Measuring the success of a University

Folks who visit the GW campus see around them all the signs of success. New buildings are under construction. Our students get better and better. Every room in the student residences is occupied. The place bustles with the comings and goings of important people from Washington and other cities.

But some of those measures would also be relevant if we were talking about a commercial rather than educational success. Indeed, there is a peril of sorts in having around you the gleam and glow of an active, self-marketing university. The fresh externals are likely to hush-up any discussion of more intellectual and spiritual matters.

A century ago and even half a century ago, American higher education – after steeping itself in the principles first laid down by Matthew Arnold – was in many ways an emotional substitute for the religions in which its graduates could no longer believe. The fact that the school pulled out the medieval caps and gowns on Commencement day felt entirely appropriate. And talk of the Western tradition slipped neatly into the crevices left behind when God had departed.

But for all its pretenses of theological eternity, that academic order was doomed to change. Over the past fifty years, our universities’ inclination to look and feel ceremonial has greatly evaporated. To sit in the Office of the President is no longer to feel yourself burdened with all the heraldry of the Tudors or the Bourbons. But the fear immediately intrudes itself: Have we thrown the baby out with the bath water? Has the relative disappearance from GW’s repertoire of the “History of the English-speaking Peoples” note left nothing at all behind it? Has a place like GW become nothing more than a depot for rapid and effective learning? Have we lost forever the part of our lives here that was more traditional and – yes – romantic?

That depends, I suppose, on how you define “romantic.” My own somewhat idiosyncratic definition is: “Tending toward a profound interaction between the foreground and the background.” By this, I mean that GW is at its best and hopefully most characteristic when it’s making a strong impact on both (a) its students and faculty and (b) the world around it.

There is an auspicious chemistry between GW as a school and planet Earth in general. GW is one of those places where ideas are free to roam a bit, as are the people who think them up. That’s why our campus is, even by Washington standards, a center of architectural ferment. As a school, and as the people who have been drawn to that school, we feel free to change.

In my official report for this year, I discussed the GW campus as a work of art and concluded that the quest for its closest artistic analogy was more likely to feature Jackson Pollock than John Constable. But perhaps we’re even more in tune than that with the 21st century ambiance that features the computer. There’s a certain sheer interactivity about life on this campus that makes every conversation significant, because who knows what might get going or not going?

We start out talking about the current condition of The George Washington University. We end up talking about the latest leaps of human consciousness. But isn’t that the whole point about our Washington location? Here, all around us, are the descendants of Renaissance diplomacy, when fierce national enemies first realized how important it was to be able to get one of your own people close to the ear of the other guy, and apart from his courtiers. That amazing moment in human history has led us to the District of Columbia, where the coolest kinds of thinking are required in the middle of the noisiest rhetoric. And that, in turn, creates a sophisticated atmosphere for students of every kind, an atmosphere that GW is overjoyed to exploit.

What has marked GW in my own time here has been, I’m happy to report, its deepening roots as a part of the American national scene. Tens of millions of television viewers are familiar with our logo. Members of the Executive and Legislative branches prize us as a forum for self-revelation. And in the past few weeks alone, I’ve caught articles by GW people in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and other newspapers – articles of note.

I can portray GW’s present condition by citing all the things that don’t surprise us any more. Hillary Clinton is on the campus. The graduation is on the Ellipse. The ambassador from (fill in blank) is speaking to the class this afternoon. Have you heard about the new efforts being made to polish the alliance with Mayor Williams’ government? The University adds billions to the local and regional economy.

GW is an artwork out of science-fiction. Its encounters with the world around it take the form of institutional sizzle. And the speed with which it adapts to the current needs of the human species is in the process of redefining the pace once known as “academic life.” Even if they asked me to run some university founded in 1187, to belong to which means that you also have the right to sit in the House of Lords, I’d have to confess that after GW it would be a bit of a bore.

And if that’s not a measure of real success as a university, then what would be?

– The writer is president of The George Washington University and professor of public administration.

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