When Skip Gnehm was president of the GW student government in the mid-1960s, he knew students who had been expelled for violating the school’s residence hall curfew or for sneaking into the women’s hall.
Times have changed in Foggy Bottom in the ensuing 30 years, not just on campus, but also at the Department of State, where Gnehm serves as director general of the foreign service.
As the department’s most senior career official, he carries the responsibility for the recruitment, training, assignments, promotions and ambassadorial selection of career officers.
Edward “Skip” Gnehm Jr. graduated from GW in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and returned for his master’s in 1967. After graduation, he joined the State Department.
His r?sum? from then on reads like a “Who’s Who” guide to international politics:
Deputy representative of the United States to the United Nations under Madeleine Albright from 1994 to 1997;
U.S. ambassador to Kuwait from 1990 to 1994;
Deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia;
Deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Near East and South Asia;
Two Presidential Meritorious Service Awards;
And chairman of the Student Affairs Committee of GW’s Board of Trustees.
Gnehm – whose son would later follow in his footsteps – came to GW after his high school teacher recommended the Elliott School of International Affairs’ foreign affairs program, formerly known as the School of Government, Business and International Affairs.
“The Washington experience was, for me, the best part of GW,” Gnehm said in an interview before his afternoon lecture at the Elliott School Friday. “Getting to know my way around town, networking with friends in student government – it was all a part of my education.
“Being in Washington is unique. You see the buildings and the players on TV all the time but actually walking through the halls and bumping into the VIPs is incredible,” said Gnehm, who recalls meeting Senate Majority Leader Gerald Ford when he was a young man.
A member of the Sigma Chi fraternity and the Baptist Student Union when he was at GW, Gnehm remains good friends with college roommate Jim Ziegler, now the sergeant at arms for the U.S. Senate. Gnehm said networking may be the most important thing any student does in college.
“Student politics at GW, with all the blocs and different student groups, was a great intro to dealing with the federal government,” Gnehm joked.
His decision to come to Washington from the “swamps, sand, watermelon patches and peanut fields of south Georgia” was fodder for the folks back home, who derided him for going to school up in “Yankeeland.”
“Not long after I got to GW, I realized people from New York and New Jersey were not, in fact, foreigners,” Gnehm said.
Gnehm still talks about the importance of one class on imperial America he took with Professor Peter Hill.
“It was one of the subjects I took at GW that ended up relating directly to the work I do everyday,” Gnehm said.
His work today, in addition to his duties as a senior level State Department official, includes serving on the University’s Board of Trustees, a position that allows him to see firsthand the nuances of student government’s interaction with the administration and how it has changed since the days when he was The Big Man on Campus.
“GW today has gained much more management attentiveness, in part because there are more students involved in student government,” said Gnehm, who spends a few hours a week on the phone or meeting with students.
“When I was at GW, it would have been unheard of for the Board of Trustees to meet with the students,” Gnehm said.
“I was known as an instigator amongst the administration,” added Gnehm, who as student government president won a commitment from the board to build the Marvin Center as GW’s student union.
But the big changes in Foggy Bottom, Gnehm said, are at the State Department.
“Many ask whether the foreign service will survive in the future with the advent of new technological innovations like video-conferencing and the Internet,” Gnehm told the audience at Friday’s lecture.
“`When you can have an e-mail relationship with every foreign minister in the world, is there a need for one?’ they ask.
“I’m here to tell you, for as long as there is an America, there will be a foreign service. Nothing can match looking in the eyes of your counterpart and gauging their reaction,” Gnehm said.
“But times are changing. Look at the cables that go out of Washington today: They deal with terrorism, narcotics, international crimes, and health issues. The question of the next century is whether America will be able to influence the rest of the world,” Gnehm said.
“We simply need people who know how to live in a foreign environment, who know the issues, and who can carry out the foreign policy of this country,” he said.
Perhaps more people like Skip Gnehm.