posted June 16, 2013

A Profile of President-Elect Dr. John C. Knapp

Dr. John C. Knapp with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at a 2008 conference that Dr. Knapp organized in South Africa,

Graduating with an undergraduate degree in communications in 1981, Dr. John C. Knapp never imagined that his career would ultimately take him to three additional continents, and experiences ranging from working with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in South Africa, to interfaith dialogue in Switzerland, to speaking at a university in North Korea.

Today he engages with businesspeople, academicians and others around the world in exploring the importance of developing ethical, responsible leaders equipped to navigate complexity and change.

It’s been an unexpected journey, but an immensely meaningful one, especially when he has worked with young people through programs that he has not only led but developed.  He is thus excited to come to Hope, where—as all of his experiences have shown--the holistic, faith-informed education that students receive is exactly what they and the world need.

“We are preparing our students for successful lives and the ability to be lifelong learners, to be critical thinkers, to be adaptable and responsive to the change going on around them.  This is what a liberal arts education provides,” said Dr. Knapp, who will become Hope’s 12th president on July 1.  “But we also prepare them to reflect theologically on their life and work—to ask what matters and why, to discern what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in a world where we’re called to be salt and light wherever we find ourselves.”

Dr. Knapp didn’t set out with a career in higher education—or travel around the globe--in mind.  After he graduated from Georgia State University, he first worked as a communication management consultant and then founded and for a decade led his own Atlanta-based corporate communication firm, serving a variety of institutional clients including major corporations, medical providers and universities.

Valuing faith’s role in his life—he was raised in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—he guided his firm’s work with a Christian mission statement.  Specializing in assisting clients in times of crisis, he came to see many of the problems that they faced as ethical failures, and he was inspired to pursue a graduate education in Christian ethics, first at Columbia Theological Seminary and then overseas at the University of Wales, and a new direction.

“My theological education equipped me to more effectively help others address ethical challenges and develop values-based management practices,” Dr. Knapp said.  “In 1993, I founded the Southern Institute for Business and Professional Ethics, an independent, non-profit educational institution located on the campus of Columbia Seminary.  I phased out of my business career as we served thousands of adult learners through seminars, roundtable forums and an executive certificate program.”

He led the institute for 15 years, including during and after its 2006 merger with Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business, where it was renamed the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility.  Since 2008, he has been the founding director of the Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., also serving as University Professor and Mann Family Professor of Ethics and Leadership.  Both Samford’s mission and the center’s focus are similar to Hope’s.

“We in higher education must be about developing individuals who are morally mature and who are prepared for moral agency in a world that is fraught with ethical challenges,” Dr. Knapp said.

“Colleges and universities can make a tremendous difference in the world,” he said, “but we must do it one student at a time.  In Christian higher education, we have the opportunity, mandate and mission to do this very effectively.”

Dr. Knapp’s work abroad has followed his commitment not only to his own students but to contributing more broadly through scholarship and as a speaker.  His numerous publications include the 2007 book For the Common Good: The Ethics of Leadership in the 21st Century, an edited volume with a foreword by Jimmy Carter and original essays by such international thinkers as John Hume, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate of Northern Ireland; Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi; and Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America and founder of the Leader-to-Leader Institute. As a reflection of the high regard in which his work is held, he has been invited to participate in and convene workshops, seminars and retreats not only across the U.S. but around the world.

“The topics of the meetings that I’ve convened have generally looked at the moral obligations of higher education in society—that’s been a pretty consistent theme of my work,” he said.

In 2008, for example, Dr. Knapp helped plan and facilitate the “Seboka on Higher Education and Ethical Leadership,” held at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, a gathering that included college and university leaders from throughout southern Africa as well as others such as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.  He also convenes and directs The Oxford Conclave, a retreat for U.S. college and university presidents held at Oxford University in England.  As a Fellow of the international Caux Round Table, he helped lead two multi-disciplinary, interfaith gatherings in Switzerland--most recently last year--during which representatives of the three Abrahamic traditions considered shared values as they studied global economic issues.

In 2009, he was a plenary speaker and panelist during the conference “Women, Leadership and Social Justice” convened by former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt.  In 2011, through a humanitarian initiative of the Consortium for Global Education, he co-led a delegation from Christian colleges and universities that visited Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea and delivered a lecture to faculty and students on moral leadership.  He presented the keynote address for the leadership conference of the Lebanese Society for Education and Development in Beirut the same year.

Ironically, given his professional travels, Dr. Knapp never spent a semester overseas as an undergraduate.

“I’m not sure I knew anyone in those days who studied abroad,” he said.  “I met very few international students on my own campus.  There were some, but not many.”

The world of 2013, however, is a different place, and he has treasured helping today’s students develop global understanding and explore issues related to diversity, whether through workshops and seminars of the Mann Center at Samford or by leading groups to South Africa annually since the Seboka for a summer service practicum.  In the same way, he values Hope’s missional focus of educating students “for lives of leadership and service in a global society,” both so that they can make a difference in the world and so that they are prepared to thrive as the years to come take them in directions they never could have foreseen.  It’s what higher education at its best can and does do.