GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg will mark his 10th anniversary at the University Aug. 1. In a three-part series, The GW Hatchet will explore where the University has gone in the 10 years of his administration, where it is now and where it is headed, through the eyes of GW’s president.
The dynamic decade of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s University presidency has seen GW swell from commuter school to institution of international respect.
Expanded facilities, a foray into U.S. News & World Report’s Top 50 colleges and developing academic programs have marked GW’s transformation.
Trachtenberg arrived at GW from the University of Hartford with the goals of making GW the District’s top university – and establishing its national and international renown.
“What we’ve managed to do in the last decade is make the world aware of the virtues of this institution,” Trachtenberg said.
The University lacked “pride of place” 10 years ago, Trachtenberg said.
“I think GW came to love itself,” he said. “I don’t know when that happened, and I don’t know what event brought that to pass.”
Trachtenberg said the key to university “self-love” is students and faculty interested in being part of the school’s environment.
“Perhaps most significantly, it’s a student body that is pleased to be here – frequently it includes a large number of whom had GW as their first choice as opposed to a strong safety school,” Trachtenberg said.
He said he sees an academically stronger institution now, with a larger, more diverse student body.
Trachtenberg said the University no longer looks over its shoulder at neighboring schools like Georgetown and George Mason universities, and focuses instead on self-improvement.
“We have become more inner-directed,” Trachtenberg said. “We are less vulnerable to envy of events at other institutions.”
Trachtenberg said he now can hold his head high when comparing faculty with other universities.
“The quality of the faculty we get is much stronger (than a decade ago),” he said.
GW departments usually get their first choice when hiring new faculty members, he said. Trachtenberg remembers an instance when a department made offers to two people for one position, and raced to find extra funds when both accepted.
“Whether it’s in scholarship or classroom instruction, we’ve got winners,” he said. He proudly rattles off numerous accolades won by GW professors.
He said even when GW loses faculty members, they go to Ivy League-caliber schools.
A winning faculty and student body have brought GW well-deserved recognition, Trachtenberg said. He said he is proud of how the Colonials’ basketball teams have grown, but is quick to reject the notion that athletic success has provided the sole boost to national visibility.
“If that’s all you had, you’d have UNLV,” Trachtenberg said, citing the University of Nevada-Las Vegas as a school with a reputation for good sports teams and poor academics.
During the past 10 years, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have risen from obscurity to national recognition after successful NCAA Tournament runs.
“We take as our model institutions . that demonstrate it is possible to have outstanding collegiate athletics at the same time you are an outstanding academic institution.”
Trachtenberg said he loves national visibility for the University and knows basketball can bring it. But the men’s basketball team brought a swarm of negative publicity in the summer of 1995 – when GW recruited controversial basketball star Richie Parker.
Trachtenberg looks back on the situation and sees errors not in what he did, but how he did it.
Parker, a convicted sex offender, was recruited by the Colonials basketball program after Seton Hall University revoked his scholarship offer.
NCAA regulations prevented GW officials from telling an interested national audience about the situation.
“I probably was too concerned with observing the NCAA rules, which prohibited public discussion of what we were doing and why we were doing it,” Trachtenberg said.
“That made us appear secretive. The truth was what we were doing was upright and virtuous,” he said.
GW had a good story to tell, Trachtenberg said, but he and other University officials couldn’t tell it. He said if he could relive the situation, he would have held a press conference to explain the University’s position, even if it meant facing NCAA sanctions.
Trachtenberg said he thought the sanction imposed by the NCAA would have been to prohibit Parker from playing his freshman year, which GW planned to do anyway.
“We were going to do of our own volition what the NCAA probably would have done to us had we gone public,” he said. “It’s one of those situations where it would have been better to have violated the rules than to have stuck with them.”
Trachtenberg said he did what he always had been taught to do – follow the rules. He tried to deflect criticism by offering a full scholarship to Parker’s alleged sexual abuse victim.
The following month, however, GW was forced to drop Parker’s candidacy for admission because pressure was mounting.
Parker currently attends Long Island University and his alleged victim did not accept the scholarship.
Trachtenberg said he would recruit Richie Parker again today – but do it smarter.
“If I did it smarter, I don’t think I’d have to go through all that I went through,” he said. “I took a lot of abuse from people who were skeptical about my motives and how I was proceeding, whereas I felt virtuous but couldn’t talk about it.”
Trachtenberg said he is happy to say the University has grown during the past decade, but he puts the achievements in perspective. He cannot look at success without seeing room for improvement.
“Advancing universities is a perpetual enterprise,” Trachtenberg said. “One is always pursuing a receding horizon. No matter how good this institution gets, it always is inspired to get better.”
Monday: GW in 1998 – balancing tuition with servicesNext Thursday: What the future holds for GW and Trachtenberg