Mum’s the word in selection

The Presidential Search Committee’s announcement Tuesday afternoon marked the end of a half-year search process that had been kept largely secret from the public until almost its last moments.

Though committee members said last spring the search would be “transparent,” the state of the process this fall was largely unknown until the surprise announcement Tuesday. Now that Steven Knapp has been confirmed as GW’s 16th president, administrators and search committee members said they are freer to explain the guarded nature of the selection process.

“The caliber of finalists we had insisted on confidentiality,” said Media Relations Director Tracy Schario. “It was paramount, and it was something that we had promised those individuals.”

Schario said releasing names during the process could have damaged the careers of the applicants, many of whom had not informed their employers or colleagues of their interest in coming to GW.

Nelson Carbonell, a trustee and member of the search committee, said an assurance of confidentiality helped the committee draw in better candidates. “You can have an open process and you will get candidates. You just won’t get the ones you wanted.”

Carbonell said the applicant pool included several current university presidents and provosts at a host of prominent schools.

“Imagine a president who’s looking for a (new) job and trying to negotiate something touchy with the faculty,” Carbonell said.

The search committee had originally reported that they would release the names of three finalists by January 2007. Several factors arose that caused the committee to expedite the process.

Carbonell said that after the first round of interviews, it became clear that almost everyone on the committee thought highly of Knapp. As the search continued, it became certain that the Johns Hopkins provost was the best candidate.

“We didn’t kid ourselves that we were the only people that were talking with him,” said Carbonell, adding that the committee had a “valid assumption” that Knapp was being looked at by several other presidential search committees. “It was pretty clear that he was on everybody’s list.”

Several other universities looking for presidents this fall include Harvard University, Wellesley College, Oberlin College and the universities of Iowa, New Hampshire and Indiana.

The trustees unanimously appointed Knapp to the presidency in a conference call Friday, though some administrators had already known of Knapp’s almost-certain win.

Vice President of Communication Michael Freedman was informed of the decision Thursday morning, and soon began meeting with University staff to plan how to best release the news.

“We worked into the night, through the weekend and throughout the day Monday writing the press release, securing venues for the events … preparing for our online announcements, and working on the staging and scripting for the events,” Freedman wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. The surprise press conference was planned for Tuesday afternoon, Freedman said, partly because Monday was “Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Day” in the District, by order of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams.

On Monday afternoon, The Hatchet released news of Knapp’s selection after speaking with Trachtenberg, causing many local media outlets to call the University asking for a statement. After it was agreed that The Hatchet’s report had become widespread knowledge, the University informed Dr. Knapp of the decision to go public and had him speak with a Washington Post reporter.

Schario, who played a large role in managing the release of the news, said she had conflicting opinions about the situation’s outcome.

“On one level, it’s like ‘Wow, we were very close to executing our plan,'” Schario said. “But on another level, I think we did a very good job at keeping this under wraps.”

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