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By Chris M. Kormis

Photos by Jessica McConnell

Genuine. Student-oriented. Enthusiastic. Scholar. Entrepreneurial Visionary. Institutional, Community, and Global Leader. Collegial. Charismatic. Committed to Academic Excellence.

This past summer, the Knapp family hosted members of the GW student media for a barbecue at their family farm in Sparks, Md. The Knapps tend to 14 prize-winning sheep and 32 chickens of various exotic breeds on the 6.5-acre farm, which also includes a vegetable garden and grape arbor.

Members of the GW community put forth these adjectives last fall during a series of forums when asked for their desired qualities of The George Washington University’s next president. Throughout GW’s 186-year history, the University’s 15 presidents have carefully guided its growth and personality, so choosing the right person to become GW’s 16th president was paramount.

Steven Knapp, the successful candidate who encapsulates all of these characteristics, is the right person at the right time, says Chairman of the Presidential Search Committee and now Chairman of GW’s Board of Trustees W. Russell Ramsey, BBA ’81. “Dr. Knapp’s background includes extraordinary academic credentials, extraordinary institutional, civic, and international leadership qualities, and proven capabilities. Dr. Knapp believes in a collaborative approach to bringing people together and setting a vision and then executing it. We found someone in Dr. Knapp who exemplifies The George Washington University community and who will add to its prestige and reputation,” Ramsey remarks.

Knapp was most recently provost and senior vice president for 10 years at The Johns Hopkins University. He joined Johns Hopkins in 1994 and served as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences until 1996 when he became provost. Johns Hopkins is the nation’s largest research university with $1.5 billion in federally sponsored research expenditures and also is the State of Maryland’s largest private employer. As chief academic officer, Knapp coordinated the work of the nine Hopkins schools and developed strategies for regional, national, and international growth. Prior to serving at Johns Hopkins, he was an English professor at the University of California, Berkeley for 16 years. Knapp’s specialty is 18th- and 19th-century English literature and literary theory. “My initial focus was on the English poetic tradition, and the two figures I’ve done the most work on are Milton and Wordsworth,” Knapp notes. He has two published books by the Harvard University Press—Personification and the Sublime: Milton to Coleridge (1985) and Literary Interest: The Limits of Anti-Formalism on Milton (1993)—and numerous articles on literary theory and interpretation. President Knapp earned his B.A. (1973) at Yale University and his M.A. (1977) and Ph.D. (1981) at Cornell University.

Knapp delivered his first public speech during Opening Convocation in September. “We have not just been at the center of history. We have helped make history.” Knapp said. “Students who walked our halls a few short years ago now walk the halls of Congress. Engineers and scientists who worked in our labs now work at NASA and the National Institutes of Health. Artists and teachers who studied here are now enriching minds and educating the next generation.”

To read the entire speech, visit

“When I originally went to Yale, I was planning on majoring in international studies, Russian in particular,” he says. “Then I switched a couple of fields, including anthropology, eventually settling on English pretty early in my sophomore year. English was a real strength at Yale at that time, so I had some great courses and developed a strong interest in that field.

“I was especially fascinated by Milton and Milton’s Paradise Lost and its influence on English Romanticism,” he continues. “I went to Cornell to pursue those interests with the great Romantics scholar M. H. Abrams, among others.”

In addition to his duties as GW’s president, Knapp is a tenured professor of English. “I enjoy teaching,” he says. “Given the anticipated demands on my time, a traditional semester-long course may be difficult, but I’m sure we’ll find the right format: perhaps a short course or a guest role in a longer one. I’m looking forward to all of the possibilities.”

Ever since the December 2006 announcement of Knapp’s selection to lead GW, students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the University’s friends have been eager to learn more about him. Likewise, he’s actively becoming acquainted with his new institution.

Prior to taking office in Rice Hall on Aug. 1, Knapp began regularly spending time on the University’s campuses getting to know GW’s faculty, students, alumni, staff, deans, and administrators. In January, he moved into an office on the Foggy Bottom Campus that he occupied about once a week, and, while Knapp was discreet about his visibility on campus out of respect for then President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, he was busy absorbing the University’s issues he would inherit as president on his first official day.

When members of the student media asked to meet with him, he invited them and GW Magazine to his family’s sheep farm for a Saturday afternoon barbecue in June with his wife, Diane, and his adult children—son Jesse and daughter Sarah.

The Knapps, who currently tend to 14 prize-winning sheep and 32 chickens of various exotic breeds, have owned their 6.5-acre farm in Sparks, Md., since 1994. Formerly part of a larger property known as “Young Jacob’s Choice,” it includes a white wooden house built in the 1890s, a barn constructed in the mid-1800s, a guest house originally built as a horse clinic when a veterinarian owned the property, a vegetable garden, and a grape arbor designed by Sarah Knapp and built by her and her father.

During a visit to the Medical Center, President Knapp met with (left) Anne Hirshfield, associate vice president for health research, compliance, technology transfer and professor of anatomy; and M. Lourdes Winberry, special assistant to the vice president for health affairs.

Under a sunny blue sky, Knapp gave his guests a tour of the farm, challenged them to a game of badminton, grilled hamburgers and veggie burgers, and spent time just sitting and talking with them on his back porch. Before the day ended, he entertained them with his drum playing. Knapp discovered a passion for drumming during his early childhood. As a high school student he considered a career in music and had been admitted to a music school before deciding instead to go to Yale. While in college, he played professionally and toured with the Yale Symphony in France. He currently is interested in playing hand drums; as a going away gift, his former colleagues at Johns Hopkins University presented him with an Afro-Peruvian mahogany cajon drum.

On campus, Knapp has been spending a great deal of time connecting with students. On Sept. 1, he and his wife helped move them into their GW residence halls. Two days later on Sept. 3, he officially welcomed students and their parents at Opening Convocation in the Charles E. Smith Athletic Center, and most recently, he has scheduled “office hours with the president” for students. Additionally, throughout the fall semester, Knapp plans to conduct “listening forums,” for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and neighbors, much like the forums held during the presidential search process. Information about the forums will be posted on Knapp’s Web site,

Knapp will be fully engaged in the GW community day and night with his decision to live on campus at 1925 F Street, N.W., the former home to the historic F Street Club, which welcomed U.S. presidents and policy makers for much of the 20th century. In addition to living in the home, Knapp plans to restore its use as a venue for leadership dialogues, which will include students and faculty. He will move into his on-campus residence after renovations are complete. Meanwhile, he and his wife are living in an apartment near campus in the West End neighborhood.

“I want to immerse myself in the life of the campus and be part of the Foggy Bottom community, which I think should be helpful in terms of giving me an appreciation for how the residents in the community relate to each other and to the University,” Knapp explains. “I’m also planning to host frequent events in the president’s house connected to what’s happening on campus.” The new president’s house is located near Thurston Hall, Key Hall, and Potomac House. When asked if he has any concerns about living so close to three student residence halls, Knapp just shrugs. “It’s life in the city,” he says. Though he hopes students will be respectful and not stop by for visits in the middle of the night.

(Above) In August, President Knapp toured many areas of the University. Here, he learns about features of the Law School with Dean Frederick M. Lawrence and visits the Mount Vernon Campus with Associate Vice President and Dean of Freshmen Frederic A. Siegel (below).

Among the events Knapp plans to host at his new home are receptions for the University’s supporters. “One of the areas I’m going to be focusing on is bringing in more philanthropic resources,” Knapp says. “Whether or not that takes the form of a campaign is something the trustees have begun to discuss and to study. I want to find out what our alumni think about the University and what they might be willing to do to help support us.”

Knapp was actively engaged in fund raising at Johns Hopkins, including an ongoing $3.2-billion capital campaign, and, in 1994, he launched a capital campaign for the arts and sciences that eventually yielded $230 million and a named benefactor for the school. His leadership accomplishments also include the establishment of a fund for “target of opportunity” professorships, an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute, the addition of an international research institute to the university’s campus in Nanjing, China, and a $20-million student arts center. Also, along with Johns Hopkins President William R. Brody, he established a Commission on Undergraduate Education that resulted in significant new initiatives in the areas of student life and diversity.

Knapp already has begun raising funds for GW initiatives, including those to help offset the cost of obtaining an education. “Tuition doesn’t pay for the full cost of instruction,” Knapp remarks. “All tuition is subsidized in the sense that if we didn’t have revenue coming in from other sources we wouldn’t be able to pay for the education we are providing. It’s a question of how much is covered by students themselves and how much comes from endowment, philanthropy, and other sources of revenue. We are working hard to raise more funds for financial aid so the net cost to students and their families will be affordable.”

Another area of fund-raising emphasis for Knapp is support of capital projects, such as a science and engineering facility. He observes, “We have new facilities for the School of Business and the Law School, as well as one for the Elliott School of International Affairs. We need to focus some attention on science and engineering.”

GW’s Faculty Senate, students, alumni, and administrators list the need for a new science center built on the Foggy Bottom Campus as a priority. Knapp acknowledges and affirms their conclusion. “We need instructional as well as research space on the Foggy Bottom Campus,” he says. “We also have opportunities for developing research on our Virginia Campus in Loudoun County, which has tremendous capacity.”

To their surprise and delight, freshman students and their parents received help during move-in weekend from President Knapp and his wife, Diane (not pictured). The Knapps carried everything from luggage and boxes to comforters and wall posters.

Knapp notes that as the University is poised to further expand its research enterprise, “One route to securing federally sponsored programs for research is to show we’re operating across the boundaries of traditional disciplines,” he says. “For example, nowadays, if you look at the National Institutes of Health roadmap for supporting research, it’s very much focused on interdisciplinary projects, like those that combine engineering and medicine, in ways that will harness technology to find, for example, new ways of delivering drugs to the right targets. We’re already doing interdisciplinary work at GW, in such areas as homeland security, oncology, and public policy, to name just a few. I am very impressed with how positively the deans speak about each other as partners in these activities. I don’t get a sense of territoriality or operating in silos. A lot of wasted energy can be spent in trying to protect boundaries rather than seizing opportunities.”

Knapp recently served on the Maryland Governor’s Advisory Committee on Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute board of directors. In addition, he has been involved in the strategic planning and lobbying efforts of the Association of American Universities and had directed international initiatives including Johns Hopkins’ expansion of its institutional presence in Italy, China, and Singapore.

Now as GW’s president, Knapp says he will work closely with the University’s faculty on their curriculum review initiatives and explore cross-disciplinary initiatives. He already has met several times with members of the University’s Faculty Senate and with individual faculty members to get a better understanding of their interests.

“He responds to what you are saying thoughtfully and with sincerity,” says Professor of Art History Lilien Robinson, chair of GW’s Faculty Senate Executive Committee. “I feel as if I am talking to a good colleague whom I hope to get to know better.”

Herself an alumna of both GW (BA ’62, MA ’65) and Johns Hopkins (PhD ’78), Robinson notes that Knapp’s credentials are substantial and impressive. “Steven Knapp was a superb choice and exactly what The George Washington University needs at this point in its history,” she remarks. “He possesses the administrative skills and the academic vision to lead GW. My colleagues and I are very enthusiastic about his being the University’s president, and we look forward to working with him.”

GW and Johns Hopkins University share many similar characteristics, Knapp says. “Both are research institutions and both are located in the Baltimore-Washington area, which is a national center. They are roughly the same age, even though GW was founded earlier, they’re both 19th-century institutions, both demonstrate a real commitment to a rigorous curriculum, and both are located in urban environments that can be very challenging, but that also provide rich opportunities for engaging the issues that shape the modern world.”

Knapp was introduced to the GW community at a press conference in December, where he was welcomed to the podium by W. Russell Ramsey, BBA ’81, who is now the chairman of GW’s Board of Trustees.

Regarding their differences, he notes that while Johns Hopkins has a large percentage of faculty, students, and staff in the health sciences department, it does not have a law school; GW has a highly regarded and nationally ranked law school. On the sports scene, he says that Johns Hopkins only has one Division 1 sport, which is lacrosse, whereas GW is an institution with 22 Division 1 teams. “Both GW and Johns Hopkins have a similar approach to athletics in the sense that there is an emphasis on integrity in sports and making intramural activities available for all students while not forgetting the athletes’ educational goals and needs,” he explains.

Knapp says he wants to get to know the University’s alumni and build a lifelong community for them at GW. “Alumni will play an influential role in shaping the future of the University,” stresses Knapp, who says he plans to spend a great deal of time meeting the University’s graduates. “We have so many alumni who live in the vicinity of our University. That’s not true of all institutions,” he notes. “GW has 70,000 alumni in the greater Washington area out of our 240,000 alumni total. That’s a pretty good ratio of alumni living in our area.

“I also plan to travel to all the major cities where we have alumni so I can get their opinions on ways they would like to be involved. You can always guess what people would like to do, but it’s more fruitful to hear from them—what their perception is of GW, and if they are aware of how GW has changed since they were students,” he explains.

Knapp also would like to engage alumni in the intellectual work of the University. “Many alumni want to know the University’s opinion about current issues; what our faculty thinks about some of the global concerns, ranging from terrorism to the latest medical treatments to progress in the arts,” he says. “There are ways alumni can become very excited about our University. I think that’s especially true when we are located in the nation’s capital.”

President and Diane Knapp with their son, Jesse, and their daughter, Sarah.

The biggest opportunities for the University, Knapp summarizes, are to build upon GW’s foundation of academic excellence, research, and fund raising, and to strengthen even further its connections to the greater Washington community and its vast cultural and intellectual resources. Altogether, these measures boost GW’s reputation, enabling the University to recruit the finest students and faculty.

Johns Hopkins President William R. Brody, who worked with Knapp for 10 years, congratulates GW’s presidential search committee on choosing Knapp as the University’s president. Brody says, “He is a distinguished scholar, an accomplished administrator, and a creative and farsighted leader. Watch for great things from Steve and The George Washington University for many years to come.”

The University community will celebrate Knapp’s presidential inauguration with a week of events November 13-17, including three theme days highlighting research and scholarship, alumni, and the University’s partnerships in the Washington, D.C., community. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and partners are invited to participate in the activities, which will include seminars, symposia, and performances. Please find a schedule of Inaugural Week events on the inside front cover of this magazine and visit the inaugural Web site at

Meet Diane Robinson Knapp

Diane Robinson Knapp, who is originally from Weedsport, N.Y., earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Cornell University to become an administrative and clinical dietitian. She also met Steven Knapp at Cornell, and the two have been together ever since.

GW’s new first lady, who prefers to be called Diane, had worked as the nutrition director at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Calif., while President Knapp was at the University of California, Berkeley. For the past 12 years, Diane has been active with the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestras, an organization that provides student musicians with a classical music and orchestral education as well as opportunities to perform. “I joined the GBYO when my son, Jesse, was in ninth grade. He played the violin and my daughter, Sarah, joined as well and played the tuba,” Diane says. While she doesn’t play an instrument herself, Diane volunteered as president of the GBYO for the past seven years, and this summer accompanied the orchestras to Austria and the Czech Republic for a concert tour. She now serves on the organization’s advisory board. The orchestras have toured extensively in Japan, Estonia, Russia, and throughout the United States, winning numerous awards in major national and international festivals. “They are an energetic group and really good musicians who take music very seriously,” she says.

Like President Knapp, Diane is quickly becoming part of the GW community, touring the campuses with him and meeting people. “I would like to be able to play a significant role in several activities,” she says enthusiastically. And she’s already started. Exactly one month after their own move to GW, on Sept. 1, Diane and President Knapp helped students settle into GW’s residence halls during “move-in.” Diane hopes to make assisting with move-in an annual tradition. She also is a welcome contributor to President Knapp’s upcoming inauguration, offering her input on the planning of Inaugural Week activities.

While the Knapps lived in or near Baltimore for the past 13 years, Diane says, “Washington, D.C., is a completely new place for me, and I’m excited to get to know it. It has so much to offer and to see.” The Knapps' son, Jesse, recently also moved to the District of Columbia to work for a U.S. senator and live on Capitol Hill. Their daughter, Sarah, remained in Sparks, Md., to help manage the farm and care for the animals.

Sustainability is a priority for the Knapps. “I think that our impact on the environment is too great and needs to be minimized,” she says. “We can all make an effort by doing small things like knowing what food and products to buy, how to use your products, and how often you drive. Living in the city, I’ll be able to walk or take mass transit. Convenience is a whole big part of it. It’s hard to always do what would be best for the environment as well as for yourself, so you want to come up with ways to make it convenient.” For example, for his official car President Knapp selected a Toyota Prius hybrid, which gets 60 miles to the gallon in the city and 51 miles on the highway—color is buff and blue, of course.

The Knapps may in fact be GW’s first “hybrid couple”—combining healthy living with higher learning for GW’s worldwide and lifelong community.