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Past Presidents

President StaughtonWilliam Staughton was the first President of Columbian College, from 1821 to 1827. He was born in Coventry, England, January 4, 1770, and died in Washington, D. C. December 12, 1829. During Staughton’s tenure the Columbian College was located on “College Hill,” an area of land bordering Florida Avenue and 14th and 15th Streets, N.W.(today the area around Meridian Hill Park). Under his administration a Preparatory School was begun,as was the Medical School. The Theological Department was discontinued in 1825. Staughton presided over the first Commencement of the college in December 1824. In attendance were Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun,Speaker of the House Henry Clay, members of the Cabinet,the Justices of the Supreme Court, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

President ChapinStephen Chapin was the second President of Columbian College, from 1828 to1841. He was born in Milford, Massachusetts, Nov. 4, 1778, and died Oct. 1, 1845. He graduated from Harvard in 1804, and then studied theology under Rev. Nathaniel Emmons, of Franklin, Massachusetts. He entered the Congregational ministry and served as pastor at Hillsborough, N.H., from 1805 to 1808, and at Mount Vernon, N.H., from 1809 to 1818. Having changed his views on the mode and subjects of baptism, Chapin entered the Baptist ministry, and in 1819 was ordained pastor of the church at North Yarmouth, Maine. In 1822 he accepted the professorship of theology in Waterville College (now Colby University), and remained there until 1828, when he became President of the Columbian College. This position he retained until 1841, when failing health compelled him to resign. He was a man of culture and learning, and won the regard of all with whom he associated. In Washington he was intimate with the leading statesmen and scholars of his day. His published works include sermons, addresses and essays.

Under Chapin’s administration, the first Master of Arts degrees were awarded and an Act of Congress conferred on the school a federal grant of $25,000 in city lots. At the very end of Chapin's tenure, Columbian College was free of debt.

President BaconJoel Smith Bacon was President of Columbian College from 1843 to 1854. Martin Van Buren's first term as President of the United States had been severely damaged by the financial panic of 1837, and he failed in his 1840 bid for re-election. The new President, William Henry Harrison, had garnered some of his public appeal by portraying himself as a humble farmer (in reality, he was the wealthy owner of 2,000 acres of land). Joel Smith Bacon came to Columbian College from Hamilton College three years after Harrison's election. He oversaw the transition as the College's Department of Medicine moved to the old jail in Judiciary Square and became the National Medical College, one of the nation's first teaching hospitals. Other innovations included a program in natural science leading to the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy, the college's first alumni association, and the awarding of the first Doctor of Laws degree.

Joseph Getchell Binney was the fourth President of the College from 1855 to 1858. He was born at Boston, Massachusetts, Dec. 1, 1807, and died at sea Nov. 26, 1877, while returning to Burma. He was educated at Yale and Newton Theological Seminary, and was ordained in 1832. Binney settled in Savannah, Georgia, but in 1843 left for India to engage in missionary work among the Karens. He established in 1845 the Karen Seminary for the training of native ministers, but after some years he returned to America, owing to the precarious health of Mrs. Binney. He was engaged for a time as pastor at Elmira New York and Augusta, Georgia, and in 1855 accepted the Presidency of Columbian College. He resigned in 1858 to resume his work among the Karens, where he labored with great success until 1875 when failing health caused him to take a trip to America. On his return, in 1877, he died at sea and was buried in the Indian Ocean.

In 1855 the Columbian College awarded the degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, and the Bachelor of Philosophy. German was also added to the curriculum during Binney’s tenure. 

President SamsonGeorge W. Samson was President of Columbian College from 1859 to 1871. Two days after James Buchanan's inauguration in 1857, the Dred Scott Decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. For the abolitionists of the North, it was a stimulus to still stronger efforts in the battle against slavery. In the mid-term elections of 1858, the badly split Democrats suffered a resounding defeat and the way was clear for the emergence of the Republicans under Lincoln. To the Rev. George Whitefield Samson, formerly Pastor of the E Street Baptist Church, fell the difficult task of guiding Columbian College through the Civil War.

James C. Welling was President of Columbian University from 1871 to 1894. The scandal-ridden presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (he was elected to a second term in 1872) had caused a good deal of national demoralization when Dr. James Clarke Welling, former president of St. John's College in Maryland and former holder of the Chair of Belles Lettres at Princeton University, began his distinguished tenure at Columbian College--soon to be known, following an Act of Congress in 1873, as Columbian University.

President Welling was connected with many literary, historical and scientific societies. He was the President of the Anthropological Society of Washington, President of the Board of Trustees of the Corcoran Art Gallery, Regent of the Smithsonian Institution and Chairman of its Executive Committee. He wrote a great deal, but most of his published work appeared in the form of editorials and literary addresses, and as contributions to various periodicals. Under his administration the name of the institution was changed to the Columbian University, a permanent endowment fund was for the first time established, and large and conveniently arranged buildings were erected in the heart of Washington. The Law School was greatly enlarged, the Scientific School and the Dental School were established, the number of students increased from 326 in 1871 to 755 in 1891, and the number of the Faculty from twenty-five in 1871 to fifty-six in 1891.

President NeedhamCharles Willis Needham was the seventh President of The George Washington University from 1902 to 1910. He was born September 30, 1848 in Castile, New York. He died June 1, 1935 in LaSalle, Illinois. He attended Castile Academy and Albany Law School, where he earned an LL.B. degree. He received LL.D. degrees from Rochester University and Georgetown University, Kentucky. From 1874-90 Needham practiced law in Chicago and then in Washington, D.C. He became professor of law at Columbian, now George Washington University in 1897 and was selected as President in 1902. A Baptist layman and Dean of the Law School when elected as the eighth President of the University, Needham was hampered by financial difficulties. His tenure was nevertheless marked by many outstanding events. A training school for Nurses in connection with the Columbian University Hospital was opened, and in 1904 an Act secularizing the University and authorizing a change in the name to "The George Washington University" was passed by Congress. The first convocation of the newly named University was held in 1905, where the new seal and flag were displayed for the first time.

The institution's new charter also permitted it to organize colleges. Thus the National College of Pharmacy, the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Washington College of Engineering (the name changed to the College of Engineering and Mechanical Arts) became part of the university. Although endowed with a new name, expansion of schools and courses, combined with the costs of construction and maintenance created a heavy economic burden on the University. In 1910, the House of Representatives, acting under a provision of the original charter, requested the Attorney General of the United States to examine alleged fiscal irregularities at the University. Dr. Needham resigned in April of that year. After leaving the university Needham taught law at American University and was solicitor general for the Interstate Commerce Commission, retiring from that position in 1933.

President StocktonCharles Herbert Stockton served as the ninth president from 1910 to 1918. The son of a Protestant Episcopal clergyma, he was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 13, 1845 and he died in 1924. Stockton received a private school education, and at the age of 16 he entered the Naval Academy, from which he was graduated in 1865. He went into active service at once as a midshipman, and was rapidly promoted in rank. During the summer of 1864 he was on duty on the Macedonian, which made the memorable pursuit of the Confederate steamers, the Florida and the Tallahassee. While Lieutenant Commander, in 1889, he cruised the Arctic Ocean from the mouth of the Mackenzie to Wrangal Land, in command of the Thetis. He was commissioned a Captain in 1899, Rear Admiral in 1906, and was retired October 13, 1907. Subsequently, from 1908-1909, he was First United States Delegate to the London Naval Conference.

He was a lecturer in international law at the United States Naval War College from 1897-1900, and was President of the same institution from 1898-1900. Among others, the following are some of the works which he either wrote or edited: History of the United States Asylum, The Laws and Usages of War: A Naval War Code, and A Manual of International Law. It was in recognition of his services in the field of international law that the University conferred upon him the honorary LL.D. at the 1909 Commencement.

Charles Herbert Stockton was made Acting President in May 1910. In June of that year the Attorney General made a preliminary report upon the financial affairs of the University and found that the expenses of the University had exceeded its income and endangered the endowment. A heavy mortgage was placed on the properties housing the Medical School and Hospital. President Stockton, during the early years of his administration served without compensation. He maintained a close scrutiny on all expenditures and laid the basis for a solid recovery for the University.

Through the urging of Dr. Stockton, the Department of Arts and Sciences was moved in 1912 to 2023 G Street, the area that George Washington himself had selected as the site for "his" University. Foggy Bottom was established as the new central location. President Stockton's credentials could not have been better for the challenges that would confront the University. Perhaps his most significant qualification for guiding the University during World War I was his status as a retired Rear Admiral. As the United States drew ever closer to full involvement in the conflict, Stockton placed the University at the government's disposal. Also during the Stockton Presidency the Law School became co-educational, the College of Engineering and Mechanical Arts became the School of Engineering and the Summer Sessions were established.

President MarvinCloyd Heck Marvin was the twelfth President of the George Washington University, a position he held from 1927 to1959. The thirty-two years of Dr. Marvin's presidency is the longest in the history of the school. He was born August 22, 1889 in Findlay, Ohio. He moved with his family to Riverside, California in 1909, and graduated from high school there that year. After beginning his studies at Stanford University, he earned an A.B. degree (1915) and M.A. degree (1916) from the University of Southern California, and an M.A. (1917) and Ph.D. (1919) from Harvard. He served as a faculty member and dean at U.C.L.A. from 1919-22, and became president of the University of Arizona in 1922, at the age of 33. He served five years there before coming to GW in 1927.

When he arrived, the “G Street high school,” as some derided it, was crowded into about one square block, and had 109 full-time faculty and an enrollment of 5,478. Dr. Marvin reorganized the administration of the University, and with the assistance of the Board of Trustees he revamped and strengthened its financial structure so that at no time in his administration, even during the depression and the war years, was there a retrenchment through reduction in the size of the teaching staff or in faculty salaries. By the 1930s, the University had become well established in the Foggy Bottom area, and the institution had become a true urban university. By the time Marvin retired in 1959, the University had spread out to more than six times its old area, and the faculty and enrollment had doubled. Endowments were four times bigger and physical properties had increased eighteen fold. President Marvin died April 27, 1969 in Washington, D.C. His widow Dorothy Betts Marvin (whom he married in 1917) gave a naming gift of $1.5 million for the Cloyd Heck Marvin Student Center in 1971.

President Elliott oversees construction of the new student center, c. 1970Lloyd H. Elliott was President of The George Washington University from 1965 to 1988. Dr. Elliott became University President during the turbulent years of the Vietnam Era and the student protests. By the end of his tenure Dr. Elliott had brought to the University financial stability and continued growth through academic development and his many building programs.

As Dr. Elliott considered libraries to be the backbone of any campus, his proudest achievement was the building of the three libraries currently at the campus: the Melvin Gelman Library, the Jacob Burns Law Library, and the Paul Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library. In addition to the library projects, the Academic Center, (comprised of Smith, Rome and Phillips Halls), Funger Hall and the National Law Center's Theodore N. Lerner Hall were completed. In 1970 Dr. Elliott opened the Cloyd Heck Marvin Student Center, which had been a high priority because of the great need for additional space for student activities. 1973 was a landmark year for the University. GW's medical training program was moved from 13th and H Streets, N.W. to the Walter G. Ross Hall. With the relocation of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the University was for the first time located in one central area. The Charles E. Smith Center for Physical Education and Athletics, which replaced the old "Tin Tabernacle" gymnasium, was dedicated in 1975.

During his tenure, Dr. Elliott began the Educational Opportunity Program and created the new faculty rank of "University Professor." He increased the number of endowed professorships from three to twenty, and is also credited with the tremendous growth in the University's endowment -- from $8 million in 1965 to $200 million in 1988.

President TrachtenbergStephen Joel Trachtenberg was president of The George Washington University from 1988 to 2007. He came to GW from the University of Hartford, where he had been President for eleven years. Before assuming the presidency of Hartford, Trachtenberg served for eight years at Boston University as Vice President for Academic Services and Academic Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Earlier, in Washington, D.C., he was a Special Assistant for two years to the U.S. Education Commissioner, Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He has been an attorney with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and a legislative aide to former Indiana Congressman John Brademas.

In 1989, President Trachtenberg created the Office of Campus Life and made the commitment to offer programs and services "to enhance the personal, professional, social and cultural development of the University community." Other accomplishments include the remodeling of Lisner Auditorium and the campus bookstore, new seating for the Smith Center, the development of Francis Field for GW Athletics, and the creation of a 24-hour reading room within Gelman Library.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg became GW President in 1988, replacing Lloyd Elliott. The School of Public and International Affairs was renamed the Elliott School of International Affairs.President Trachtenberg affirmed his commitment to the importance of teaching at the University with the establishment of the University Teaching Center. He also created the 21st Century Scholars program, allowing high school students within the District of Columbia to attend the University and participate in aspects of campus life. President Trachtenberg has endorsed and advanced policies designed to increase excellence in research, graduate and undergraduate liberal arts education, and budgetary stability and quality management for the University. Between August 28, 1995, and May 19, 1996, the University celebrated its 175th Anniversary.

President KnappSteven Knapp became the sixteenth president of the George Washington University in August 2007. Dr. Knapp came to GW after serving as provost of the Johns Hopkins University since 1996, where he also served as dean of the college of arts and sciences from 1994 to 1996. Dr. Knapp was a professor of English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, for 16 years prior to his tenure at Johns Hopkins. He is a specialist in Romanticism, literary theory, and the intersection of 18th and 19th century English literature with philosophy and religion. He has written two books and numerous articles that continue to be widely published today. Dr. Knapp holds doctoral and master’s degrees from Cornell University and a Bachelor of Arts from Yale University.

Dr. Knapp’s priorities as GW’s president include enhancing the university’s partnerships with neighboring institutions, expanding the scope of its research, strengthening its worldwide community of alumni, enlarging its students’ opportunities for public service, and leading its transformation into a model of urban sustainability. Since his inauguration he has worked to generate new opportunities, resources, and recognition to position GW University and students as leaders in the advancement of education, science, technology, the arts, public service, and policy and law. As the first George Washington president to reside on campus, Dr. Knapp shares the storied F Street House as a focal point for university life.

In June 2016, Dr. Knapp announced that he would resign and GW would have a new president in 2017.

President Elliott oversees construction of the new student center, c. 1970
President Knapp
President Bacon
President Marvin
President Needham
President Samson
President Trachtenberg
President Staughton
President Chapin
President Stockton