Someone’s been working hard on University President Steven Knapp’s public image.
The past two weeks of coverage in The Hatchet, Foggy Bottom Current and The Washington Post have been filled with photo-ops of the former Johns Hopkins University provost helping with move-in, reaching out to GW neighbors and checking out his soon-to-be home, just across the street from Thurston.
So we know what Knapp and his staff want us to think: he’s willing to listen to students, he’s looking to improve relations with the Foggy Bottom community and he wants to really become a part of GW campus life.
But none of this means much yet.
What’s key for the new president now is making his first few months about more than just image. If listening is the first step, the second and third have to be deciding what his priorities are and letting the GW community know about them. To do this, he has to make sure his listening tour is not just good public relations – it has to be the start of good policy. The GW student body is the heart of the school, and it’s essential that Knapp takes their wishes into account.
Following in the footsteps of a president who, at least towards the end of his 19-year reign, seemed to ignore the student body until the last possible second (case in point: the Commencement speaker fiasco), Knapp has an even greater responsibility to pay close attention to student voices. This could manifest itself in something as simple as working with Green GW to create a more environmentally friendly campus, working with the Student Association to increase wireless capability on the Foggy Bottom campus or working with student leaders to modify the freshman and sophomore mandatory J Street dining plan so that it fits better with student life. True, these are all only small steps, but even a small accomplishment would let GW students know that this president is about action and results.
We all have our ideas about what policies Knapp should pursue. As a member of GW STAND, I’d like to see him help GW become a more socially conscious institution by divesting our tuition dollars from companies that help fund the genocidal regime in Sudan. Every group and individual on campus wants to see something specific come out of this change at the top, but, at least for the moment, it’s most important that Knapp clearly lays out his policy priorities for the year, no matter what they are.
Knapp has a somewhat surprising model for this in the SA. The SA has not been a model for productivity and efficiency in recent years, but it looks like this is changing. SA President Nicole Capp and EVP Brand Kroeger have done what the new administration needs to: clearly state the goals for the year and let the GW community hold them accountable.
The next few months could change the way the entire student body views the presidency, and Knapp needs to jump at this chance. In the past, the presidency has been something to attack, not something to celebrate. Knapp should continue to make himself seen on campus, a welcome contrast from former President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg who often seemed to be holed up in Rice Hall. Students will embrace a more hands-on presidency. GW students are always quick to criticize, but with this chance for a fresh start they may also be willing to work peaceably with Knapp’s administration.
So far, the president’s attitude is promising. I honestly doubt his listening tour is just about image. He seems to be truly engaged in taking positive steps for students, staff and neighbors. Helping with move-in and moving to Foggy Bottom himself, though symbolic gestures in a sense, do represent a change that GW needs.
Knapp is already moving forward with the faculty. In a speech to the faculty Monday, Knapp laid out his “themes” for the year, which include the relationship between GW and the District, the increase of GW’s impact as a research university and the strengthening of alumni support. All worthwhile themes, but the speech was clearly aimed at faculty. Knapp must be just as clear about his aims with the student body.
Students need to start pulling their weight as well. The Hatchet reported Monday that about 40 students attended a meeting on the dining changes last week, part of the SA’s GW Informed initiative. Those who attended the meeting were able to address a panel that included representatives from Sodexho and Campus Support Services. Forty is a good start, but it’s not enough. Higher attendance at meetings like this is necessary to let Knapp know that we want a fresh start too.
The more willing we are to talk, the more likely Knapp’s listening tour will begin to shape his policies around student interests.
The writer is a sophomore majoring in history and political science.