ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: DR. BRIAN BLAKE ’89
Dr. Brian Blake, Benedictine Military School Class of 1989, is the new provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at George Washington University. The private research university, founded in 1821 in Washington, D.C., has an undergraduate enrollment of 12,546.
Blake held the same position since 2015 at Drexel University, a private research university founded in 1891 in Philadelphia, Pa. The provost and executive vice president for academic affairs is the chief academic officer of the university and is responsible for all of the university’s academic functions as well as supporting academic and administrative offices.
Blake’s ultimate career goal is to become a university president in five years. He has been the lead candidate for president jobs at colleges throughout the country but said he hasn’t found the right fit.
“It’ll happen,” said Blake, who turned 48 on Oct. 13. “I’m kind of holding out. I became a provost at 42, which is about 10 years younger than any of my peers. I’ve still got 20 years (before retirement) so I’m trying to be choosy. When my oldest son (Brendan, age 14) gets out of high school then it will be time to become a president. I would love for (the university) to have a football team. I would like for it to be a private institution. I’d like to be in a major city in the east. That limits it down to maybe five or six choices. I’m gearing up for a really big announcement in the next couple of years.”
Blake, an electrical and software engineer by training, has held faculty, dean and vice provost positions throughout his career. He focused on interdisciplinary research and education at Georgetown University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Miami (Fla.) before becoming provost at Drexel.
Blake said he was happy at Drexel but George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. LeBlanc, when he served as the University of Miami’s provost, appointed Blake as his vice provost. When LeBlanc became George Washington University’s president in 2017, he essentially had Blake on his speed dial.
“It’s adding more institutions to my resume than I want,” Blake said, “but I want to be a president. I only have one step (remaining) to be a president.”
The decision to leave Drexel University and make a lateral move to George Washington University was difficult, Blake said, until he compared the two universities.
“I’m up for reappointment at Drexel,” Blake said the day before his hiring at George Washington University was announced. “And I know what I’ve achieved in five years here. And for the next five years I’m going to be basically waiting for the right presidency. Do I think what can be done here over the next three-to-five years is equal to what can be done at George Washington? That’s kind of where the decision came. I think I’ll be able to get a little bit more done (at George Washington). I sat down and looked at the jobs side by side and realized, gosh, I can’t really pass this up.”
Blake developed his leadership skills while attending Benedictine Military School.
“Even today, as an academic leader, the one thing that sticks with me – and I share many stories from Benedictine – is ownership and responsibility,” Blake said. “It was kind of odd for me between the ages of 15 and 17. One time, as a (JROTC) squad leader, there was a little bit of tomfoolery going on as a squad. And I remember (the cadre) coming down on me and I was like, ‘I can’t control these kids.’ And they said, ‘No, no. You have a responsibility.’”
The memory of a food fight in BC’s cafeteria, one in which Blake did not participate, remains with him today.
“I remember one of the years, we had a food fight,” he said. “I don’t know what made us think to do that. I wasn’t involved. As tough as (BC administrators) were on discipline, I can’t even imagine anyone wanting to do that. But it’s collective liability. Everybody got treated the same, no matter if you were involved or not.”
Was there a punishment?
“Oh yeah,” Blake said before pausing a few seconds and bursting into laughter. “Yes, indeed. I remember us (students who were not involved) going to talk to the principal or the headmaster at the time and saying we weren’t there. But nope. Everybody gets treated the same.”
Punishment consisted of running on the track while holding a drill rifle. Push-ups and sit-ups also ensued.
“It was a full hour of fun,” Blake said, roaring with laughter.
“As I’ve gotten into my career, I often tell people that it’s important to have loyalty and try your best,” he said. “I’ve always been the type, if there’s a strategic decision being made by my supervisor, I try to support that. If it affects operations, that’s when I really try to push back. But if it’s a strategic operation, I try to be a leader. I don’t argue with my supervisor in meetings but I’ll discuss that offline. I provide leadership in meetings, but I try my best to preserve leadership and hierarchy. All of those basic principles of leadership and responsibility have helped me throughout my career.”
Blake said he knows well one of the favorite sayings of Lt. Col. John Manson Owens III ’61, who was BC’s Senior Army Instructor when Blake was a Cadet.
“Find out who your boss is. Find out what he wants. Give it to him,” Blake said. “Col. Owens was a great role model – completely put together all the time, spoke really eloquently. And he didn’t take a whole lot of mess. It was really good for us to have that kind of role model around.”
Blake also cultivated his academic aspirations while at BC.
“Benedictine really supported me,” he said. “I was nominated to go to Georgia Boys State. I was nominated to go to Model UN. I had a lot of support. There were things happening in the background there (at BC) that you didn’t really appreciate until later in life.”
Blake was a member of BC’s track and field team. He played spring football for one year. He was in the marching band all four years.
“I did the Drama Club,” he said. “And I was one of the 10 or 12 guys who were Outstanding Seniors that year.”
After graduating from BC, Blake earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Mercer University. He earned a doctorate in information and software engineering from George Mason University.
“My summer before my senior year, I spent two weeks at Purdue University in their Minority Introduction to Engineering program,” Blake said. “I knew I wanted to be a computer scientist or engineer and that really whet my appetite. And then I applied to MIT, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Mercer, and Tuskegee. I only applied to five or six places. I just knew I’d either go to Georgia Tech or Purdue or MIT. I didn’t get into MIT in the first round but I did get on the waiting list. I got in late, like in May, but I had already made up my mind to go to Georgia Tech at that point.”
Before entering academia on a full-time basis, Blake’s industry experience included six years as a software engineer and architect at Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and The MITRE Corporation.
“It was an interesting trajectory,” he said. “I worked full-time during my master’s and Ph.D. I was working with Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics all the way through. I never planned to go into academia. I planned to go back into industry and be a consultant. And then maybe start my own consulting business in software engineering. Eventually, I got the opportunity to teach part-time at Georgetown and it went very well. They invited me to apply for a full-time position. They made it worthwhile.”
After going to school and working at the same time for seven years, Blake became a professor and continued to do consulting for another seven years.
“So it was 14 years of academia and the corporate world kind of wrapped up together,” he said.
Blake left Georgetown, where he served as associate professor and department chair, for Notre Dame, where he was a professor and associate dean.
“Once you become chair, headhunters get you on a list. Then you start getting the calls,” he said. “I had been there 10 years. I loved Georgetown but the pull to kind of do something a little bit different at that time had really sunk in. That’s how I got to Notre Dame. I went from science to engineering and went from chair to associate dean."
Blake’s time at Notre Dame led him to the University of Miami, where he worked for LeBlanc, who is now his boss at George Washington University.
In addition to their son, Brendan, Blake and his wife, Bridget, have an 8-year-old son, Bryce. Bridget is a Georgia Tech graduate. She earned a master’s degree in business administration from Johns Hopkins University and works as an engineer in Washington, D.C.
Blake and his family visited BC this past June for his 30-year class reunion.
“I came back for two days,” he said. “It was crazy. There’s a brand-new (STEM) wing. It’s amazing. It’s all brand new. As a computer scientist, an engineer, it was great to see that impact on the school. That was really exciting.”