Memorial service highlights former president’s vision and character.
Colleagues, friends and admirers of 14th George Washington University President Lloyd Hartman Elliott filled the Dorothy Betts Theatre of the Cloyd Heck Marvin Center on Tuesday for a celebration of Dr. Elliott’s life and legacy. He was remembered in tributes as a gracious leader with a sparkling yet understated wit, and as a visionary modernizer who helped seal GW’s status as a major university.
Speakers noted Dr. Elliott’s focus on building the university’s physical presence, including the Marvin Center, numerous academic buildings and three libraries, as well as his determination that academics remain at the forefront of everything GW did. He was also remembered for being the first GW president to truly focus on diversity and inclusion, helping transform what was primarily a white, male institution into one that welcomed and supported women and people of color. Under Dr. Elliott’s tenure, the Educational Opportunity Program and the Continuing Education for Women program both opened new doors for previously underrepresented groups.
Dr. Elliott also hired numerous African American faculty members in the 1960s and ’70s, including some who had grown up in Washington, D.C., when they were still unwelcome to attend musical events at Lisner Auditorium.
“This was neither a passive nor a reluctant change,” said Roderick French, Ph.D. ’71, a former GW professor of philosophy and vice president for academic affairs. “[These] were not token appointments, but a down payment on a determined effort to diversify the university community in all of its constituencies.”
Michael Brown, dean of GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs, spoke about meeting Dr. Elliott and his wife, Betty, when he was newly appointed as dean of the Elliott School in 2005. After that initial meeting, he and Dr. Elliott communicated regularly.
“From the beginning, Lloyd was a great help to me,” Dr. Brown said. “Just imagine: You’re a new dean. You’re on unfamiliar terrain and are trying to figure out where the landmines are located, and one of your advisers is a man who has served as a university president at two universities for 30 years. That’s a good adviser. That’s not bad at all.”
Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm, B.A. ’66, M.A. ’68, Kuwait Professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Affairs, described the day in 1965 when he first met Dr. Elliott. Mr. Gnehm was president of the GW student body at the time, and it had been an eventful spring. The university was without a president, students were feeling unfulfilled and tempers were flaring, he said. Unrest was erupting at Berkeley in California, and GW students hinted that the same thing might happen on GW’s campus. Student leaders had taken their grievances to university trustees and asked, in none-too-delicate terms, that they be taken seriously.
“We threatened them,” Mr. Gnehm said, to audience laughter.
So he was surprised when, the following fall, he received a call to come back to school early for a meeting. In a room of the Washington Hotel, he was introduced to Dr. Elliott.
“In his quiet, calming voice, he told me he’d been offered the position of president of the university, but that he’d said he wouldn’t accept it until he’d had a chance to talk to student leaders,” Mr. Gnehm said.
Over the course of several hours, Dr. Elliott explained his vision for the university and how he planned to lead it.
“I wasn’t expecting this openness or inclusiveness,” Mr. Gnehm said. “When I tried to leave, he said, ‘Hey, wait. Should I accept the job? Would the students welcome me?’ I didn’t really think it was my place to answer, but I said, if you lead the university the way you say you would, and if you’re inclusive in building community spirit, you’ll have our total support.”
Dr. Elliot became president, and he led the university just as he said he would. “His vision became the university community’s vision and with patience and great perseverance, he brought people together,” Mr. Gnehm said.
George Washington President Steven Knapp cited Dr. Elliott’s deep and ongoing interest in the university, both during his tenure and even 20 years after his retirement.
“Lloyd Elliot was the epitome of what any of us would want in a university president,” Dr. Knapp said. “He had the courage to lead as well as the humility to listen. His ambitions were focused not on his personal achievements but on what could be achieved by others, namely the scholars, students and alumni who he led by example.”
Dr. Elliott’s tenure at GW—at the time of his retirement, he was the longest-serving president of a major university in the nation—changed the university’s future.
“His visionary leadership set the George Washington University on the course to become the world-class institution of higher learning it is today,” Dr. Knapp said. “And we’ll honor his legacy by pursuing that course into the university’s third century.”