David Ceasar: Looking back to move forward

The Class of 2011 is coming to GW at a historic moment. And the sooner the freshman class takes that to heart and appreciates the significance of such timing, the better.

The potential for significant change to this University is on the horizon, and as the first group of Colonials under a new president, you are in a unique position. Throughout your four years here, many vice presidents and school officials will likely leave, thus changing the style of leadership in the administration.

The first morning of Colonial Inauguration, you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: being welcomed to GW by University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. His rambling anecdotes, Brooklyn accent and ever-changing selection of headwear – which many will grow fond of during orientation – are a prelude to nothing. He won’t be in charge by the time you move into your dorm in August.

In his departure, he hands over an institution that he has radically changed during his 19-year-long tenure. New buildings and state-of-the-art facilities have been born. Nationally renowned scholars have joined the faculty. Presidents and visiting heads of state have spoken on campus.

Likewise, students, professors and staff have sued the University for myriad alleged wrongs. A part-time faculty union has met staunch opposition by the administration. And, more recently, campus-wide uproar ensued after Trachtenberg controversially decided to be the keynote speaker at May’s Commencement.

As the clock strikes midnight on Aug. 1, there’s a new sheriff in town: Steven Knapp. Currently provost and senior vice president at Johns Hopkins University, the literature-scholar-turned-administrator will leave his research-oriented institution and head up the largest landowner in D.C. behind the federal government. He will take GW’s reins and have the power to steer the school in whichever direction he deems fit. Where he and the staff he brings in over the years will take us, nobody knows for sure.

That’s where you come in.

With the changing of the guard in Rice Hall comes a unique responsibility for the Class of 2011. It’s incumbent upon you to be more than regular incoming freshmen. You need to be more informed and more active in the goings-on around campus. Change can often be a good thing, but be wary of it. Question new policies and initiatives. Understand the historical context of how dynamics of the University came to be.

How can you develop this nuanced understanding of a school you’re still foreign to? Make friends in classes with older students. Get involved in student organizations and chat with the senior members. Read the news from whichever outlet you choose.

Take some time to learn about the evolution of student services and academics in recent years. If Knapp decides to overhaul our curriculum, freeze the tuition or trim GW’s bureaucracy, it behooves you to know why those facets of the University are the way they are.

Read up on what four-by-four is, how last spring’s housing selection system was overhauled and why adjunct professors wanted to unionize in the first-place. Get to know a Foggy Bottom resident and ask him or her about the recently approved 20-year Campus Plan. Talk to a Sodexho employee and discuss their feelings about J Street’s perennial reconfigurations.

But simply knowing some facts about these issues isn’t enough. Do something; act on your knowledge. If you think that fixed tuition is a bad idea and Knapp indicates that he’s amenable to changing it, speak out. Write a letter to the editor for this page, contact a senator or executive in the Student Association, send an e-mail or write a letter to an administrator. By being informed and demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about, people will listen.

GW has a reputation for the administration not having its collective finger on the pulse of the student body, which has some truth to it. With new leadership comes the chance for fresh ideas to be heard, an opportunity new students must seize by getting informed and being engaged.

Next year, both you and Knapp are freshmen at GW, so make the most of it.

-The writer, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in political management, is The Hatchet’s senior editor.

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