Justin Peligri: A year in Knapp quotes

Over the last year, GW launched its largest-ever fundraising campaign, acquired one of the oldest art institutions in the District, partnered with the White House for an anti-sexual assault initiative and, unfortunately, witnessed an alarming number of student deaths.

Along every step of the way, University President Steven Knapp, the definitive voice on all things GW, shared his thoughts about top campus news, often in interviews with The Hatchet. Here’s what he said – and why it matters.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

“He is free, as an individual faculty member, to express his personal views.”

For GW, the most infamous remarks of 2014 came not from Knapp, but from his predecessor, former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. Chances are, you’ve heard a bit about this.

“Women who drink too much” contribute to high rates of sexual assault on college campuses, Trachtenberg said in a radio interview. “They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave,” he said.

A fiery debate ensued: Activists called Trachtenberg out of touch, while supporters said his remarks were misinterpreted, which left Knapp with the burden of articulating GW’s position amid much unwelcome national attention.

Knapp’s comments smartly allowed Trachtenberg room to say whatever he pleased while making clear that the former president didn’t represent the University’s official stance. But his statement failed to mention a sexual assault that was reported at a Greek townhouse in the same week, meaning he missed a huge opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to bold action.

Still, Knapp’s statement was likely drowned out by louder and angrier voices. In that news cycle, at least, there was room for only one GW president to make a big splash.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Nicole Radivilov | Contributing Photo Editor
University President Steven Knapp and Athletic Director Patrick Nero attended the launch of “It’s on Us” at the White House in September.

“If you just focus on survivors, you’re not getting to the heart of it.”

Knapp had a second chance to make GW’s stance on sexual assault clear a month later, when he attended a showy White House event that kicked off a national conversation about sexual assault prevention on college campuses.

After the launch of “It’s On Us,” administrators and student leaders worked together on a week of action, urging students to sign a pledge that they would speak up and step in if they witnessed sexual abuse. Students Against Sexual Assault also held a panel discussion with students and an administrator to discuss University policies. Knapp, however, was notably absent.

At a time when schools across the nation are facing federal scrutiny over Title IX violations, it’s reassuring to see Knapp identifying the issue as critical. But he needs to move beyond soirees with the president and make his presence known at activist events.

“In my twenty years in the administrations of two universities, I have from time to time had the very sad duty of meeting with a student’s grieving family and friends, but I have never before experienced two such tragedies in a single week.”

After two student suicides in one week last spring, Knapp’s statement conveyed not only his grief, but also the unusual nature of multiple suicides in such a short period of time. It seemed heartfelt – a rare occurrence from a University leader known to be quiet and often impersonal.

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Although his email to students and parents was sent months ago, the story is still at the forefront for many. Four additional student deaths have occurred this semester, though none have yet been officially ruled suicides.

Yes, a new year potentially brings closure to this dark chapter in our school’s history. And, hopefully, students in need of mental health services will find them easier to access come January, when the University Counseling Center will be conveniently located in the Marvin Center. But if we forget the lives that were lost, we do a disservice to students on campus today who need our support.

As we head into 2015, we must be vigilant in our attempts to keep mental health at the top of the agenda by continuing to expand the counseling center’s resources and listening to student ideas about how to reach more students with services.

Administrators should realize that the University is not yet out of the woods and hundreds of students from across all of GW’s diverse communities suffer from debilitating issues like anxiety and depression every day.

Each and every one of us has a chance to be a lifeline.

“In that way, it’s like a cross-pollination thing. I’m like a little bee, flower to flower.”

The University unveiled details of the largest fundraising campaign in its history in June, announcing that it had already raised about half a billion dollars and signaling intentions to double that amount by 2018.

Chief among Knapp’s responsibilities as president is cultivating top donors. He buzzes from academic department to academic department, collecting anecdotes about each school’s programs and research to share with potential donors.

But how, exactly, is a quirky and seemingly timid intellectual supposed to solicit big checks from businesspeople with deep pockets? Clearly, he received some tips, such as only telling jokes if you’re confident you can can pull them off.

And he’s had an opportunity to employ his fundraising skills overseas this past semester, taking a series of trips to meet with alumni and convince them that “we’re not just coming there to talk about us.”

Now that the man responsible for steering the University’s fundraising campaign, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger, has stepped down, the onus falls even more on administrators like Knapp to make sure an ambitious fundraising dream becomes a reality. Hopefully he’s been practicing his punchlines.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Cameron Lancaster | Photo Editor
University President Steven Knapp in his Rice Hall office.

“This partnership is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something truly powerful in the heart of the nation’s capital.”

Knapp was right: Merging with the Corcoran College of Art + Design this summer was a big – and costly – decision that brings potential to GW’s small fine arts department. The University is known for political science and international affairs, but now people are asking: Can it be known for subjects like sculpting and creative photography, too?

So far, the possible benefits of the GW-Corcoran merger have yet to be completely realized. It’s still unclear how the art department will grow and improve. And do we really plan to relegate many Corcoran students to living in Mitchell Hall forever?

But despite grumbling from art snobs and traditionalists who opposed the acquisition, the reality is that the Corcoran was on unsteady financial footing for years, and GW saved the Corcoran.

Now, Knapp needs to show why adding the gallery and art school to GW’s ever-expanding portfolio was the best decision for the community at large. In 2015, it’s Knapp’s job to prove the critics wrong.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Erica Christian | Photo Editor
University President Steven Knapp speaks with alumnus Daniel Goldberg before the men’s basketball team played at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. last season.

“Everyone in the conference is strongly committed to the ideal of the student athlete.”

The men’s basketball team has a big season ahead of it. But Knapp has made clear that GW’s athletes are also expected to excel off the court.

As the leader of the Atlantic 10 Council of Presidents, Knapp has voiced his commitment to preserving the status of athletes as students and his opposition to professionalization.

His leadership position could help him pull for GW in the conference – even though he admitted that, beyond a brief stint as a wrestler, he was “mainly a musician” in school and may not be a sports buff.

It seems many student athletes already understand that the word “student” applies to them just as it applies to all of us. Athletic Director Patrick Nero announced this semester that the combined student-athlete GPA reached 3.22 last spring, the highest in University history.

A conference-record 96 men’s basketball games will be televised this season. Here’s to hoping the team won’t disappoint. It’s clear, at least, that they already have Knapp’s support.

Justin Peligri, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist.

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