Steven Knapp is comfortable answering questions – he is quick on his feet, even when reporters push tough questions. And he should be; GW’s 16th president is in the limelight enough to be a media veteran.
Since June, Knapp has written five articles or editorials, made about 75 public appearances and has been interviewed more than 18 times – making him the most visible university president in the District. Over the summer, the Washington Post interviewed Knapp on college affordability, he wrote about student veterans for Inside Higher Ed and penned a New York Times book review on the state of higher education.
Two weeks ago Knapp was on D.C.’s local NPR station to tout GW’s participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides scholarships to veterans.
“The issues that I’ve been talking about are not just important to our University, they’re also important nationally, which is why I think there’s a broader interest in them,” Knapp said.
His efforts are not going unnoticed. Trustee Cynthia Steele Vance called Knapp a “media star” during the October Board of Trustees meeting.
“His image projects GW as a University on the move nationally and internationally, attracting first-class students to a first-class University,” Vance said last week.
It is not uncommon for university leaders to reach out to the press to help spread their message, but Knapp has “done more than most,” Paul Fain, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, said.
Fain said Knapp’s outspokenness in media outlets is different from other campus leaders, who he said often shy away from advocating issues that might alienate the university community or potential donors.
“Knapp is representing the University on national and even international stages,” Fain said.
Knapp said he weighs in on larger issues because it is his duty to shape discussions among college leaders.
“Part of being a leader in a democratic society is that you contribute when you have an expertise in some subject,” he said.
This is not to say Knapp is comfortable with the media in general. Under his tenure, University communication has increasingly moved from the departmental and staff-levels and directed to the Office of Media Relations – Knapp maintains a staff of nine media specialists in that office alone. The president enjoys bringing media attention to the University – he just likes to direct the conversation.
Knapp’s outreach piggybacks on former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s persona, Fain said. He described Trachtenberg as “one of the more outspoken college presidents,” and said Knapp is also establishing a reputation as a “public intellectual.”
Unlike Trachtenberg who was regarded both in the media and on-campus as a larger than life figure, Knapp is sometimes chided for being uncomfortable interacting with the student body – making his relaxed and extensive media personality all the noticeable.
“Presidents are educational leaders and the strongest advocates for their institutions. When the opportunity or need arises, there’s no better spokesperson for the university,” said Boston University’s Executive Director of Media Relations Colin Riley.
While acknowledging the importance of media outreach, Riley said the volume of requests and other demands on university presidents’ time often prevent them from taking every reporter’s call.
“They can’t be involved in everything, they wouldn’t be able to do their day job,” he said.
A president’s personality often determines the amount of media interaction, said University of Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown.
“Every college and university president is going to have their own personality and their own approach and no two are going to be the same. Some are more comfortable in that kind of role and others aren’t,” he said, noting that Notre Dame has seen both outgoing and introverted presidents.
Brown also recognized the value of media outreach, and said it was “much more powerful” than self-advocating.
“It’s third-party endorsement when an individual is quoted or a organization is recognized,” he said.
The increased media attention could also serve to boost University fundraising, Knapp added. GW has increasingly made philanthropic outreach a priority since raising a record $94 million last year.
Fain agreed that a university that is in the media often will attract more students.
“You’d rather be a school everyone talks about, than one no one cares about,” Fain said. “This is how you get to the next level.”