Steven Knapp: Doubling the impact

George Washington envisioned a great university in the capital of the nation he did so much to create. He wanted to attract students from all the former colonies so that, together, they might overcome their regional prejudices and forge a new identity as citizens of the nation as a whole.

Today, we are that university, and we bring together citizens not only from every state but from more than 130 nations. We are a more selective university than we have ever been. We are firmly established on a base of three campuses and many satellite facilities. We are famous for the contributions of our faculty, and equally famous for the engagement of our students in addressing the pressing issues of our time.

In the coming years, we will continue increasing our selectivity and enhancing the opportunities our students enjoy. What it means to be a great university has changed, however, in the two centuries since Washington spelled out his vision in his last will and testament. We are still in the business of forging citizens, although now we forge citizens not just of the nation, but of the world. We must now build our stature as a university that contributes intellectually to the solution of national and global problems. By matching the excellence of our instruction with the strength of our research, we will join the ranks of truly world-class universities and fully ensure the value of a GW degree. In so doing, we will also strengthen our instruction itself. There is no more exciting way to learn than to work with a professor who is pushing the frontier of knowledge, whether the field is neuroscience, early modern literature, environmental engineering or international law.

Our priorities, then, are clear. We must continue investing in student learning and experience, on campus and off, and we must increase our investment in the kind of discovery that will firmly establish our international stature. In short, we must increase what we invest in our students, our faculty, and the infrastructure that supports them both. It is reasonable to ask where the funds for these investments will come from.

Fortunately, we have not faced the financial hardships currently affecting other universities. Precisely because we have not been forced to make draconian, across-the-board cuts, we have an opportunity to seek potential savings in the way we do business.

But we can do more than that. With trustee support, we are undertaking a bold initiative to increase what we invest in our priorities, over the next five years, by $60 million per year. That amount is the equivalent of what we currently spend from our endowment income every year. Our plan to, in effect, double the impact of our endowment has three components: raising new funds from philanthropic sources, increasing the productivity of our research and instructional programs and finding savings in our business processes that we can reinvest in our faculty, students, and academic initiatives.

The first of those efforts is well underway, thanks to a build-up of our development staff and the engagement of all the deans. To implement the other two parts of the plan, we need fresh ideas. To that end, I have launched the Innovation Task Force. The task force comprises a steering committee, chaired by Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeffrey Lenn, and two working groups. One group will focus on business processes, while the other will focus on academic innovation. Input from throughout the University community will be sought through a variety of mechanisms the task force may devise, including via a web-based suggestion box, Town Hall-style meetings and e-mails sent to innovation@gwu.edu.

Working together, I have no doubt that we can transform GW into a world-class, 21st-century version of the university George Washington envisioned.

The writer is the 16th president of The George Washington University.

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