Knowing the new leader

First in a series exploring the Knapp presidency

Steven Knapp does not remember where he read the news and only vaguely remembers when it happened. But it was shortly after he accepted GW’s presidency that media reports in Boston pegged him as a finalist for Harvard University’s presidency.

While the Presidential Search Committee at GW was scouring the world of academia for its new president, Harvard was doing the same. Knapp threw his hat into the ring but GW’s offer came early on in the process. Ever since then, it has been a whirlwind.

On Friday Knapp was inaugurated as GW’s 16th president. For the first time in two decades, the University will be lead by an academic with knowledge of literature, not an administrator with a background in management.

In Foggy Bottom, those close to Knapp warn against comparisons to Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, GW’s leader since 1988. The contrast, however, is striking – Knapp emphasizes the University is bigger than one person, and Trachtenberg was often chided as a larger-than-life figure.

And 110 days after taking office, Knapp still remains an enigma to many in the community. Little is known of his past, his personality and how he made the leap from Kant to control.

From speaking with past colleagues and University officials, digging through written articles and a 30-minute interview that was cut short to 18 minutes by staff, The Hatchet was allowed a glimpse into the man with big plans for Foggy Bottom.

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During conversation, Knapp speaks in one low tone and describes things in careful, deliberate detail. He dresses how he talks – suits in dark shades of blue and black, white shirts and simple ties. He is a careful listener, asks questions and seems to genuinely care.

A career of academia has placed this New Jersey native in the upper echelon of literary critics. He wrote a book about the limits of anti-formalism in 18th century literature, knows at least four languages semi-fluently and was once a member on a commission that looked at reforming the German higher education system (he spoke German while there, he said).

But, surprisingly, his simplicity and contrast to his predecessor seems to be his appeal. In some ways, he is the accidental president – a specialist in English literature who long ago stumbled into a career in administration. This profession led to his high-profile presidency in the nation’s capital. Many around him, and in his past, said he would never be an administrator and, surprisingly, he agrees.

“It didn’t really pique my interest as something to focus on until Johns Hopkins invited me to consider the deanship for the arts and sciences school,” Knapp said during a September interview in his Rice Hall office. “It wasn’t a position I would ever consider applying for.”

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In 1978, Knapp graduated with a doctorate from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and took a position at the University of California, Berkeley. None of Knapp’s classmates received tenure-track professorial offers right out of school. Knapp, on the other hand, had offers waiting from Cornell, Yale and Berkeley. He accepted the post at Berkeley for one simple reason – he had not visited the city of Berkeley before.

At Berkeley, one of the nation’s top public universities, he was part of a mammoth-sized English department – about 1,000 undergraduates, 250 doctoral students and 60 faculty members. Then an English professor with his sights set on publishing, Knapp was chosen for the University of California’s statewide faculty senate. The appointment put him in charge of reviewing 1,000 applications for employment each year.

As he took on more responsibility, the university officials at Berkeley praised him for his leadership and asked him to do more.

“The way things went when I chaired the committee was effective,” Knapp said.

Knapp’s leadership style came from an interest in interdisciplinary studies, something he is heavily emphasizing in trying to spur research efforts almost 30 years later at GW. That interest manifested itself at Berkeley, where he was a founder of Perspectives, a journal of interdisciplinary studies, on whose board he still sits.

He planned to stay at Berkeley for about 10 years, but ended up staying 16. Knapp ultimately wanted to move back to the East Coast, where he grew up and went to school, and looked for a job as a professor. When Johns Hopkins University invited him to apply for a deanship in 1994, he had doubts about the jump to full-time administration but applied anyway.

“If I was going to move anyway why not try something a little bit different,” Knapp said. “People present something to you and you think, ‘That’s not what I am,’ but then you think, ‘Maybe I should find out more about it.’ That was exactly the experience I went through. The more I found out about the job, the more I was intrigued.”

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Drew Gilpin Faust, also an academic-turned-administrator, eventually filled Harvard’s presidency. Knapp, a Yale graduate, said he was interested in the position when he applied, but now things are different.

“‘They had contacted me and asked if I would be interested and I said, ‘Sure, I’m interested in being considered,'” Knapp said. “But if you ask me if I’m happy here, absolutely yes.”

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