University Embarks On $1 Billion “Making History” Campaign

Celebratory launch event at Mount Vernon honors George Washington.

campaign event
A re-enactor playing George Washington greets GW President Steven Knapp and presents him with a challenge coin, commemorating the beginning of GW's "Making History" campaign.
June 21, 2014

By James Irwin

The most ambitious campaign in the 193-year history of the George Washington University—a $1 billion philanthropic effort that will bring GW into its third century and support its “Vision 2021” strategic plan—kicked off publicly Friday with a celebratory launch event at the university namesake’s Mount Vernon home.

Nearly 600 people, including students, faculty, trustees, alumni, friends and members of the university administration, gathered at George Washington’s estate to begin the public phase of “Making History: The Campaign for GW” and to pay tribute to the founding father who envisioned a university in the nation’s capital that would serve as America’s intellectual hub.

“What George Washington would recognize today is our culture of service and our continuing mission to educate citizen leaders for the world,” said GW President Steven Knapp. “In those respects we have remained faithful to our founding vision for nearly 200 years. Tonight we’re announcing an ambitious goal that will enable us to implement the strategic plan that was unanimously adopted last year by the Board of Trustees and provides the blueprint for achieving the full greatness that was always in this university’s future.”

Friday’s event, underwritten by anonymous gifts to celebrate the beginning of GW's historic undertaking, included a special challenge coin ceremony and remarks from Dr. Knapp, Board of Trustees Chair Nelson A. Carbonell Jr., B.S. ’85, and B.J. Penn, M.S. ’80, inaugural chair of the campaign.

"Making History," which began with a quiet phase in July 2011, has raised more than $525 million to date. The campaign is focused on three core areas: breaking new ground, enhancing academics and supporting students. GW has set goals to raise $500 million for academic programs, $400 million for student support—half of which will go to Power & Promise Scholarships—and $100 million for capital projects for new and existing facilities.

“If you look at the mission of the George Washington University, ultimately it’s about human well-being—the students, the faculty and staff, everyone is about helping others and helping them advance,” said Mr. Penn, former assistant secretary of the Navy for installations and environment and a former GW trustee. “Look at the number of students we have going overseas to work in other countries with organizations like the Peace Corps, the number of our students who give back to the community and our commitment to veterans. All of this is making a difference in the world.”

The challenge coin has historical roots in the military dating back nearly 100 years and is typically given out to enhance morale or in recognition of significant achievement. Challenge coins have developed into a popular form of welcome for dignitaries and special guests of foreign countries and have been presented to various diplomats by the last three U.S. presidents.

The GW challenge coin, a side profile of Washington in bronze relief, is based on the Washington Before Boston medal, commissioned by the U.S. Congress to commemorate the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776—one of Washington’s earliest victories in the American Revolution. The back of the coin is framed in university blue and anchored by a relief of Mount Vernon.

Assorted re-enactors playing the roles of historical figures—including George and Martha Washington—were part of Friday's event. They mixed with guests as they toured the mansion and the grounds, adding an element of time travel to the dinner, reception and remarks held on the east lawn of the estate overlooking the Potomac River.

Mr. Carbonell penned a moving open letter to George Washington in which he detailed Washington’s dream of a university that would educate the citizen leaders of America’s then-fragile and new democracy.

“You didn’t complete your own formal education,” Mr. Carbonell said to Washington. “Financial problems after your father’s death in 1743 robbed you of that opportunity. Instead you embarked on a rich life of self-education and discovery. You became an engineer, an agronomist, a surveyor, a politician, a soldier, a scholar. Nonetheless, you valued what you had been denied. It was your great wish to give others the opportunity to study and to learn.”