Justin Peligri: Cracking under pressure of the presidency

GW has been plagued by a semester of scandal. But, of course, we’re not the only school to go through a rough patch.

Last year, for example, reports emerged that for at least 15 years, student-athletes at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received grades for classes in the Afro-American studies department that never actually met.

Amid controversy, Chapel Hill’s chancellor Holden Thorp resigned in disgrace. Now, he’s the provost at Washington University with a Division III athletics program that’s largely out of the public spotlight. The Associated Press reported this week about the growing trend of leaders from large universities moving over to smaller schools to escape pressures.

So where does that leave University President Steven Knapp? He still has three years on his contract, which was renewed in October 2011. He has strong support from the new leader of the Board of Trustees, who helped pick him for the job in 2007. And he still has a salary of over $1 million.

But does Knapp really enjoy the “University president” title? Certainly for students here, it’s hard to tell.

Yes, it’s nice to see our leader dress down and go for a walk through University Yard with his wife and Ruffles. But I’m not breaking any news when I say that by and large, students just don’t connect with him. And he doesn’t connect with students.

Now, it could be because GW is a relatively large university, with a sizable undergraduate and graduate population spread out across three campuses. Or it could be that being president is too big a job, the tasks and responsibilities to intense and far-reaching for a former provost at Johns Hopkins University to shoulder while simultaneously feigning a smile. It’s probably a combination of the two.

But it’s not a joke to suggest that university leaders crack under the pressure of the job, and UNC is not the only school where university leaders have left their posts after a disaster. There are many other examples, including the president of Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor, who left the top spot two years after firing a basketball coach who accused of sexual assault – but was never formally charged in the legal system.

At GW, students will never know what Knapp thinks in gray months like this one, where all it takes is a quick Google search to learn about administrative lies, an unranking, turmoil in the business school – all of which could overshadow GW’s strengths for a prospective student looking to stay drama-free.

Knapp isn’t the colorful, quirky and galvanizing university president his predecessor was. In his rare, scripted public appearances and bland emails, you never really get a sense that he actually likes this job. He seems a aloof, always in a rush to be somewhere else.

It isn’t easy to emerge as a strong leader after these PR fiascos. That’s why it’s understandable that embattled university presidents across the country have basked in anonymity post-scandal, emerging as professors or provosts at smaller and lesser known institutions.

The writer, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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