Staff Editorial: Our next University president should break the mold

We are just returning to campus to start school again, but University officials have already been at work to find a new president to replace University President Steven Knapp when he steps down next summer. And although the presidential search committee has ample time to find a new president, students don’t know much about what officials would like to see in a potential president. With only one student on the search committee, officials might not know much about what students want from their next University president, either.

We believe an ideal University president would have held a top position at a peer institution or other similar university to GW who understands the University’s fiscal and community-building needs. The University could use a president who breaks away from the 195-year-long tradition of older, white presidents, so we can bring in new opinions that might better reflect GW students, faculty and staff. And even though the search process is already underway, students should have more information on what University officials desire in the new president.

Madeleine Jacobs, the chair of the search committee, said the committee is looking for “an exceptional leader,” and someone who will continue the work that Knapp started.

“The committee will seek leaders with various qualities, but a passion for high-quality education, ability to inspire and integrity are among the attributes we have discussed,” Jacobs said.

But that’s not descriptive enough. And students should have a clearer idea of what the search committee is looking for.

It’s almost impossible to choose a president who is representative of all students, faculty and staff at GW without a search committee that’s representative of the GW community. A large variety of people and voices should be included in the search process in order to choose the best candidate. Student Association President Erika Feinman is the only student on the committee. That’s a start, but there should be even more student input and more diverse voices on the committee overall. Hopefully the search committee finds ways to hear students input and feedback throughout the process.

All 16 past University presidents have been older white males. There’s no reason we shouldn’t break the mold this time. A University president should be able to connect with and represent the University’s students – after all, the president is the face of the University. Although a University president can’t look like every student on campus or understand every issue that students encounter, they should know and relate to the community he or she is going to lead. This could mean bringing in a president who attended a school similar to GW for his or her undergraduate degree or has worked with a variety of students before.

A university president is more than just someone who fundraises. The person who fills this role will be the face of GW and choose a trajectory for the University. We need to strike a balance between someone who knows how to bring in money and knows how to create relationships with the GW community.

Knapp could have done more to engage with students directly. You can’t learn about a group of people if you don’t actively seek them out and ask them questions. Presidents of other universities, such as one of GW’s peer institutions New York University, teach classes. The new president should want to learn as much as he or she can about the students and how they want the school to grow and change. Teaching a class, hanging out at campus eateries or attending popular events are some of the ways a president could genuinely get to know us. Hopefully during the vetting process, the search committee will find a president who is eager to do some of those things.

While going to the GW Deli or hanging out by Thurston Hall could be easy activities for the next president to do, he or she will have some serious problems to solve. The next president will oversee the culmination of the $1 billion fundraising campaign. Once that fundraising push ends, this president will decide how the University fundraises and how those funds are allocated. GW is more than just a school for political wonks, and hopefully the presidential search committee is also making sure that the future president will make budget decisions that don’t unfairly impact smaller communities and programs.

The University’s best bet would be to bring in a president who has dealt with an unstable financial environment before and isn’t new to the unique campus life of an urban school. Hiring a president from a peer or similar school would be the best decision. We need someone who can apply prior administrative leadership experiences, so it doesn’t take too much time for him or her to get acclimated.

To get the best possible person for the job, the search committee needs to be competitive with its offer. American University’s president Neil Kerwin announced his final year at American in May and is stepping down at the same time as Knapp. Unfortunately for the GW search committee, the similarities for the schools don’t end there. GW and AU are similar enough in both academics, retention rates and branding that it’s likely both schools would have similar applicants. GW will need to offer up a high paycheck, so students shouldn’t complain about the future president’s salary if it is as high or higher than Knapp’s.

We don’t know much about what the search committee is looking for in a new president. But hopefully the next University president maintains the programs Knapp has built up, strengthens our financial situation and interacts with the community that he or she will be chosen to represent.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Melissa Holzberg and contributing opinions editor Irene Ly, based on discussions with managing director Eva Palmer, culture editor Grace Gannon, homepage editor Tyler Loveless and contributing sports editor Matt Cullen.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.