Some of GW’s most prominent alumni and top officials, along with other community members, gathered virtually Tuesday to kick off the University’s bicentennial celebration, exactly 200 years after Congress established the University charter.
The speakers – which included University President Thomas LeBlanc, Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights, alumna and CNN anchor Dana Bash and alumna and actress Kerry Washington – described the impact of the University since its founding in 1821, linked together by mini-documentaries highlighting GW’s 200-year history. The event, which officials said attracted about 4,300 registered attendees, was the first installment of a monthslong series celebrating the bicentennial, which will conclude at Colonials Weekend in October.
LeBlanc said GW has played a role in shaping the nation’s history, including student movements during the Vietnam War, when the University housed students from across the country who traveled to D.C.
“It’s a chance to look back at the history of our University, but it’s also a chance to look back at the history of our country because our institution in our nation’s capital is intertwined with the history of our country,” LeBlanc said.
He added that as GW enters its third century, he is looking to make the University more accessible and inclusive for current and future students. The COVID-19 pandemic has again exposed the “fault lines” in society, disproportionately impacting communities of color, he said.
“We need to make sure that higher education, which I believe is the greatest force for social mobility in our country, is accessible to all,” he said. “We need to enroll a diverse student body, we need to have a diverse faculty and staff and we need to ensure that our students can be successful.”
LeBlanc said officials’ decision for GW to become test-optional has increased the diversity of the applicant pool, but work remains to ensure students have the financial resources to attend GW. Officials received more than $22 million in gifts last October toward financial aid.
“We will continue to raise those funds so that we can ultimately meet the full need of the neediest students here at GW,” LeBlanc said.
Beyond recruiting a diverse student body, LeBlanc said he will work with the Multicultural Student Services Center, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, the Black Student Union and Latino organizations to make all students feel welcome on campus.
“We need to make sure that they can be successful in the classroom, whether it’s ensuring that they have access to the classes they need or they have the support that they need to be successful academically,” LeBlanc said. “We want our students to be able to graduate, ultimately go out into the world and change the world so that in the future, we’re not dealing with these same problems.”
During the event, University Presidents Emeritus Steven Knapp and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg joined LeBlanc for interviews with alumna and journalist Reena Ninan to talk about GW’s recent history as they set their eyes toward the future.
Knapp said GW has always sought to educate “citizen leaders” for the country and has since expanded to serving students in all 50 states and across the globe.
“That sense of having a front row seat in the theater of both American history and global history really is a hallmark of the institution,” Knapp said. “But at the same time, I would point to this really remarkable entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to service on the part of our students, so it’s that combination of global reach and this extraordinary focus on creativity and service that I think are continuing hallmarks of our students.”
Speights, the Board chair, said she is focused on inclusion, equity and supporting a high-quality academic experience as GW marks its bicentennial.
“This past year has presented many challenges, and our path forward, like all universities, is uncharted,” she said. “But unlike other universities, we have the advantage of benefiting from this fabulous GW community. This community is why I firmly believe that we are positioned for preeminence as a comprehensive global research university in our third century.”
Throughout the event, some of the University’s most prominent alumni in politics, journalism, entertainment and other fields spoke about their experience as students and how it shaped their eventual careers.
“Tonight is all about how all of us have made GW what it is today,” Bash, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1993 and now serves as CNN’s chief political correspondent, said at the event. “We have two centuries of ‘Only at GW’ moments, two centuries of GW memories and two centuries of bonds that form this lifelong community.”
Earlier in the day, Mayor Muriel Bowser proclaimed Tuesday as “George Washington University Day” in the District in honor of the bicentennial, and President Joe Biden and former President Jimmy Carter also sent letters of congratulations.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who earned a master’s degree in 1992 and appeared during the kickoff event, spoke on the U.S. Senate floor Tuesday to mark the occasion.
“Founded as a modest Columbian College 200 years ago, there was no guarantee that The George Washington University would succeed,” Duckworth said. “Ultimately, it was the dedication, ingenuity and hard work of many generations of world-class faculty, impressive students and accomplished alumni over the past two centuries that accounts for why GW evolved into the preeminent, global research university it is today.”