Faculty weigh in on Knapp

Faculty across disciplines share a sense of optimism about University President Steven Knapp’s nearly five-year tenure, commending his steps toward raising research and strengthening academics.

An informal survey of nearly 100 teaching and administrative faculty across the University showed that, while supportive of Knapp’s goals and approving of his progress, the results of GW’s 16th president’s direction have yet to be seen.

With the president’s contract up for renewal in August, the Board of Trustees – the University’s highest governing body – could launch discussions in their Friday meeting whether or not to extend Knapp’s term at GW.

When he joined GW from Johns Hopkins University in 2007, Knapp carried with him a strong academic background and an emphasis on research that faculty say positively contributes to the intellectual community on campus.

“He has done good work bringing together the different schools. He has forward planning, and he has a good vision,” Carol Kochhar-Bryant, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, said.

Provost Steven Lerman, who was appointed by Knapp in March 2010, said Knapp’s set of priorities is what drew him to GW and continues to motivate his efforts as the primary leader for academic initiatives across campus.

“I came here in no small measure to work as part of his team, to do what he set out, which is to elevate George Washington University to the top ranks of research universities,” he said.

Faculty tended to approve of Knapp’s decision to hire Lerman and other senior administrators, appreciating the appointments as a signal of the president’s mission to enhance the University’s academic agenda.

Research – one of Knapp’s top goals – was a popular topic among faculty interviewed, who overwhelmingly endorsed Knapp’s desire to propel GW into the upper ranks of research institutions.

Throughout his time in office, Knapp’s administration has offered financial boosts as part of a broad plan to expand research efforts across the institution through the development of administrative infrastructure, targeted hiring of research-ready faculty, deliberate financial investments and an expansion of undergraduate research programs.

Knapp’s championing of the $275-million Science and Engineering Hall – which breaks ground this week in a move expected to raise GW’s research stature – impressed faculty across disciplines.

Charles Garris, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said he is a strong supporter of the building and sees it as “a transformative event in the evolution of GW.”

“All big universities are trying to obtain a strong science and engineering presence, since it is considered the future of the U.S. I think Knapp has this vision, and I think the Science and Engineering Hall will help GW move up quite a bit,” Garris said.

Medical faculty, in particular, said they noticed a marked improvement in financial and structural backing for research initiatives.

Meanwhile, professors in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences – the University’s largest undergraduate school – voiced mixed views regarding Knapp’s commitment to the school’s liberal arts programs.

“It’s clearly an improvement,” Roberto Samaniego, an associate professor of economics, said. “But we’re still starved for resources overall.”

Knapp – a vocal supporter of the humanities – taught English literature at the University of California, Berkeley before serving as dean of arts and sciences and then provost at Johns Hopkins.

Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, an associate professor of philosophy and associate director of a graduate program in philosophy and social policy, said faculty in the humanities recognized that “part of [Knapp’s] heart is in the soft disciplines.”

“People continue to be excited by his vision and his enthusiasm,” he said. “For people in the arts and sciences, and the humanities in particular, there’s been an abiding appreciation that he himself is a scholar and humanist. That’s cultivated a certain level of trust.”

Faculty in the law school noted a sense of commitment from Knapp during last year’s search for a dean to lead the program ranked No. 20 by U.S. News and World Report.

Deans interviewed agreed with Knapp’s broad aspirations for GW and have faith in his ability to achieve his goals. All 10 of the University’s current deans were hired during Knapp’s tenure.

Columbian College Dean Peg Barratt said Knapp’s time in office has been “a great run.”

“My first day at GW as dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences was on the same day President Knapp began his tenure here,” she said. “I look forward to continuing to work with him in moving the University forward.”

Several faculty voiced criticism over Knapp’s distant relationship with students and faculty and his exclusive decision-making style.

“I think that Knapp is too quiet. If he has plans, he needs to enunciate more clearly,” a faculty member who asked to remain anonymous said.

Russian language program director Richard Robin, who has worked at GW since 1981, called Knapp a “less colorful leader” who is not very vocal about his policies.

This year’s development of a 10-year strategic plan will serve as a testament to the president’s long-term academic goals – a tangible outline that faculty hope will provide clearer targets for Knapp’s vision.

In comparing Knapp to his predecessor Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who served in the post for 19 years, faculty noted a shift in presidential priorities from fundraising and campus development toward academic acceleration.

Sally Moody, a professor of anatomy and regenerative biology, contrasted Knapp’s successes in terms of research to Trachtenberg’s lack of attention to research.

“[Trachtenberg] did absolutely zero in the 20 years I’ve been here to advance research,” Moody said.

In line with Knapp’s ambition, Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa set a goal of scaling 12 spots in the National Science Foundation’s annual research rankings by 2015. The foundation’s 2010 rankings, which will be released later this fall, will include the humanities and other social sciences for the first time in a change that may earn the University a higher spot.

Chalupa did not return a request for comment.

Lifting institutional rankings has been an ongoing goal for GW. Since Knapp’s arrival, the University as a whole has climbed four spots in U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings to reach No. 50 this year, an uptick attributed to climbing alumni philanthropy and increasingly selective admissions.

To navigate what senior administrators have deemed “a decade of transformation” for GW, faculty said Knapp must convey and execute his goals in a manner that pushes the University to new levels of academic rigor and reputation.

The majority of faculty interviewed shared the opinion that it’s still too early to determine Knapp’s impact on the academic profile of the University.

“I think what students don’t understand is that a university is like an aircraft carrier. When changes are made, it’s like the aircraft carrier is turning around, and it has so many parts to it,” Nina Seavey, an assistant research professor in history and in media and public affairs, said.

Any president’s mark on a university, Lerman said, cannot be assessed after only five years.

“He really is just beginning to have what I think will be a transformational effect on the University,” he said.

Priya Anand, Cory Weinberg, Aliya Karim and Matthew Kwiecinski contributed to this report.

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