Jacob Garber: Tethered to ‘This Town’

“Yes, Washington is a ‘real city,’ but This Town is a state of belonging, a status and a commodity,” wrote New York Times Magazine chief national correspondent Mark Leibovich in his new book, “This Town.”

In the salacious best seller, Leibovich paints a damning picture of the District as a home for mercenaries disguised as politicians – a soapbox for empty rhetoric and a place where earnest promises, empathy and public service go to die.

Media Credit:
Jacob Garber

For GW – an institution that has tied its reputation so closely to D.C. – this is troubling.

The District is GW’s lifeblood, the foundation upon which it recruits new students, buys and sells real estate and grows as an institution. Just look at the subscript of our University’s new logo. We are not The George Washington University. We are The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

In light of GW’s new designation by The Princeton Review as the most politically active school in the country, students here are more connected than ever to This Town. College Democrats and Republicans remain a stomping ground for many political hopefuls, and it seems like if you haven’t interned on the Hill, you’re excluded from some special club.

The University calls itself a haven for public service, yet its home city has forgotten what that means. As Leibovich puts it, “You still hear the term ‘public service’ thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that self-service is now the real insider play.”

So for GW, the question becomes: Is distancing ourselves from D.C.’s disparaging image even possible?

I hope so. I like to think that GW’s commitment to service and selflessness goes against this vilified picture of D.C. life, that through our students’ commitment to service and advocacy we can detach ourselves from a place where community activism is motivated by self-interest, not genuine good will.

And GW’s tight link to the District has its obvious benefits – internship opportunities, access to the Smithsonian and research libraries, and close proximity to world leaders who can serve as professors.

However, it’s possible that any number of benevolent acts and altruistic initiatives may not paint the full picture of GW, or break it free from This Town’s infection. Despite recent efforts – such as surpassing Michelle Obama’s community service goal for Commencement 2010 and ambitious sustainability measures – GW still appears tightly wound around This Town. Look no further than GW’s latest advertising and branding campaign.

On the side of Gelman Library, the focal point of our campus, dripping with ostentation is the quote, “Here, a Stroke of Genius Can Become a Stroke of the President’s Pen,” with the White House glowing in the background. We hope to be respected on our own merits as a research institution, yet our University chooses an empty and D.C.-laden hypothetical as the wallpaper for our campus’ research hub.

And, unfortunately, the University’s resemblance to Leibovich’s D.C. extends far beyond some vacuous advertisements.

Just two weeks ago, students started a Facebook page called “GW Housing Horrors,” adding photos of residence halls’ moldy bathrooms that starkly contrast GW’s touting of its ‘dorms like palaces.’ University President Steven Knapp is in the very top echelon of highest-paid college leaders. And GW’s administrators may have claimed that their admissions data errors that led to GW’s unranking were unintentional, but this is the lack of transparency and questionable morality that exemplifies This Town, with GW at its heart.

We may keep green living at the front of our minds, tutor low-income students at the School Without Walls and rally in front of the White House, but even as we pull the University towards morality and ethos, it seems that D.C.’s inbred culture pushes back.

And despite our best efforts – our zeal on Freshman Day of Service, our commitment to sustainability, our declaration of public service as a core value – GW is tethered to This Town, for better and for worse.

The writer, a junior majoring in English and creative writing, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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