Badger blood doesn’t go away, even though we haven't lived in Madison in a very long time. My wife and I still think of ourselves as Badgers," says Thomas J. LeBlanc (MS '79, PhD '82).
His education in computer science has taken him far: LeBlanc recently became the 17th president of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the latest milestone in a distinguished academic career. His inauguration takes place Nov. 13.
Before joining GWU, LeBlanc served as executive vice president and provost at the University of Miami. His career began at the University of Rochester, in his home state of New York, where he was a computer science professor, department chair, and eventually dean of the faculty in the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering.
Just a few decades ago, it was uncommon for a college president to emerge from the relatively new field of computer science. Yet LeBlanc has found CS to be solid footing for an administrative career—and his appointment reflects an upward trend in college presidents with computer science or engineering backgrounds.
“I’ve long thought about the role of your disciplinary training in preparing you for administration. I also think it’s interesting how different disciplines over time become the seed ground for senior leadership,” says LeBlanc. “Computer scientists know how to take very large problems and break them up into smaller problems that can be solved individually; that’s a core thing one learns. And I’ve also worked very hard in my administrative career to remove ambiguity where ambiguity tends to cause problems.”
Says Charles Fischer, Professor Emeritus of Computer Sciences and one of LeBlanc’s mentors at UW-Madison, “Tom’s selection as president of GWU shows that computer science has entered the mainstream of academia. We in the department are so proud of all that he’s achieved.”
At GWU, LeBlanc plans to use his background in CS to advance big challenges on campus while maintaining a big-picture view that values what each discipline brings to the life of the university. “My goal in all of my positions has been to have an impact; I was never enamored of the trappings of the office as much as the ability to make changes I thought were important and valuable.”
His UW years were formative for LeBlanc. “I really grew up as a computer scientist in Madison,” he recounts. “There were a tremendous number of people who came through on visiting appointments or gave seminars who are luminaries of the technology landscape during the last thirty or so years. It’s really kind of incredible, so I was always glad for having chosen Madison.”
Core UW-Madison faculty played a key role, too. Important figures in LeBlanc’s education include Professors Emeritus Fischer and Larry Landweber, both of whom will attend his inauguration, as well as his advisor Robert Cook, who supervised LeBlanc’s dissertation at the intersection of programming languages, compilers and operating systems. "Tom was an exceptional student but what made him extra special was his willingness to explore," says Landweber.
Yet it wasn’t only UW-Madison’s reputation as a powerhouse in computer science that brought LeBlanc here: his wife, Anne, earned her master’s in meteorology in 1980. Having met as undergrads (from different campuses) through a summer research program, they knew they wanted to attend graduate school in the same place.
“Madison was the best university when you looked at the combination of strength in meteorology and strength in computer science,” says LeBlanc. Anne LeBlanc’s mentors included the late Verner Suomi, considered the father of satellite meteorology.
Tom and Anne married at the Memorial Union, enjoyed the energy of State Street, and recall the antics of the Pail and Shovel Party, including the famous installation in winter 1979 of the Statue of Liberty emerging from a frozen Lake Mendota.
Now, as he steps into his next big challenge, LeBlanc looks back with fondness on the academic career he has pursued since leaving UW-Madison 35 years ago, new doctorate in hand. “I’ve loved having a career in the academy. I think it keeps me young. I like being around 18- to 22-year-olds who are interested in learning, and I find it refreshing to talk to faculty about their latest ideas. For me, it’s never grown old.”
[Photo courtesy of George Washington University]