Analysis: A tale of two Steves

They may have the same first name, but differences seem to outweigh the similarities between GW’s outgoing and incoming leaders.

Steven Knapp, selected last week to be the 16th president of GW, and University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, certainly have some parallels in their higher education careers and backgrounds. But striking differences also characterize these two leaders.

Some similarities: both Trachtenberg and Knapp grew up in the same Tri-state region of New York and New Jersey, respectively. Both are Yale educated – Trachtenberg received his law degree there and Knapp his bachelor’s. Both are described by those close to them as natural leaders and strong lovers of education.

But the specifics of their higher education experience and leadership styles are strikingly different.

Vice Chair of the Presidential Search Committee Nelson Carbonell, a University Trustee, said this is no mistake.

“You can’t replace a Steve Trachtenberg, so that’s not what we set out to do,” Carbonell said.

And no replacement was found. Knapp will bring his own leadership style, experiences and vision for the future of GW when he assumes the presidency Aug. 1. When he does, it will be very different from what GW has grown accustomed to during 18 years under Trachtenberg.

Defining a career

Knapp is a former professor and the No. 2 official at Johns Hopkins University, a world-renowned research institution specializing in sciences. Trachtenberg, upon coming to GW, was a former president of a liberal arts school in Connecticut.

Trachtenberg’s legacy at GW will be defined in part by the University’s construction of close to a dozen state-of-the-art academic and residential buildings and establishing a 20-year plan for campus development. He is credited with transforming a former commuter school and, in essence, putting GW on the map.

Knapp is credited by those at Johns Hopkins as a leader whobuilt stronger communication between the eight schools he oversaw as provost of the nation’s largest research university. He also instituted several new fields of study and majors.

In the community, Trachtenberg’s GW has been dubbed “the monster that ate Foggy Bottom” with construction projects. He also instituted a scholarship almost a decade and a half ago that gives a four-year free ride to select D.C. public school students.

Knapp said he is proud of the Baltimore Scholars program he helped start two years ago which, similar to the SJT scholarship, gives a four-year full-tuition scholarship to select Baltimore public school students.

Since Trachtenberg’s 1988 arrival in Foggy Bottom, GW’s endowment has grown from about $200 million to nearly $1 billion this year.

At John’s Hopkins, Knapp led capital campaigns, most notably one that yielded $230 million for the School of Arts and Sciences, which produced a benefactor and namesake. Secretary of Johns Hopkins Board of Trustees Jerome Schyndman said Knapp is almost solely responsible for a $50 million gift to name the university’s newest business school, which the Board of Trustees established this week.

One Steve is not like the other

Some accomplishments in community outreach and fundraising show similarities between Trachtenberg and Knapp, but a personality difference is the most striking between the two.

Schyndman, a Johns Hopkins hall of fame lacrosse star and 1967 graduate who has worked at the school since graduating, considers himself a “close friend” of Knapp’s. Schyndman said Knapp is gracious, thoughtful and determined.

“People say when I walk into a room the room shakes; when (Knapp) walks into a room it wouldn’t shake,” he said, describing Knapp as “quiet on the one hand, but persistent on the other.”

“Steve (Knapp) has been an outstanding provost and he was ready to run his own school,” said Schyndman, who is also a former dean. “It was apparent to me he was ready to be a university president, and I’ve been around here a long time and seen a lot of people.”

While Trachtenberg came from the University of Hartford after more than a decade as president there, Knapp has been a professor, department chair, dean, vice president and provost, but never a university president. When he steps down in July, Trachtenberg will have been a university president for three decades.

In the official announcement ceremony in the Jack Morton Auditorium Tuesday afternoon, Knapp stressed his desire to listen to the thoughts and concerns of GW community members.

“I really want to get to know the faculty, staff, students,” he said in an interview before the ceremony. “The president’s role is to bring people together and gather resources. That’s what will bring us forward.”

Carbonell said this listening strategy will be very beneficial for both Knapp and the GW community.

“It’s no accident we have someone who wants to listen,” he said.

Knapp isn’t just listening, though.

“He’s listening and digesting,” Carbonell said. “His role is, ‘How do I get people together to do great things?’ He’s not a passive, but an active listener.”

Trachtenberg is known as more of a talker – notorious in the community for his humorous speeches filled with anecdotes. At a recent roast of outgoing D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, Trachtenberg was a highlight.

“Steve (Trachtenberg) has this extra gland of energy and ideas somewhere,” said Gerald Kauvar, who has known Trachtenberg for 28 years and is now his special executive assistant.

Kauvar said it was too daunting of a task to describe Trachtenberg’s personality, and said that Trachtenberg is an “uncommon man, an imaginator.”

“I wouldn’t begin to describe his personality,” he said. “He’s an uncommon man, to say the least.”

Kauvar said Trachtenberg “puts more oxygen in the room. This guy is the stuff of life.”

As Carbonell said, the search committee didn’t look to get a new Trachtenberg, they set out to select a new leader with a new vision for the new future of GW. They certainly got one.

-Caitlin Carroll and David Ceasar contributed to this report.

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