The Presidents have a new president.
Dr. John C. Knapp was introduced Friday as the 13th leader of Washington & Jefferson College. He has been president of Hope College in Holland, Mich., for the past four years.
Knapp will succeed Dr. Tori Haring-Smith, who has been president since 2005. Haring-Smith, the only woman to lead W&J, will retire June 30.
“It’s a wonderful honor,” said Knapp, an Atlanta native. “Hope College is a great place, and Washington & Jefferson is one of the finest liberal arts undergraduate colleges there is. It is strong and getting stronger all the time.
“This is an opportunity to lead a college that is well positioned and well led.”
Knapp was one of 150 applicants for the position and was unanimously approved by W&J’s board of trustees. He will begin work Aug. 1. The college declined to reveal his age.
A distinguished figure – tall, lean with a light beard – Knapp was introduced to a large crowd of mostly W&J students, faculty members and officials at the Allen Ballroom in Rossin Campus Center. He was dressed appropriately, his black suit and red tie representing the school colors.
Knapp has had a diverse 34-year career, much of it in education, and much of it in Georgia. He was president of a communications consulting company in Atlanta, and founded and directed programs at Samford University (Birmingham) and Georgia State University (Atlanta).
At Hope, a private, residential liberal arts college similar to W&J, he has overseen construction of several facilities funded through a capital campaign of $203 million – drawing an impressive $28 million above the goal.
Before going through the hiring process, Knapp said he wasn’t intimately familiar with W&J, but knew the college and Haring-Smith each had “a great reputation.”
He said that was enough to realize “this is a good opportunity,” an impression that solidified over time.
“I know this is a caring, familial atmosphere at W&J,” he said.
Knapp, who will stay on at Hope College into July, said he eagerly anticipates working with the city of Washington on projects such as the small-business incubator launched last fall by W&J and the Observer-Reporter. He said Hope and the city of Holland have had a similar cooperative arrangement.
“Washington isn’t Washington without W&J, and vice-versa,” he said.
One of his primary concerns, Knapp said, is that “the number of students graduating from high school peaked in 2009, and the numbers have declined since. It is very important that a college builds a reputation and a recruiting footprint beyond this region. Getting students from Western Pennsylvania is important, but we have to go beyond state lines more often.
“We have to give young people reasons to come to our college, opportunities they can’t get anywhere else.”
Knapp and his wife, Kelly, will have a home on campus. They have five adult children, including one at Hope College, and two grandchildren.
In the meantime, the current president continues to assist her successor with the transition. Haring-Smith is two months from retirement, from moving to New Hampshire with her husband, Robert, to the cabin they have. She plans to write about her father’s experiences as a Pearl Harbor survivor.
Haring-Smith may not be Shakespeare’s Juliet, but parting from W&J in many ways will be such sweet sorrow.
“It’s been a tremendous 12 years,” she said. “They’ve been the hardest 12 years of my life, but they’ve been the best 12 years of my life.”
Now that he knows her, Knapp has a keen appreciation of Haring-Smith. “Her enthusiasm, her energy and ability to engage with people are amazing.”
He hopes to replicate all of that.