A little more than a decade ago, the Board of Trustees turned to Steven Knapp, then the provost of Johns Hopkins University, to lead GW with an ambitious vision for future growth.
After University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg heightened the University’s reputation while also ballooning the cost of attendance during his 19-year tenure, the Board charged Knapp with expanding the University’s research offerings and stepping up fundraising campaigns to reduce reliance on tuition to fund campus projects.
Now, less than three months before Knapp is set to leave the presidency, officials and faculty said the University would lose a methodical and subdued leader, who often eschewed the spotlight and made progress on many of the biggest goals that were put on his agenda.
“I think he’s going to be remembered for steering the ship on a stable course during some difficult times in higher ed,” Robert Chernak, the University’s former senior vice president for student and academic support services, said. “Most of the things he was expected to do when he was hired by the Board of Trustees, he’s accomplished.”
Turning plans into action
Knapp came from Johns Hopkins – a leading national research institution – in 2007, and the Board entrusted him with the mission to make GW a more prominent competitor in the research field.
In response, Knapp created a position for the vice president of research and brought in neuroscientist Leo Chalupa from the University of California, Davis in 2008 to led the effort to bring in research-minded faculty.
Knapp said research projects bring faculty and students together to search for solutions to major global issues and improve GW’s reputation.
“If you want the University to be prominent, to be recognized, which of course adds value to your degrees, you can’t do that unless you’re regarded as a prominent research university,” he said in an interview.
“Science and engineering has a much higher stature in the University than it did before.”
In 2006, before Knapp’s arrival, GW was ranked No. 114 on the National Science Foundation’s list of institutions that receive federal funding, with about $92 million in federal expenditures. In fiscal year 2015, the University moved up to No. 83, with about $139 million in federal funding for research, according to the NSF’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey.
Knapp, who began his career teaching English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, oversaw the University’s increased focus on science, technology, engineering and math fields.
“Science and engineering has a much higher stature in the University than it did before,” Charles Garris, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the former chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said. “That is probably the biggest change that I’ve seen.”
In the spring of 2014, the Milken Institute School of Public Health finished construction on a new building near Washington Circle and in January 2015, Knapp opened the $275 million glass and steel symbol of GW’s STEM focus: the Science and Engineering Hall.
To fund the University’s biggest projects, Knapp turned to philanthropy. He restructured the University’s development office in 2012 and jetted across the globe on fundraising missions throughout his tenure.
In 2014, officials launched the most ambitious fundraising campaign in University history, seeking to raise $1 billion by 2018. The campaign has raised $997 million thus far and officials said that the campaign will most likely be completed by the time Knapp leaves office in July – a year ahead of schedule.
“You can’t be great as a University unless you’re drawing on all the talent that’s out there.”
Knapp also focused on diversifying GW’s student body. He established a task force on affordability and diversity in 2014, created a vice provost position for diversity and inclusion in 2011 and partnered with nonprofit groups to bring low-income students to campus.
In the summer of 2015, officials announced GW would no longer require SAT and ACT scores to be submitted with undergraduate applications, a move officials credited with generating a 28 percent spike in applications in 2016.
“You can’t be great as a University unless you’re drawing on all the talent that’s out there,” he said.
In recent years, Knapp has released statements when racial tensions reached a national flash point and repeatedly reaffirmed the University’s commitment to making all students feel welcome on campus.
But along with the successes, there were setbacks. The University was rocked by an admissions scandal in 2012, when GW was pulled from the U.S. News and World Report rankings after it was found to have misrepresented admissions data for a decade.
In 2013, officials conceded that the University had been taking into account applicants’ financial status in admissions decisions, despite claiming for years that GW employed a “need-blind” policy.
Some administrators joked that Knapp came to his office on the top floor of Rice Hall everyday wondering what could go wrong.
In December 2015, facing a budget crunch caused by the rising cost of higher education nationwide, Knapp announced central administrative units would have to slash their budgets by 3 to 5 percent each year for five fiscal years.
“He tends to be the kind of president who at times tends to micromanage a little bit more than your more typical university president,” Chernak said. “So sometimes people might feel that they’re not getting the support that they would necessarily like to get in their positions when things aren’t going quite as smoothly as one would hope.”
“He wasn’t the kind of person that would go out on the street and engage in conversation with the janitors, with the students.”
Chernak, who served with Trachtenberg for decades and stayed on Knapp’s administration until 2012, said Knapp didn’t focus on the student experience as heavily as his predecessor.
“He wasn’t the kind of person that would go out on the street and engage in conversation with the janitors, with the students,” he said. “He was a little bit more introverted compared to Trachtenberg.”
Knapp said in the future, officials should work to develop an identity for the Virginia Science and Technology Campus, where the nursing school and other biological and health science facilities are located.
“What is the identity of that campus, what is the purpose of that campus, how is that campus related to the rest of the University?” Knapp said. “I think that’s just kind of a large unanswered question.”
Reflecting on a decade
Officials and faculty said Knapp had accomplished much of what he set out to do in his decade-long tenure and while some said they were sad to see him go, they welcomed a fresh perspective in the University’s top office.
Nelson Carbonell, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said Knapp had achieved the vision the Board set for the University when Knapp took office.
“I think if you look back now 10 years later, we’re pretty close to completing a billion-dollar campaign, our research has grown very, very dramatically and I think GW has become known as a community not just of students, but of faculty and staff that are really dedicated to service,” he said.
“I have to say, I’m sorry to see him leave.”
In 2009, Knapp created the Freshman Day of Service, mandating that all freshman participate in service projects in their first week on campus. Knapp said students collectively amassed more than 700,000 service hours this academic year.
Garris, who worked closely with Knapp through the Faculty Senate, said he set a tone of collaboration between administrators and faculty.
“There wasn’t a lot of behind-the-scenes politics that you see in a lot of other universities,” he said. “I have to say, I’m sorry to see him leave.”
Knapp said he has spoken frequently with his successor Thomas LeBlanc, who will take over the presidency in August, to share information about the University.
In an exit interview Friday, Knapp said he didn’t want to dwell on the legacy that he’d leave behind at GW.
“You know everybody in an institution like this is going to be forgotten sooner or later, that’s just the reality of an institution that goes on for 200 years,” he said. “I don’t think you want to get hung up on the legacy.”
Johnny Morreale and Colleen Grablick contributed reporting.