By Ruth Steinhardt
On Feb. 9, 1821, President James Monroe signed an Act of Congress creating a university in Washington, D.C.—an institution that petitioner Luther Rice and his colleagues said could fulfill “the plans and aspirations of Washington, Jefferson and Madison for the erection of a university at the seat of the Federal government.”
Two centuries later, thousands of students, alumni, faculty, staff, families and friends came together virtually on Tuesday for a bicentennial celebration of the school that would become the George Washington University.
“Tonight is all about how all of us have made GW what it is today,” said CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, B.A. ’93, who introduced the ceremony. “We have two centuries of ‘only at GW’ moments, two centuries of GW memories and two centuries of bonds that form this lifelong community.”
The program, emceed by senior Skye Blanks and junior Peyton Wilson, included musical performances, trivia interludes, a timeline of GW’s notable research contributions over the past two centuries and a montage of birthday wishes from community members around the world. “Scandal” and “Little Fires Everywhere” star and producer and activist Kerry Washington, B.A. ’98, HON ’13, narrated a short but comprehensive documentary on GW’s 200-year history, including some of its many distinguished faculty and alumni and its concurrent evolution with the city of Washington, D.C.
“Two hundred years is a big deal,” GW President Thomas J. LeBlanc said. “This is an opportunity to look back and celebrate our history, but also a chance to look forward and think about who we want to be during the coming century.”
In his vision of GW’s future, Dr. LeBlanc stressed the importance of an accessible, equitable GW education. He said a major focus will be on ensuring students from every background have the financial aid they need to succeed at GW and, once they arrive, the resources and support they need to thrive and to graduate. That’s particularly necessary, he said, in a society where the resource gaps between white communities and communities of color have been exposed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to ensure that higher education, which I believe is the greatest force for social mobility in our country, is accessible to all,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “We need to enroll a diverse student body, we need to have a diverse faculty and staff, and we need to ensure that our students can be successful.”
GW Board Chair and alumna Grace Speights, J.D. ’82, echoed Dr. LeBlanc’s emphasis and underscored the power of the GW community.
“We are focused on inclusion and equity, believing that a GW education changes lives and should always be within reach,” she said. We are focused on finding opportunities in the new and different, adapting the ways we teach, learn and work to evolve our university to address the big challenges not only of the present, but also of the future. And we are focused in leading in service of others. Our community leads, and serves, knowing that together we can change the world.”
Producer and journalist Reena Ninan, B.A. ’01, moderated Q & A sessions with Dr. LeBlanc, Steven Knapp and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, during which GW’s three most recent presidents reflected on their legacies and on the future of the school they served.
“We were at a moment in time when I saw opportunities for expansion into disciplines that made a lot of sense given our location,” said Mr. Trachtenberg, who served from 1998 to 2007. For instance, though Mr. Trachtenberg foresaw that issues of public health would obviously be a major concern in the 21st century, the closest public health school to D.C. was an hour away in Baltimore. So Mr. Trachtenberg founded what is now the Milken Institute School of Public Health—the first public health school in the nation’s capital—not just by establishing new programs, but by combining existing programs in disparate schools into a multidisciplinary whole.
Dr. Knapp, who was president from 2008 to 2017, said he saw his role as expanding GW’s research excellence into diverse areas while continuing to develop the school’s traditional strengths in policy. Under his aegis, GW opened its groundbreaking Science and Engineering Hall, established the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum and launched the Global Women’s Institute, among other initiatives.
“What’s unique about GW’s approach…is a blend of theory and practice. Across the board, we combine scholarship of the highest levels with an impact on the world,” Dr. Knapp said. “We are an institution that sees our contributions in research as directly related to the needs of society and the needs of the world, and I’m sure that will continue to be a hallmark of what research means to George Washington in the years and, we hope, the centuries to come.”
GW also received birthday wishes from current and former GW neighbors, including President Joe Biden, former President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser.
“Since its founding, The George Washington University’s faculty and staff have not only prepared students to excel even in the face of challenges, but regularly contribute their own ideas and expertise to influence technological innovation, human health and policymaking,” Mr. Biden wrote. “I hope your community takes pride in the ways the George Washington University has touched lives.”
Mr. Carter wrote that he was “honored to have played a small role in the 200-year history of this esteemed institution by signing the George Washington University Charter Restatement Act of 1977.”
“George Washington University’s network of academic opportunities and partnerships is responsible not only for educating our future leaders, but for advancing technological innovations, improvements in health, policy initiatives and a greater understanding of humanity in ways that have made an impact on millions of lives. GW faculty are conducting pioneering research to fight global poverty, HIV/AIDS, cancer, climate change, terrorism and other urgent challenges facing our world. Many of GW's researchers, doctors and public health officials have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, applying their considerable talents to helping solve the pandemic. As you celebrate this historic milestone, I hope you look back with pride on the university's tremendous accomplishments, while also looking ahead to help create a better future for us all.”
Ms. Bowser proclaimed Tuesday “George Washington University Day,” calling GW “the fulfilment of the final wishes of its eponym, President George Washington, to establish a university in the U.S. capital city that would educate people across the nation in the arts and sciences while instilling good citizenship, removing local prejudice and providing practical experience in republican government, as evidenced by this university’s commitment to public service, volunteerism and community engagement.”
Tuesday’s ceremony was the first of many events that will commemorate GW’s bicentennial this year. For more, please visit bicentennial.gwu.edu.