The passage of presidencies

When University President Lloyd Elliott arrived on GW’s campus for the first time in 1965, he was a hated man.

Succeeding Thomas Carroll – who died unexpectedly of a heart attack – Elliott took the reigns of a campus rife with the tension of the 1960s.

“We had an immediate collision,” Elliott told The Hatchet last week. “The trustees, who had chosen me, wanted me. The faculty didn’t and the student body was in waiting as to see what happened.”

Called “The Southern Gentleman” by some, Elliott said the campus he inherited was looking for action.

“In waiting for some kind of leadership (after Carroll’s death), there was considerable animosity,” he said. “The faculty went on record as wanting another man than Lloyd Elliott.”

These challenges continued with the Vietnam War, which brought major activity to GW’s campus, including student strikes, commandeering and destruction of University buildings, and even a gassing of campus by the Metropolitan Police Department.

Despite his rocky start, Elliott successfully led the University through rough waters to hand it over to Stephen Joel Trachtenberg in 1988.

This year, as Steven Knapp assumed the presidency, the campus reaction was relatively sedate. Nineteen presidents have presided over the University, and not every one arrived – or left – on good terms.

Government raids, U.S. presidents

In the first decade of the 20th century, Charles Needham – the University’s eighth president – was in charge of the Columbian College. Most notably, his presidency saw the school renamed to the George Washington University.

His primary goal was to move the University out of its location in Columbia Heights. With high hopes, he tried hard to establish GW as a first-rate school in the capital.

As the University expanded academically and geographically, it quickly fell into debt. Soon, the U.S. Attorney’s Office – under order from the House of Representatives – raided school records and found financial discrepancies in the school’s spending budget.

After eight years in office, Needham resigned in disgrace. Immediately after, celebrated naval officer Charles Stockton took over the publicly embarrassed University. Stockton, using what he deemed the “1910 formula,” brought the school out of financial turmoil.

Several decades later, William Mather Lewis was selected as the 14th University president. Before assuming office, he worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In 1923, he became the only GW president to be inaugurated at the White House. U.S. President Calvin Coolidge attended the ceremony.

Expansion begins

One of the most influential moments in the history of the University occurred when Cloyd Heck Marvin – a famed educator – took over for then-president Howard Hodgkins in the 1920s.

Hodgkins had set his sights on the Harris Plan, which would make University Yard the academic center of campus. When Marvin took over in 1927, he abandoned the plan for a more expansive approach.

“After hearing of the proposed Harris Plan, Marvin completely trashed the idea, waiting instead to buy up property throughout the Foggy Bottom area,” said University historian David Anderson.

Anderson said that this is most likely the moment when GW became the constantly expanding institution it is today.

“Marvin was the first president to exponentially expand the University’s campus and therefore was basically responsible for the way we are today,” he said.

Marvin’s presidency lasted 32 years and was responsible for many of the buildings still seen today on campus.

When Marvin’s successor, Thomas Carroll, was inaugurated in 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke. He said he hoped to have a good relationship with the new University president.

“I know that some … day when they are asking for the president of your University, they will say, ‘He is over at the White House seeing Mr. Kennedy,'” Kennedy said.

When Carroll unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1964, the University entered into an era of great uncertainty.

“It was when Carroll died – and still is the case – that the community, students, faculty and neighbors alike, (were) never one hundred percent for the new president,” Anderson said. “And this was true of Lloyd Elliott.”

A vocal addition, sights on academia

The transitional period between presidents Elliott and Trachtenberg was seen as a necessary, yet nervous transition in the minds of many University officials and GW alumni.

Anderson said the administration changed drastically, from the quiet, reserved Elliott to Trachtenberg – a historically outspoken and outgoing president.

“Trachtenberg became almost obsessed with public relations,” Anderson said. “Trachtenberg was monumental in endorsing the University. He really put GW on the national map.”

Trachtenberg said the first couple weeks of the presidency were stressful.

“When a new administration begins people project all their dreams and ambitions onto the president,” Trachtenberg wrote in an e-mail. “Their hopes for the future are laid at the door of Rice Hall. It can be daunting for a recently appointed person.”

Knapp is also not without his challenges. Anderson said the new president must keep adding to the growing endowment established under Trachtenberg.

“The new president will have to add $2 billion to that to relate to other market-based schools. We need to be up in the $3,4,5 billions,” he said.

Anderson added that all presidents will be different, and their successes depend on the time and state of the University.

“It’s all about getting the right person at the right time in history,” Anderson said. “(With Knapp) we have (taken a) good step forward.”

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