Shaping the Future of Washington, D.C.

President Knapp says higher learning institutions and local governments can cooperate to strengthen regional economy.

George Washington President Steven Knapp speaks at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments board meeting last Wednesd
George Washington President Steven Knapp speaks at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments board meeting last Wednesday. (Logan Welinger/GW Today)
February 17, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

As Washington, D.C., became the latest member of the Global Cities Initiative (GCI), George Washington University President Steven Knapp called for increased communication and cooperation between universities and local governments to stimulate the region’s economic growth internationally.

The greater Washington, D.C., area—which includes the District of Columbia, suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia—has “the seventh largest service economy in the world, which puts us behind Seoul-Incheon but ahead of Chicago, Beijing and Moscow,” Dr. Knapp told a public board meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) on Wednesday, referring to a Brookings Institution report.

“However, when it comes to our export economy, we rank 95th out of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. That’s clearly an area for growth, and our universities are all thinking about the role we can play in helping to expand our export economy.”

Dr. Knapp presented alongside John Cavanaugh on behalf of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, a nonprofit educational association of 14 universities in the D.C. area. Dr. Knapp is chairman of the consortium; Dr. Cavanaugh is its president and CEO.

“As an economic sector, consortium institutions represent the largest private employer in D.C. and one of the largest employers in the region,” Dr. Knapp said, adding that—with a total regional economic impact of approximately $15 billion—universities contribute far more than just jobs.

University alumni frequently settle in the area. Money from research grants to D.C. institutions often is spent locally. Consortium institutions also drive regional economic growth through investments in entrepreneurship education, support for translational research and commercialization of intellectual property.

But universities can offer even more significant economic benefits when they collaborate with area governments, Dr. Knapp said.

Restrictive caps on graduate student recruitment could be lifted, for example, to increase local creation of intellectual property and add to the region’s tax base. Government entities could tap the convening and facilitation abilities of their local universities. And stronger transportation and infrastructure could help move intellectual capital around the region and foster an innovative culture.

The GCI, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase, is a five-year program that helps U.S. metropolitan areas engage their economies more deeply in world markets. On Wednesday, the MWCOG announced that a coalition representing local government, business and higher education leaders had been selected to participate in the GCI. Greater Washington is the 29th metropolitan area to be selected.

Universities, and in particular GW, are uniquely well positioned to strengthen D.C.-area ties to the international community, Dr. Knapp said.

“[Universities] can use our global footprint,” he said. “In [GW’s] case, we have 240,000 alumni around the world. We are connected to them, and we can help to market products and services produced in our region through those networks.”

As an example, he cited mayoral delegations to China in company with GW faculty. Some delegations had returned with commitments from Chinese investors “with whom [GW] had made the initial contact,” he said.

“I hope the Global Cities Initiative…will stimulate an opportunity for continuous exchange between local governments within the region, identifying priorities that we can then factor into our considerations as a consortium of universities,” Dr. Knapp said. “Those connections have just never been made before.”