A university president has to wear a lot of hats, and we’re not talking about former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s infamous collection of bowler hats.
At GW, the University president is responsible for a multi-billion dollar enterprise, overseeing all departments and initiatives as well as providing vision for the future – and inspiring people to believe in that vision. He must be a decider, a thinker, a visionary, a diplomat, an organizer, a leader and a friendly, approachable presence – as the leader of a community, not a corporation.
To lead a community, you have to get out into that community, and University President Steven Knapp’s crafted, formal approach to student relations doesn’t seem to be working. It is producing an image of an aloof figure trying hard to stay “on message” when interacting with students.
We get that running the school keeps a president busy, but we would love to see Knapp reading his morning paper in Kogan Plaza and having an impromptu discussion about the headlines with the student next to him. It could be as easy as making unplanned small talk in line while grabbing coffee at the Gelman Starbucks in the morning.
Town halls, appearances at move-in and neighborhood cleanups, formal meetings with community and student organizations, and an appearance or two at a J Street dinner are great ways for him to be involved, but they feel forced – no replacement for the feeling that the president actually wants to approach students and talk to them.
Let’s be clear – we do give Knapp credit for trying hard, and we don’t want him to be Trachtenberg. Knapp’s meetings have already succeeded in bridging the gap Trachtenberg’s tenure left between the neighborhood and GW. Yet the scripted events and meetings just make him seem distant, an image we’re sure he’s not actually trying to convey.
In his first summer of Colonial Inauguration, the traditional introduction of a University president to the freshman class, Knapp was unable to attend several sessions. The president’s casual introductory speech was replaced by an awkward, staged video that showed Knapp in discussion with Colonial Cabinet members. As a first introduction, the video may not have painted Knapp in the most approachable light, despite the best of intentions.
On Friday Knapp seemed more himself during a public tour of his new house, and moving on campus was a giant step in the right direction. Now that he can officially call campus “home,” he will be walking to work alongside students. If he can take advantage of living on campus by having informal talks with more students, these half-dozen blocks will help cultivate a personable, more informal image.
Student fickleness may make the University president’s “friend” hat the hardest one to don, but making a more sincere effort to stray from the given script would go a long way.