Claude Khalife: An opportunity for Knapp to demonstrate compassion

There’s no denying GW has a rich-kid reputation. When many think of the University’s campus, they picture students crowding Whole Foods and living in “dorms like palaces.” But when they think of the D.C. neighborhoods outside Foggy Bottom, food deserts, homelessness and an 18.5 percent poverty rate come to mind.

This image has plagued GW for years. But it can be solved with efforts from the top down – and that starts with University President Steven Knapp.

College presidents tend to be top earners, since high salaries are necessary to attract the best and brightest. But their massive paychecks aren’t a comfort to most students, faculty or other members of the community. In fact, their salaries might serve as a constant reminder of income inequality, especially here in our nation’s capital.

It’s refreshing to hear that Kentucky State University interim President Raymond Burse will donate $90,000 of his paycheck to supplement the wages of his school’s lowest-paid workers. Burse’s annual salary is about $350,000, which pales in comparison to Knapp’s $800,000 salary.

While Knapp may be paid like an executive, his chief responsibility is to address the needs of the students, faculty and alumni, not shareholders. This responsibility does not necessarily dictate what our president should do with his salary. But like all presidents, Knapp should leave a legacy: Create a university that has a more positive image in the D.C. community than it did when he arrived.

This is why I’m proposing that Knapp follow Burse’s lead in donating a portion of his salary to those in the GW community who need it most. As a University, we are inseparable from the city in which we live. D.C. is our lifeblood and the city is often the reason students make the decision to attend GW.

A school so inextricably tied to the city owes it to its workers – many of whom are likely D.C. residents – to demonstrate that it is not a business or corporate entity. Instead, it should prove itself a living embodiment of the most important principles of higher education: community, enlightenment and respect.

It can be too easy to take our school’s workers for granted. While the thought of GW employees usually brings to mind distinguished professors and deans, it’s safe to bet most of us encounter cooks, facility workers, cashiers and custodians even more regularly.

These workers are the fuel in GW’s tank. They are the reason the University can function. Every day, they work behind the scenes to ensure that our school is not just a place where many flock to study, but also a place students can feel comfortable calling home.

Burse made his donation because his school paid some workers $7.25, the federal minimum wage. D.C. is currently in the process of hiking its minimum wage up to $11.50 by 2016, so the situation isn’t quite as desperate. In Knapp’s case, boosting the wage of GW’s lowest-paid workers with his own salary would be helpful, but would also be symbolic of the University’s compassion for its employees.

GW has made efforts to combat its privileged image in such an unequal city by rewarding full-tuition scholarships to deserving inner-city youth and by holding a class-wide Freshman Day of Service each year. Additionally, the University works to improve the success of low-income students, and offers millions of dollars in neighbor perks along with its construction projects.

Yet our school must continue to demonstrate its commitment to the Foggy Bottom community, proving that universities can truly effect moral and economic change.

As the figurehead of the University, everything Knapp does reflects back on GW. It’s encouraging that he already leads a task force that assists the area’s elderly and founded the Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning with his wife Diane Robinson Knapp. But giving up a part of his salary would show a significant and lasting commitment to change that is desperately needed.

That gesture from Knapp would show that our system of higher education – which I consider to be one of the greatest in the world – thrives not only because of our academics, but because it represents the greatest values of our country at its core.

Claude Khalife, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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