Last year, with the imminent retirement of both University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and chairman of the Board of Trustees Charles Manatt, there was much talk of fresh new leadership and a welcomed change. GW may have gotten what it wanted.
The GW community saw the first solid example of this fresh new leadership at last week’s Board of Trustees meeting, when University President Steven Knapp and Russell Ramsey, the new chairman of the Board of Trustees, each announced that one of their main goals was increasing affordability. If there is one thing we can agree on it is this: it is about time. Earlier this year we clamored for a clear direction of this new administration in terms of students – this step from Knapp gets to the heart of the predominant student concern at GW.
High tuition adversely affects the University’s reputation, economic diversity and retention rate. Not all publicity is good publicity (as in every prospective student, parent and alums knowing the price tag of the most expensive school in the country). Trachtenberg’s dismissive view of our high tuition was puzzling if not outrageous. Knapp and Ramsey have taken a key step in recognizing the far-reaching effects of the high cost of attendance.
Even better, Knapp has gone past just stating the obvious – a proposal to increase GW’s affordability is already underway and set to be presented to the Board of Trustees at their February meeting. So Knapp’s promise to be a “listening president” may be coming true after all. The only potential problem now is that Knapp, while promoting the importance of increased affordability, hasn’t actually promised anything on tuition reduction.
The president insists that it is important to look at the total cost structure. This includes tuition, housing, food allowances and financial aid. There is no doubt he is right about this – GW’s cost of attendance is high enough that every aspect must be re-evaluated. At the same time, tuition reduction has to be the first step. Things such as housing costs are going to be more difficult to reduce, and it is tuition that gets the most negative attention. It is impossible to walk through campus on any given day without hearing some complaint or reference to GW’s unreasonable tuition, and the same is probably true in the households of high school seniors applying to GW.
A recent article from Forbes highlighted the tuition hikes occurring across the board at American colleges and universities. Big surprise, GW received a special mention. According to the article, tuition at GW for students who are not receiving financial aid has increased 270 percent in real terms over the past 25 years. In his proposal to the Board of Trustees, Knapp must address and push for tuition reduction specifically.
Knapp’s proposal highlights the next important player in this: the Board of Trustees. Similar to Knapp, Ramsey has announced that increasing affordability is one of his main goals. His move toward greater student involvement on the Board is a step in this direction. By building a closer relationship with the student body, the Board, GW’s highest governing body, can be more responsive to student needs. As Ramsey himself said, one of the Board’s roles should be a “passionate supporter of the University,” an impossible role to play without student involvement and feedback.
The extent of Ramsey’s vision for student involvement on the Board of Trustees remains to be seen. It could be as symbolic as inviting 10 students to join him to the chairman’s dinner, as he did a few weeks ago, or as substantial as allowing a student a vote on the highest governing body (though there has been no explicit mention of this possibility). Whatever the exact role, increased student involvement with the Board will be essential in ensuring that tuition reduction and affordability in general remains a priority for the University.
Ramsey’s plan to increase transparency of the Board is also key. The powerful group has easily escaped student attention in the past, making it difficult for students, lacking direct representation, to hold the Board accountable for its actions in any way. Accountability is highly significant for something such as tuition reduction. Coming out in favor of increasing affordability makes Knapp and Ramsey look good, and it would be easy to maintain this pro-affordability public image while consistently pushing tuition reduction to the bottom of the to-do list – unless students hold the President and chairman accountable for keeping their promises.
It is up to us to keep an eye on the fresh new leadership Knapp and Ramsey have already begun to provide and make sure it doesn’t go stale too quickly. Increased affordability remains a high priority for students, and it’s essential that we are vocal about that priority as much as possible. For now, though, it’s refreshing to see leadership that doesn’t want to turn a blind eye to student concerns.
The writer is a sophomore majoring in history and political science.