Trachtenberg keeps student concerns in mind

GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg doesn’t need to be reminded that his University’s tuition is high. He knows it. But just in case, he gets frequent not-so-friendly reminders from students and parents who say they aren’t getting their money’s worth.

“The truth is universities are expensive to run and the price that’s being charged is one of the biggest investments people make,” Trachtenberg said. “So they have heightened expectations, and rightfully so.”


But he is quick to remind students that most universities are hearing similar complaints – from Harvard and Yale, to state institutions. And he believes most students feel they are trading an unquestionably large sum of money for a quality education.

“The most consequential opinion-forming forces in a university are its current students and the word that goes out from the campus to potential students,” Trachtenberg said.

If students really have a problem with the value of education per dollar, he said he believes applicants and standards of admission would not have increased in the last decade.

“In the end, I think more people feel they are getting value than not,” he said. “Otherwise my judgment is you wouldn’t see a growing application pool.”

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take gripes about high tuition seriously.

He said the administration tries hard to inform students about where their tuition money is going. During last year’s 6.9 percent tuition and fee increase, Trachtenberg highlighted libraries, financial aid and technology as focus areas for the new revenue.

“If we can keep adding value to the experience that students have and keep the price of attending GW competitive with peer institutions, I think we will continue to get our fair share of applicants.”

Trachtenberg said he works to balance conflicting student demands for lower tuition and increased services.

“You can’t on the one hand say, `Don’t spend so much money’ and on the other hand say, `Spend $50 million on increasing the quality of computers and connectiveness of GW and do it faster,’ ” he explained. “These are mutually inconsistent.”

In Trachtenberg’s mind, it all comes down to one simple phrase.

“Money buys honey,” he said. “If you want a sweeter life, you have to pay for it.”

The biggest investment GW students make is measured in years, not dollars, he said.

“The biggest investment they make is the four years of their life,” he said. “If we were to cut the tuition in half and cut the experience in half, we would really be robbing our students.”

Trachtenberg said students should not pay the same amount as students in Ivy League schools – he thinks GW students should pay more.

“Ivy League schools have the advantage of having their operating budgets supplemented by trust funds that exceed the resources available to administrators at GW,” he said. “It’s easier to administer a university when you have an endowment of $12 billion.”

He calls GW’s management with a limited endowment “just this side of a miracle” and said if he had Harvard University’s problems, his life would be a lot easier.

“It calls for more ingenuity and fancy dancing when you’re trying to (manage a university) with less cash,” Trachtenberg said.

But some students think Trachtenberg spends too much time being ingenious and not enough with understanding the average student’s concerns. But he asks students – even those he’s never seen – to be realistic.

“You’ve got an institution with literally thousands of students,” he said. “It’s impossible for any university president to have one-on-one contact with more than a few hundred every year.”

That’s not a guess. Trachtenberg has done the math on what it would take to spend an hour with each student – but even eight hours a day, six days a week, 50 weeks a year would leave him desperately short. (Two weeks are carefully set aside for annual visits to Martha’s Vineyard).

“There would still be thousands and thousands and thousands of students who could honestly say they never laid eyes on me,” he said. “And there wouldn’t be a lot of time for me to do the other things people expect presidents of universities to do.”

He said his annual sleepover in Thurston Hall and invitations for brunch at his house are some of the ways he connects with students. He even holds open office hours – which have been left unfilled in recent months.

“That suggests to me that there is not a throbbing demand of people who are desperate to come in and spend 20 minutes chewing the fat with the president,” Trachtenberg said. But he continues to keep the spaces for students because he feels it is important to provide the access to him.

“I’m all over the campus like white on rice,” he said. And Trachtenberg said he submits opinion pieces to campus newspapers to remind students he is alive and ticking, as he puts it.

“I’ve never made a decision about the University that I didn’t think I could talk about or explain,” he said.

That goes for every decision – even recent controversial ones like entering into an affiliation with Mount Vernon College and announcing a year later that the independent women’s college would become a campus ofGW.

Trachtenberg said he believes a year was enough time to test MVC’s ability to sustain itself independently.

“We made a judgment that the expense of continuing it to that model was excessive,” he said. “We could come approximately and sufficiently close to the vision we had through an adaptation.”

Trachtenberg said all aspects of the MVC plan are contingent uponsuccess.

“I don’t feel an obligation to continue doing something that seems to me to be failing,” he said. He said GW’s intervention at MVC prevented it from being closed – so any adaptation of its mission is still a step up.

Trachtenberg had to adapt this year when he was faced with student outrage about a possible move of Commencement to the MCI Center and disappointment in the cancellation of Monumental Celebration. In the end, despite the report of a committee chartered to cut costs, Trachtenberg decided to finance the Union Station party.

“You don’t know what I didn’t do to come up with the money for Monumental Celebration,” he said. “There may be some other enterprise that would have been funded that is going to be deferred for a year.”

He called the conversation about Commencement “a learning experience.”

“It allowed us to bring the students the decision making . and they are part of the responsibility takers,” he said. “If we all get out there on the Ellipse . and we are all soaked to the shoulders, there aren’t going to be a lot of people who are going to be able to say the administration got us into this.”

Trachtenberg said he realizes a lot of people are interested in how he spends University money. But he laughs when he says people even criticize how he spends his own money – specifically the purchase of a large bronze hippo placed outside Lisner Auditorium.

“I get people telling me I should have spent the money some other way,” he said. “I’m not obliged to ask everybody on campus how I ought to spend the money I earn.”

Thursday: What the future holds for GW and Trachtenberg.

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