D.C. University Students and Presidents Discuss ‘Race Relations on Campus’

GW President Steven Knapp and student leaders participate in summit at Howard University.

beyond the dialogue
George Washington President Steven Knapp talks with students from D.C. colleges and universities about ways to improve race relations on campus at Howard University.
December 07, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

George Washington University President Steven Knapp, administrators and student leaders added their voices to a dialogue on campus race relations Friday at Howard University.

Dr. Knapp, Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick and American University President Cornelius Kerwin fielded questions from student delegates during the closed-door “Beyond the Dialogue Summit on Race Relations on Campus.”

The forum comes in the wake of growing protests over race relations on university and college campuses nationwide.

Dr. Knapp said that hearing students’ concerns and suggestions for improving race relations was an important step. The GW delegation included students representing the Black Student Union, the Black Graduate Student Association, the Organization of Latino American Students, the GW NAACP, the Presidential Administrative Fellows, the National Council of Negro Women, the Student Association and other organizations. 

The George Washington University delegation included President Steven Knapp, students and administrators. 

“I think we got some great ideas that we are going to be able to take back to GW,” Dr. Knapp said. “It’s been a very constructive occasion.”

Following the roundtable forum, students were paired with administrators for an informal discussion over lunch. Groups brainstormed strategies to improve race relations and inequality on campuses and presented their ideas.

Suggestions included a faculty mentorship program that identifies minority student mentees across universities, an anonymous reporting structure for students who experience racism or microaggressions and a mandatory history course that teaches students cultural competencies and the context of racial inequality in America.

Black Graduate Student Association President Oshane McCrae and Black Student Union President Leslie Ogu were selected to lead the GW delegation.

 Ashlynn Profit, B.A. ’14, a second-year PAF and graduate student, said the conversation was productive for both administrative leaders, who need student perspectives to inform their leadership, and students, who want to connect across universities.

“I was impressed with President Knapp, because he asked for help from the students in solving these issues,” Ms. Profit said. “I think this dialogue really opened up conversation in a positive way, because each university saw how we can learn from one another.”  

The creative layout for the roundtable discussion placed university presidents and students leaders on a raised platform in the center of the room as they engaged in a dialogue in front of a student audience. 

Dr. Frederick encouraged participants to exchange contact information and continue the conversations following the forum.

“Just because we are presidents doesn’t mean we always have to lead,” Dr. Frederick told students. “Our role is to remove barriers so that you can do organic things that effect change, but that can only happen through dialogue.

“We are a historically black university, but it doesn’t mean that we always get race right,” he added. “I think if we all keep our humanity as the thing we want to preserve and elevate, then we can find the right solutions.”


"We know there are definite things we have to do to improve race relations on campus"

- GW President Steven Knapp 

During final remarks Dr. Knapp said that he was inspired to launch a student consortium to represent the 14 schools of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. Dr. Knapp serves as the chair of the consortium board of trustees.

Dr. Knapp said that the D.C. community is perhaps the best classroom for student to learn about race relations in America given its historical significance. GW prides itself on encouraging students to participate in civic engagement and service, whether volunteering for the university-wide Freshman Day of Service or finding an individual or group service activity through the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, he said.

Students presented strategies for improving race relations on campus following the roundtable discussion. 

“A lot of the history of the Civil War, the end of slavery and the Reconstruction era happened around this region,” Dr. Knapp said. “We still have a racially divided city, and I think the best education students can have is by getting out into the community.”

Dr. Knapp also noted that after talking with students he saw a need to develop ways for students to report microaggressions that they encounter on campus, whether in the classroom or socially.

“It isn’t obvious what the answer is because you don’t want to put people on the defensive or make them feel attacked,” he said. “But we know there are definite things we have to do to improve race relations on campus.

“It’s an educational challenge for our whole institution.”