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A Conversation With President Knapp

President Steven Knapp

With this edition of GW Magazine we inaugurate a new feature: a conversation with GW President Steven Knapp. In this issue, the university's 16th president discusses some overarching initiatives at the George Washington University.

Q "Engaging the world from the nation's capital" is a phrase that has been used to describe the overall vision for GW. What does this vision mean to you?

A Every university these days strives to be global. That makes every kind of sense in a world in which national economies are increasingly dependent on each other, and in which students need inter-cultural skills and experience to succeed, no matter what field they enter. George Washington has the unique privilege of being a global university simply by virtue of its location at the heart of the world's most powerful capital city. It's a city regularly visited by world leaders; a city in which some of the world's most influential institutions are housed; and a city that, in recent years, has increasingly become a microcosm of the world's cultures. Those world leaders frequently come to GW; in a little over a year, we were visited by the presidents of South Korea and the Dominican Republic, and by the first lady of Haiti, to name just a few. Staff from those neighboring institutions regularly teach our students. And our students are regularly exposed to music, dance, and literature from around the world.

So if you are a student who wants to learn how to engage the world, this is the place to do it. And if you're a scholar who wants his or her work to engage the world's most urgent issues—once again, this is the place to do it!

Q A culture of service is central to the identity of the university. What is being done to further this culture?

A Of course I have to mention last year's excitement over the challenge issued by the first lady that we perform 100,000 hours of service. We ultimately did 163,980 hours, and Mrs. Obama (who in return gave our commencement address on the National Mall) joked that she should have set the bar higher! But of course that achievement merely symbolized a commitment to service that is built into our institutional DNA, going all the way back to the vision of our namesake, who wanted to create a university in the nation's capital that would educate the citizen leaders of the new democracy he did so much to create. We launched this year with a Freshman Day of Service with even more participants than last year, and we celebrated our deeply rooted culture once again on Sept. 24 when we conferred the Colin Powell Public Service Award on a very distinguished GW alumnus, former Coast Guard Commandant Thad W. Allen.

Q The George Washington University has been enhancing its research activities. Why is this effort important?

A You are asking why research, and why now? Well, for several decades we have been making our undergraduate programs more selective; in fact, this was our most selective year ever. We had more applicants than ever before (more than 21,000); we admitted a smaller percentage of those applicants than ever before (only 31 percent); and a higher percentage than ever before of those we admitted chose to come to George Washington (38 percent). We can, and I am sure we will, continue to make progress in strengthening our undergraduate programs and enhancing the campus experience of our students. We are seeing similar results in our graduate and professional programs in fields like law, business, international affairs, public health, education, and medicine.

Now the time has come to build on that success by achieving the level of distinction in scholarship that will truly establish George Washington as a world-class research university. This will benefit all our students and alumni by raising the reputational value of their degrees. But we are not doing this for reputation only; part of our mission is to serve our community, the nation, and the world by making the intellectual contributions that only a great university can make.

It's for both those reasons—to strengthen our reputation and to maximize our contribution to humankind—that we have been taking steps like hiring the university's first vice president for research; recruiting a new provost and new deans from top institutions; developing cross-disciplinary initiatives that draw on strengths in many different fields; building out our Virginia Science and Technology Campus; and planning a new complex here in Foggy Bottom that will ensure that our strength in policy, law, the social sciences, and business are undergirded by strength in science and engineering. That's an essential dimension of a great university in an era when changes in the economy, in global security, and even in the arts are so powerfully driven by developments in science and technology.

Q We are hearing some talk around the university about 2021. What is the importance of this year?

A That's an easy one! It's our bicentennial. We were created by an act of Congress in 1821, even though GW, called Columbian College at the time, was located on what is now Meridian Hill and did not arrive at Foggy Bottom until 1912. Later this academic year, we will be entering the final decade of the university's second century, and I would like to see us regard it as a decade of transformation in which we truly achieve the full stature that the largest university in this nation's capital has long envisioned and certainly deserves.

Do you have a topic you would like President Knapp to address in a future edition? Please submit your ideas at