During his tenure as GWU president from 1965 to 1988, Dr. Elliott sought to steer clear of political battles and guard the independence of a university that lies just a few blocks from the White House.
At the height of national upheaval during the Vietnam War, students and others from around the country descended on Washington for antiwar protests. Many slept at GWU’s campus in Foggy Bottom, using it as a shelter, before heading to the White House, the Pentagon or the Mall for demonstrations.
Dr. Elliott’s former colleagues said he sought to keep the campus running, with minimal disturbance, while preserving freedom of speech for students.
One day in 1970, Dr. Elliott criticized D.C. police for “excessive use of force and indiscriminate arrests” in connection with a demonstration that started outside the Watergate apartment complex and then spilled onto campus.
“This was a potential tinderbox during the entire Vietnam period,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who succeeded Dr. Elliott as president of the university. “He handled that brilliantly, with a calmness I could only aspire to.”
In another test of his leadership in 1987, Dr. Elliott denied a federal request to allow international news media to use a campus gymnasium as a press center during a superpower summit meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
A White House spokesman called Dr. Elliott’s decision “narrow-minded.” Some students complained that the university lost priceless international exposure. But Dr. Elliott was more worried about possible disruption to students and classes shortly before exams.
“It all depends on what you put first: the programs of the university or something in the way of a long grab for publicity,” Dr. Elliott later told The Washington Post. “I thought the decision was as simple as that.”
When he came to GWU in 1965, replacing a president who had died the year before, Dr. Elliott found initial skepticism on campus. Many faculty members had backed another candidate from among their own ranks.
But Dr. Elliott, who had previously led the University of Maine, won professors over with a pledge to be a collaborative educational leader and a strong fundraiser. “It’s nearly impossible to be one without being the other,” he said.
GWU’s endowment grew under Dr. Elliott’s tenure from about $8 million to more than $200 million. Student enrollment rose from 12,500 in 1965 to 19,200 in 1988, and the university gained a stronger national reputation.
The university built the main Gelman Library, the Jacob Burns Law Library and the Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library, among other core buildings. Dr. Elliott, seizing on GWU’s location in a seat of world diplomacy, put new emphasis on a school of international affairs that was named for him when he retired. He also disbanded the university’s varsity football program, deeming it too expensive.