David Ceasar: GW more than just a location

At Opening Convocation two weeks ago, GW President Steven Knapp may have been wearing a mortarboard as part of his academic regalia ensemble, but he might as well have put on a Metro train engineer’s hat.

Just a month after taking office, GW’s new president spoke before students, faculty and parents about his vision for the University, albeit in a slightly bizarre fashion. Knapp framed his discussion around, of all things, the subway system and the Blue Line in particular.

Along this Metro route are the headquarters for the military, diplomatic, lobbying and governmental sectors of the most powerful nation in the world. On a single train ride, one can get to the Pentagon, State Department, K Street sector, White House and Capitol Hill – not to mention the various museums and performing arts centers along the way. And dead in the middle of this corridor of influence, Knapp explained, is GW.

Our new president and the many that came before him are right. This University has innumerable comparative advantages over other schools because of its access to institutions of power. Yet Knapp should be wary of placing too much stock in the oft-touted “in and of D.C.” mantra.

In spatial relation to Georgetown, we are better suited for our students to walk to a job, ride the Metro to an internship or be host to public figures. But geography alone will not put GW on the same plane as its neighbor to the west or to more prestigious schools outside Washington, and it’s important our president’s rhetoric and action take this simple fact into account.

Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg made great strides in putting GW on the map. He and his administration brought national attention to the University through partnerships with CNN, campus development, increased recruiting efforts and highly publicized political events. He and his administration did expand the quality of this institution, but more dramatically than that progress was the expansion of our image.

Our 16th president should concentrate his efforts past this veneer of notoriety and, instead, focus on what our University needs most of all: stellar academics. Our residence hall inventory is first-rate, there are enough student services employees to form a small village, and, as I’ve said, the school’s national reputation is flourishing.

What GW needs is a better education.

Require professors to produce more research, and offer incentives for them to do so with bonuses for each published work beyond an enforced minimum. Develop a far-reaching undergraduate research assistantship program so many more students can further their learning in a field of interest.

Cut down on classroom sizes, especially in introductory courses across the more popular majors. To increase attendance in these and other classes, the administration should adopt stricter rules about posting presentations on BlackBoard.

Hire more full-time faculty across all colleges. It seems all too simple to hope for that, but admittedly, there is some nuance to the issue. Many professors work in the area they teach and, consequently, they do not have the time to take on several classes, sit on committees and attend faculty meetings.

To get the most qualified individuals who are experts in specialized fields, many departments rely on adjuncts. For example, several friends took an investigative reporting class last year taught by a leading investigative journalist at The Washington Post – a course they raved about. Many part-time professors do a good job, but many students have far worse experiences than my friends or I have had in the School of Media and Public Affairs. Moreover, separate from the actual quality of the instruction is the perception from the outside – from prospective students, parents and ranking institutions – that it is substandard instruction.

A full-scale review of the University’s academic programs is a good approach to begin evaluating the situation and considering such improvements as I have suggested. None of these ideas are groundbreaking, and I would not doubt that an individual like Knapp has already considered them.

As an English literature professor at the University of California, Berkeley, for 16 years and chief academic officer at Johns Hopkins University – at arguably much more intellectually rigorous schools than GW – our new president knows a thing or two about education. Hopefully, his future actions to improve our academics will reflect his scholarly background and not be mired in past rhetoric and policies centered on our school’s location.

We may be on the Blue Line in between the Pentagon and the White House, but unless the new administration enriches our academic programs, we will continue to be a way’s away from a school that doesn’t even have a Metro stop.

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

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