President Knapp Discusses Focus for Academic Year

Applicants’ access, sexual assault prevention, interdisciplinary learning among priorities outlined in interview.

George Washington University President Steven Knapp.
George Washington University President Steven Knapp.
August 31, 2015

The view from the eighth-floor office of George Washington University President Steven Knapp offers a snapshot of his recent priorities for GW.

District House, which will be the second largest residence hall at GW, nears completion. Science and Engineering Hall, a 500,000-square-foot state-of-the-art research facility, serves as the hub for collaborative work among GW faculty and scientists.

Just beyond the sightlines from Dr. Knapp’s Rice Hall office, renovations continue at the Corcoran’s 17th Street Building. The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum offers exhibits and learning opportunities as it begins operations in its first full academic year.

“We’ve spent the last number of years since I’ve gotten here rebuilding the university’s infrastructure in ways that are pretty striking,” Dr. Knapp said in an interview last week. “I think we really need to focus at this point on some of the programmatic initiatives that have also been very important in the last number of years.”

Dr. Knapp, who became the 16th president of GW in August 2007, discussed several of those initiatives last week with GW Today editors. His list included broadening access to GW and diversifying its student population, educating the GW community about sexual assault prevention, infusing sustainability into every aspect of the GW community and encouraging collaboration among schools and interdisciplinary studies for students.

He also noted the ongoing success of Making History: The Campaign for GW, which Dr. Knapp said is “now over $790 million toward the $1 billion goal.”

The fundraising effort supports students, academic programs and research efforts at the university. Increased giving by university leadership, growth in annual giving and undergraduate alumni donors contributed to a record fundraising year. The campaign also was boosted by assets from the university’s historic agreements last summer with the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art.

“We’ve made rapid progress,” Dr. Knapp said. “We advanced rapidly in the last year. It was largest fundraising attainment ever in the university’s history. But this year is going to be a critical one.

“We are hoping we can meet the $1 billion goal ahead of deadline.”

Preparing Global Citizens

The university announced in July that its admissions process would be test optional for most freshmen applying to enter in fall 2016, making GW one of the largest private universities to no longer require applicants to take the SAT or ACT.

“That was part of our diversity and inclusion initiative, which is trying to increase the access for minority, lower income and first-time college-going families while at the same time working internally on our programs to make sure they are a success,” Dr. Knapp said.

“It is one thing to be the first person in your family to go to college, but it is another thing if you do it without the experience of generations of your family having attended college. We know there are challenges to completion of the degree that we need to address.”

Dr. Knapp said the decision to have test-optional admissions for undergraduates should help to diversify GW’s student population, a result that would better prepare graduates for a global workplace.

“There is a lot of work that has been done that documents that students benefit from being exposed to a wide variety of perspectives where they are studying,” he said. “Workplaces are more productive if they are diverse as well. We have always seen diversity as an element of academic excellence because of the learning experience that it provides for all the students who are brought together into a diverse community. And, frankly, in a world in which they are going to have to be global citizens, they are going to have to understand different perspectives. That is going to be important to their professional lives no matter what field they choose.

“It is an important part of preparing them for life, for the real world. Within their lifetimes, there will be a bunch of minorities and no majority. So, if they can learn to negotiate cultural differences, different perspectives, different economic backgrounds, different geographic backgrounds, they will have a rich preparation for life in the real world.”

Confronting Sexual Violence

Dr. Knapp this summer attended a meeting of presidents and key administrators from the member institutions of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area and representatives from the Justice Department and the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence The single topic was sexual violence on university campuses.

“One of the things we have to deal with is how we are going to respond collectively to sexual assault, given, among other things, the new laws and proposed legislation on sexual assault on college campuses,” said Dr. Knapp, who is chair of the consortium’s Board of Trustees.

“Virginia just passed a law. D.C. is considering legislation. Universities are getting [rules and direction] from the Education Department, the Justice Department and from Congress. Some of those efforts are not aligned, so that complicates things for us, complicates our ability to respond.”

GW implemented sexual assault prevention training this summer for incoming freshmen and graduate students. Over the past several months, the university hired a Title IX coordinator, Rory Muhammad, and an assistant director for sexual assault prevention and response, Carrie Ross. Dr. Knapp acknowledged that GW students have helped shape the university’s response to the issue, from participating on committees to volunteering for roles in “It’s On Us” videos.

“We have instituted some very significant training for students to orient them to the complexities of this issue, and to give them the tools to deal with what is a very complex issue that is the source of a lot of controversy and anxiety,” he said.

“It is still a work in progress in deciding exactly how these cases are going to be handled. We have a lot of people doing a lot of hard work focusing on that and communicating with other institutions. We are getting a lot of outside advice on what the best practices are in this area.

“We take this issue very seriously,” Dr. Knapp continued. “We want all members of our communities to feel safe when they arrive here. We want their families to feel safe when they send them here and feel secure about that decision. We are doing everything we can to respond effectively, but also to do it in a way that is transparent to everyone and makes sense.”

Model of Urban Sustainability

Dr. Knapp said sustainability is continuing to develop under the direction of Meghan Chapple, director of the Office of Sustainability, and Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Sustainability Collaborative.

“Their important work dovetails with the Healthy GW Campaign, which looks at everything from smoking to healthy food choices and pedestrian safety,” he said. “I think these things fit together. Making the campus community a sustainable one, in fact making us a model of urban sustainability, has been a priority of mine since I arrived. Making a healthier campus, a safer campus and more environmentally aware are important efforts.”

Collaborative Research, Interdisciplinary Learning

SEH was designed to foster collaborative research, and the building makes it easier for faculty to work together on projects.

 And changes announced by the university this summer were aimed at eliminating obstacles to interdisciplinary learning and making transfers between schools easier for students.

“That is really one of the important focuses of the strategic plan,” Dr. Knapp said.

“We now have all the deans in place. It is the first time since I have been here, I think, that we have all the deans in place.  It enables them, the schools to work together.

“We just brought in Sanjit Sethi as the founding director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, which itself is inherently interdisciplinary. That part of the university will bring together all of our arts departments and open opportunities for our students in the arts to work with engineering and in the arts and sciences more broadly,” he said.

Globalization—how GW fits in the global community—is another key in the strategic plan, Dr. Knapp said. “We have just created a new position—senior associate provost for international strategy—occupied by Doug Shaw, who I think will be a great leader. These are all things that are preparing us to move forward in directions that are consistent with the strategic plan, and we will continue to build out on those initiatives.”

Presidential Advice for New Students

Dr. Knapp maintains office hours monthly, a time available for students to meet with him in an informal setting to talk about whatever is on their mind. The sessions often include advice from Dr. Knapp on getting the most from the GW experience.

“I always give students two pieces of advice,” he said. “Make sure you get to know individual members of the faculty. That means not only going to class, but also going to faculty offices when they have office hours,” he said. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. Look for opportunities to do research projects with them. That has a pragmatic benefit when it comes time for letters of recommendation. They will have faculty members who can provide letters of recommendation based on first hand familiarity.

“They should also get to know other members of the student body because in some ways it’s the greatest resource they have here,” Dr. Knapp said.

“I advise all students to take advantage of what is here because time does go by fast.”