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A Conversation With President Knapp

President Steven Knapp

In this edition, we asked President Steven Knapp about the excitement of election season at GW. Here, he tells us about the many ways GW was uniquely involved in the 2012 election.

Q: Is GW different from other college campuses during an election year?

A: Without question. We often talk about providing our students with a front-row seat at the theater of history, and that is never truer than during an academic year that includes both a general election and a presidential inauguration. Four years ago, more than a million visitors streamed through our Foggy Bottom Campus on their way to the National Mall, and I am sure the same thing will happen this coming January!

Q: Were there activities taking place on campus in connection with the election?

A: Yes; in fact, the campus has been an intense living laboratory, with events and programming going on almost daily. Let me give you three quick examples of substantive ways in which GW is engaging the election: Face the Facts USA is an online program of our School of Media and Public Affairs; starting 100 days before the election, it provided voters with an new fact each day on an issue they really want and need to understand, no matter what party or candidate they may support. The Opportunity Nation Summit was a bipartisan symposium that brought 1,200 thought leaders on campus to discuss public- and private-sector strategies for building educational and job-training pipelines for young adults. The POLITICO-George Washington University Battleground Poll, housed in our Global Media Institute, put out very rich polling data on both candidates and on the most salient questions American voters were facing. All three of these initiatives have been led by our experts in political analysis, media and public affairs, and campaign strategy.

Q: How did GW students engage with this election?

A: They engaged with an energy but also with an intellectual rigor that has repeatedly impressed me since I came to GW five years ago. Of course they were guided and stimulated by the faculty, but they also took ownership of the process in surprisingly inventive ways. Students in the Graduate School of Political Management conducted "Horse Race" polls every week, aggregating the opinions of students, alumni, and faculty and declaring a "winner" for that week. GW also hosted an "Elect Her–Campus Women Win" training, part of a nationwide program that teaches collegiate women how to run for and win student government elections. All over campus, students from several parties have joined in conversation through many different media, expressing their views through tweets, blogs, and banners hung from their dorm windows, as well as debate-watching parties. The College Democrat and College Republican student groups even share the same office space, which I have suggested to our congressional alumni as a model for Capitol Hill!

Q: Was it possible for GW to be truly nonpartisan in the midst of such a heated election cycle?

A: As an institution that arose from our namesake's vision of a university aimed at fostering national unity, our mission is to strengthen the democratic process, not promote a specific outcome. To show you just how active our Colonials are, we had alumni events at both the Republican and Democratic National conventions this year. Several alumni had speaking roles at the Democratic convention (see page 19), and a former Republican congressman is the director of our Graduate School of Political Management. We showcased the donated papers and memorabilia of Frank Fahrenkopf , former chair of Republican National Committee, and our late alumnus and former Board of Trustees chair Charles Manatt, formerly Chair of the Democratic National Committee. The collections of these two friends were presented in a bipartisan exhibit, "Making Democracy Work." And probably the most entertaining election event in recent memory was the 90-minute debate between Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart. The showdown was so in-demand that it crashed the server, halting Internet viewing for a few minutes. But for those inside Lisner Auditorium, it was a great blend of partisanship, wit, and creative rhetoric.

Q: Do you think that GW students were more informed than the average voter?

A: I certainly hope so! If students had a question about the Electoral College, they could go to law professor Jeffrey Rosen. If they were interested in the nature and role of media coverage, they could talk to Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent and Washington bureau chief and now director of our School of Media and Public Affairs. If they wanted to understand polling, they could contact Republican pollster Ed Goeas or Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, the directors of our Battleground Poll. Or if they wanted to know about the latest voting technology, they could talk to computer scientist Poorvi L. Vora, who is working on a "Scantegrity" project that will enable voters to check their votes online. These are just a small sample of the opportunities available to our students. And I can assure you that their opportunities both to study and to engage in the workings of our democracy will continue, even in the years between elections!