Knapp focused on alumni, academics during first year

His new home might be in the District, but University President Steven Knapp’s passport paints a much different picture of his whereabouts during his first year as GW president.

Knapp, the former Johns Hopkins University provost, traveled to about a dozen cities spanning three continents to meet with alumni – while he simultaneously adjusted to a new life and career in Foggy Bottom as the 16th University president.

“I think we are very strongly perceived as an international University, and I think in today’s global economy that is very important,” Knapp said. “So it was kind of a highlight to discover how deep that was and how strong it was around the world.”

When he arrived at GW last summer, Knapp said he made a concerted effort to reach out to alumni, especially young alumni and those GW graduates overseas in Asia – home to some of the largest GW alumni communities outside of the U.S. He was the only University president to attend the February inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a former visiting scholar to GW.

“I think it said something about the stature of GW in Asia and South Korea,” Knapp said.

While he was not abroad, Knapp tried to make his mark on campus. He spent the first few months at GW engaging in a “listening tour,” where he elicited the concerns of students, faculty, staff and the Foggy Bottom community.

These interactions and other meetings with members of the GW community resulted in the creation of numerous task forces to address issues at GW. These commissions investigated everything from J Street dining concerns to GW’s impact on the environment.

But effectively communicating with members of the GW community is a constant struggle, he said.

“(Communication) is not easy,” Knapp said. “You say one thing one time, you are not always sure which audience you reach.”

The Muslim poster controversy – an uproar over satirical anti-Islamic posters that were placed around campus and garnered national media attention – is an example where Knapp said he felt his message was misunderstood. Knapp said that, contrary to popular belief, he did not immediately know who was behind the posters.

Young America’s Foundation President Sergio Gor, whose group was the target of the satirical posters, said Knapp was there to listen to his organization’s concerns.

“He reached out to us when others wouldn’t,” said Gor, a senior. “He listened to us and helped us out.”

When he entered the University presidency, Knapp inherited the reins of a school with the highest tuition in the United States that was not among the top 50 universities in the country.

The New Jersey native quickly set an agenda this year to improve the academics across the University, while keeping GW’s tuition in check.

In February, he said the University would invest $5.4 million in research and hire a vice president to mange research. He also announced that month GW would increase need-based institutional grants by $6 million.

“The affordability of higher education, which has to do with how labor intensive higher education is and the fact that energy costs are going up, has probably been the biggest single problem we have been wrestling with,” Knapp said.

While Knapp has tried to set a tone for the future of GW, he has also battled to set himself apart from the University’s 19-year past with former University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

“We are in no doubt different people,” Knapp said.

Trachtenberg, who teaches a course on American university presidents, said Knapp took a much different approach than he did during his first year as University president.

“I didn’t pace myself my first year,” Trachtenberg said. “I tried to do everything and be everywhere. I was stretched a little thin at the end of the year. I think that in the end, timing yourself and running your schedule in a thoughtful manner is a sounder practice.”

Knapp said his decision to live in the Alumni House at 20th and F streets, and his willingness to roll up his sleeves with students at different times during his first year are other things that set him apart from Trachtenberg.

“I don’t know how often other university presidents are doing things like helping students unload when they first arrive on the first day of their freshman class or helping rake leaves the day after their presidential inauguration,” Knapp said. “I am willing to say I’m one of the few presidents in history who was out there with a bunch of students cleaning up a city park the day after my inauguration.”

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