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Being fun’s a full-time job

University presidents choose unorthodox tactics to win the hearts and minds of their undergrads

Photo: Michael Lipkin/The Chicago Maroon
President Robert Zimmer unleashes a snowball at a cardboard cutout of former President Don Randel.

Steven Knapp has an image problem. He's a quiet, thoughtful man, with the sort of demeanor that doubtless served him well in his time as a literary theorist and professor of English. His reserve has not, however, endeared him to the undergraduate population of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where Knapp has served as President since 2007. If reports out of the District have the situation aright, Knapp strikes his undergrads as disinterested, detached, and uninvolved in their lives.

A distant, disengaged academic turned University President? This is ringing bells?

Yesterday's Washington Post had this to say about Knapp and his quixotic attempts to change his image and win the hearts of his college students. The piece also details the pains other presidents have taken to bond with undergrads, ranging from tweeting and blogging on the more-sober end of the spectrum, to deejaying parties and getting in the fray at late-night snowball fights, to inviting nursing students to watch them give birth, as Shenandoah President Tracy Fitzsimmons did.

As for our President Zimmer, he may be unwilling or physically unable to match some of those stunts WaPo lists off, but no one can accuse Zimmer of thinking himself above throwing a few snowballs. Of course, accusing him of anything, good or bad, probably requires seeing him face-to-face around campus, and the odds of that aren't great either. 

That's at least partially because Zimmer oversees the entire University, including much of its fundraising efforts and its increasing international presence, which means traveling to places and in circles that don't include too many undergrads. And those among us who wish they knew Zimmer better or saw him more often might ask themselves why—on a campus filled with 5000 like-minded and similarly-aged peers in the full blush of youth—they're so keen to hang with a 62 year old statistics Ph.D.

That's a fair enough question to put to those who call Zimmer aloof, but still, if Zimmer and his colleagues are going to parry accusations of aloofness with vague mentions of functions he attends and donors he cultivates, then undergrads are in the right to wonder why Zimmer seems so hesitant to put those interpersonal abilities to work among their own crowd. Sure the President's a busy guy, but he has a lot of hours at his disposal over the course of an undergrad's four-year education, and we're not asking for all that many of them.

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