Staff Editorial: Knapp fails to take responsibility for GW’s ethical lapses

For years, the University was spinning lies to thousands of applicants. Officials oversaw one of the worst kinds of deceptions in misguiding the expectations of low-income high school students, purely in pursuit of polishing GW’s image.

This week, the truth came out about the University’s admissions process that takes financial need into account for about the bottom 10 percent of qualified applicants. Repeated promises in information sessions and on the admissions website claiming that GW is need-blind were false all along.

The revelation that GW lied about its need-aware practice created a firestorm in the national media, but GW’s top leaders have failed to take responsibility. University President Steven Knapp’s tone-deaf response to the backlash only creates more distrust in the GW community.

Knapp told The Hatchet that he “was not personally aware that such statements were being made” about GW’s admissions and financial aid policy. In a statement sent University-wide, he never acknowledged that GW’s lies were wrong.

But Knapp needs to own up to institutional flaws and issue a genuine apology to help move the community forward.

Yes, as the leader of a $2 billion organization, Knapp isn’t involved with every office’s decisions and messaging. But the buck stops with the University president on a misstep of this magnitude – especially on the issue of affordability.

He repeated his commitment to financial aid, and conceded that the University’s $1.37 billion endowment is too small for GW to be need-blind. But Knapp should also realize that after so many controversies involving ethics and administrative infighting under his administration, his legitimacy is eroding.

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We’ve seen Knapp try to readjust the focus of this scandal, lending his accolades to Senior Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Laurie Koehler, who has “taken significant steps to ensure the transparency our applicants and their families deserve,” according to his Oct. 23 letter in GW Today. And it’s laudable that Koehler will make efforts to readjust the way admissions works at GW.

But after a series of controversies – including last year’s admissions scandal where officials had been misreporting data to U.S. News & World Report’s rankings system for years – it is clear that there are serious and deep-rooted problems within GW’s administration, particularly the admissions office.

And that won’t change by merely hiring a new administrator.

Administrators don’t work in a bubble. It is unfair to blame former admissions head Kathryn Napper for all of the University’s admissions shortcomings. It implies that she worked without oversight and never consulted top leaders, which is not an effective way to run the University. Besides, Napper retired a month after last year’s admissions reporting came to light, but we know that the need-blind lies have persisted as late as last weekend.

Shouldn’t there have been other people in the Office of Admissions who noticed that GW’s practices were different from its message? Why did it take a new administrator, welcomed into the fold only this summer, to blow the whistle?

The University makes collective decisions based upon collaboration, conversation and debate. Koehler’s hiring is a good sign because she is clearly committed to telling students and applicants the truth, but it doesn’t solve the problem altogether.

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The need-aware admissions policy, which factors in applicants’ financial situation, left many students feeling blindsided. Up until now, nobody thought that signing financial aid forms could mean signing away a place at GW.

This controversy doesn’t bode well for prospective students. But for current attendees at GW, the effects are equally as far-reaching.

GW has already been painted as a haven for the affluent, particularly by the Washington Post last spring. When that piece ran, students were outraged, and even Knapp affirmed GW’s commitment to welcoming students of all financial backgrounds.

Granted, GW does maintain a fixed tuition program, and the University does award some sort of financial aid to 60 percent of students.

But with this lie about GW’s need-blind status, the school’s rich-kid reputation has become national news, and there’s hard evidence to back it up. It is likely to give pause to students who attend the University.

Now, GW’s students have to deal with the negative consequences of a reputation tainted by yet another scandal.

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A look deeper into the policy shows that other top universities like Washington University in St. Louis and Wesleyan University balance need-aware policies with a commitment to filling low-income students’ financial need.

Why couldn’t GW, too, have been honest with prospective students and their families instead of pandering to them with a false identity?

Any formidable institution of higher education prides itself on academic integrity and a strict code of conduct. But for GW, a school with a repeated and passionate commitment to public service, the responsibility to be honest is that much more essential.

When it comes to academic institutions, the only way to appear better is to genuinely be better. And hopefully after this week’s media firestorm, GW has learned this important lesson: There are no shortcuts.

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