Steven Knapp became the 16th president of the George Washington University in August 2007 after a career in academia that included teaching English literature at the University of California, Berkeley and serving as dean of arts and sciences and then provost of the Johns Hopkins University. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a member of the Modern Language Association. His priorities include increasing student opportunities for public service. The interview was conducted by Tom Fox, author of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.
How are you helping to foster leadership among George Washington University students?
Our Center for Student Engagement has an internal mentoring program that matches first-year students with students who already are involved in service. Our Office of Civic Engagement and Public Service focuses on students who are not just seeking to become engaged in the community but are also thinking about public service careers. We also have a program called Presidential Administrative Fellows. Seniors complete a two-year, fully funded graduate fellowship that enables them to work in university offices while they pursue their graduate studies. This program provides them with tremendous opportunities to develop leadership skills.
What do you think are the obstacles to attracting young folks to public service?
Our students are probably a bit unusual; they often come with an interest in service that is part of what attracts them to Washington. They really hit the ground running in many ways. We’re responding to their initiatives as much as they’re responding to ours. I’ll have students show up with a new idea for a service project and I’ll say, “Have you thought about the details?” And, they’ll hand me a business plan. It’s pretty extraordinary sometimes.
Can you identify experiences that helped shape your leadership abilities?
I think that my role as a teacher helped, particularly teaching seminars. If you’re running a seminar discussion, your job is to get a group of people together and listen carefully to what they’re saying so you can make sense of the discussion as a collective activity. You ask a question, listen to the responses and try to see what those responses have in common. That kind of feedback and circulation and dialogue is really important when it comes to pulling people together from various parts of a complex organization. But, come to think of it, my first, very instructive experience of leadership probably came when I was the drum captain in a high-school marching band!
What leadership lesson you have learned from being president of the George Washington University?
At any university, faculty members often know more about and have closer relations with colleagues in the same field outside the institution than they do with people in offices right across the hall. So communication and understanding of what’s going on within the institution is a constant challenge. I have a number of vice presidents who have different areas of responsibility. I asked them to meet on a weekly basis just to talk about communication and to discover what they have in common and could do more collaboratively. I also started having the deans meet on a regular basis to talk about fundraising. There were opportunities for things they could do together that they weren’t necessarily aware of.
Do you have leadership role models?
Given the university I’m currently serving, it would be hard for me not to mention George Washington. Washington is an extraordinary role model because, first of all, he put on hold his private aspirations to serve the country he was bringing into being. He is also a model of persistence. The Revolutionary War was a very uncertain proposition for much of its duration; it was almost miraculous that he was eventually successful, but a lot of that had to do with Washington’s personal character and tenacity. He was also a tremendous builder of consensus.
There were also people in my family who were pretty tenacious characters. I often mention my paternal grandmother in that regard. She came out of a farming background in upstate New York and was one of the toughest people I’ve ever encountered.