The following is a full transcript of an interview with GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg on April 10.
Hatchet: Do you think you were portrayed accurately (in The Washington Post article)?
SJT: I don’t think it’s about me, I think its about GW. Of course, the reporter missed an opportunity to do a story about a university in transition and took the lazy man’s way out by turning the last 14 years into a cowboys and Indians story. If that’s not politically correct, there are the sheepmen and the cattle.
In many cases what he did was confusing because his story is more focused on the real estate issue than on the education section. Still, despite his best efforts, he did do some text about the University, and I thought that once he got focused on academic issue it demonstrated that we were in a more robust and proactive position than we have ever been.
The story was wrought with all kinds of internal contradictions. For example, on page 40 the poor student wishing that the University would devote more time to fundraising so that tuition would not go up and to bring in more competitive freshman classes. On page 21, he says that the University is successfully running the most aggressive capital campaign it has ever run and that alumni giving is up from 16 percent to 32 percent, which is a competitive rate with the best universities in the country. And he points out that applications are up and the percentage of the students we are taking is down. Now that student my not have know this, but that reporter did, and I thought it was his duty to tell the kid if he knew that, rather than quote the student as if he was unaware of what he was writing in his own story. So I thought the story was disappointing.
H: How would it affect you to know, and you probably know this, that (Foggy Bottom resident) John Graves described you as a con artist as uncouth and ruthless?
T: I don’t think there is anything to attribute to that kind of name-calling. All it takes is one cranky person and a journalist has enough adjectives to fill up a pad. There are thousand of people in Washington. From what I can tell, most of them who I meet are very nice, but some of them are slightly dyspeptic and for reasons satisfactory to themselves are critical.
So, for example, Dr. (Don) Kreuzer, who is featured prominently in the Post story, sat right where you are sitting now, when he told me that he wanted $5 million for his house and that if I did not pay it to him, he was going to try and hurt me. I did not realize that he was going to use The Washington Post as his club, but I did tell the reporter that (Kreuzer) had done that, and he neglected to mention it in his story.
H: One thing that you briefly mentioned – the academics and how that does not get mentioned enough around here. New buildings are easier to measure than academic programs. What do you use to measure academic programs at GW and how has GW done compared to that measure?
T: Well, I think that we have both an input model and an output model. We measure the quality of the students, and we measure the quality of the faculty. The students by the numbers who apply and the grades they got coming out of secondary or undergraduate schools, SATs score and things of that sort. The faculty we measure by the quality of their graduate degrees and publications and things of that sort. By all measures, all empirical quantitative measures, GW has made statistically unprecedented progress in the last 15 years.
The number of students who apply is more than doubled, almost tripled. The SAT scores are way up. The distribution of students from different places more spread out. The number of people in the top 10 percent of their classes – all of the data.
We recently did some comparisons of the GW data, with the schools that are in the top 50 in the US News Report. What you discover is that in most categories we are competitive with the top 50 and prevail over many of them in numerous categories. We had a meeting yesterday at U.S. New World Report to suggest that they provide a more useful service. Instead of having a top 50, they have a top 52 (laughs), because GW would get lifted.
We consistently around the number 52 or 53, and I can assure you that was not the case a decade ago. Every now and again we pop up to 48 or 49 because there are so many moving dynamics. But we actually did meet with these people and suggested they expand it to 100.
At any rate we have a better school. I don’t want to dismiss the real estate. Think about your own situation, you and I have know each other for a year, and during that time, one of the concerns that has pressed you, and you have brought to me about The Hatchet is a bricks a mortar issue. You want a bigger building and you believe that you will be able to put out a better newspaper if you have a bigger space. I get that from professors, dean, department chairs, VPs, and there is no doubt in my mind that it does have an effect. Now, in the case of the law school, for example, it was not just the student and faculty and the dean of the law school, but also the American Bar Association that expressed interest in giving more space to the law school. So, at some point the crediting agencies get into the act as well. So building of the facilities is not something that the president cooks up all by itself; it is a response to the ambition of the institution. People want bigger laboratories, fully articulated libraries, more accommodation studios.
Look how much better it is now that we have the Dimock Gallery in Lisner (Auditorium) for student shows.
And we are hanging now the work done by MFA fine arts paintings and things like that done by students in the Dimock Gallery and we have the Brady Gallery for outside shows and professional shows. With more facilities, we can do more.
H: On two points that you just raised. One, you said that the SAT scores and the GPAs were vastly increasing. Vice President (Robert) Chernak was quoted in a Hatchet story about admissions for next year as saying not to expect much increase. Was he just mistaken?
T: No. I mean over a period of 14 years. Once you get them up as high as they are now, it gets harder and harder to make progress. Once you are about 1200 or 1250, if you go up at all, it is a couple of points at a time. If you look at what they were when I came, about 1,000 or 1,100, then you have much more room to jump up.
H: In something I brought up in an earlier meeting, what was said about GW not going after the cream of the crop (by Chernak in a previous Hatchet story), because the truly academic types don’t really feel comfortable at GW. Do you agree with that? And what does GW need to do in order to compete with the Georgetowns of the world?
T: I think we compete very nicely with everybody in the world. We are getting the cream of the crop. We don’t get students who, for reasons satisfactory to themselves, would rather be at Cal Tech or MIT or at other specialized institutions. But you see more and more student who are admitted to BU, NYU, Tulane of Emory, and even the Ivy League, Cornell and Penn, coming to GW. The rest is just a matter of incrementally creeping up.
There are all kinds of reason why people are going to select to go to Stanford or Chicago or the Ivy League institutions but there is enough of a population in this country of very talented people that you don’t have to worry. I think we are getting the students we want to be getting.
If you look at the law school this year, one of every nine applicants to law school in America applied to GW this year.
H: Yet it went down in the US rankings.
T: They’ve kind of moved around, they’re 25th I think this year. God only knows why, we haven’t decided yet, there is nothing set.
H: The (Graduate) School of Education also went down.
T: It did and it didn’t. It stayed where it is vis-?-vis private schools of education. It seems that a number of state institution have jumped up. Chances are that in the next couple of years, with the states in financial trouble, the state universities will slip down and we will move up.
H: So the education is just better competition?
T: Yes, I think that’s the case.
H: The U.S. News rankings. You are quoted in The Hatchet, and quoted pretty consistently, as saying they don’t matter but they are important because people make it important. But on a personal level, do they stress you out?
T: Everybody who loves track tells me that it is always helpful to have someone running alongside you to pace you. When you practice it is much more successful not to run by yourself, but to have a partner. To some extent, U.S. News and World Report provides a pacer. It gives you something to look at as you are crafting your own future. That facto of the matter is, I can’t imagine what would be happening differently here is we were ranked 45th or 40th or 30th.
That fact of the matter is that we’ve got an embarrassment of riches when it comes to applications to the school. If we are trying to fill 2,200 seats and we’ve got 18,000 applications. I think we are doing all right. I think that if it weren’t for the September 11th tragedy, we would have 1000 more applications. People commented on how applications went up despite September 11th, but I think for myself it probably would have gone up if we had not had the attack on the Pentagon. My own sense is that U.S. News and World Report rankings matter, but probably a lot less than most people think.
H: There is a lot of talk on campus about expenses. GW is a very expensive school to go to. A lot more expensive than it was when you came here, when you factor in inflation and compare all those numbers. A common question form students it GW’s price tag worth it? How do you answer that for students?
T: I don’t think that there is an answer for it. I think that each individual student is going to answer fit for him or herself. It is clear that for many students attending GW is a financial sacrifice and we don’t have any illusions about that, we try to responds to it by dealing with the financial aid of students as best we can. This year we are giving only slightly under $100 million in financial aid. Which is not trivial and which, apparently, makes it possible for a lot of student who would otherwise not come here, to do so.
If you take a look at what is going at the state institutions, we went up 4.9 (sic) percent; George Mason is going up 18 percent. Granted, they are going up on a smaller base, but the reason they are going up on a smaller base is that they receive a subsidies from the taxpayer of Virginia. We don’t receive any state assistance from D.C. The result that price at GW is related to cost. Whereas at the state institutions, the price reflect a political decision. Here is reflects an economic decision. The price and the cost at GW are more slowly aligned than at some other institution.
But if you take a look at where our tuition places us in a roster of similar institutions – NYU, Tulane, Emory, BU, Boston College – we are normal. We are not doing or charging anything out of line. Some years we’re one or two up, some years we are one or two down. If you look at the law school Georgetown and we seem to be in a competition to see who is going to be five dollars more or less than the other one.
So the issue is not unique to this institution, and it is not going to be solved at this institution. I recognize it as a national problem. I think it is fair for people to say: “When is the federal government going to step in to try and help to solve this problem through either more grants, more loans, more loan subsidies, allowing changes in the tax law so that payments of tuition made to independent private universities count towards taxes?” I mean, one could imagine a whole variety of devices by which the government can help to nurture their very important private universities.
H: There is also a lot of talk recently about GW in the spotlight, GW getting national recognition. When I think national reconnection for a college university, I think two things: basketball team and television. First lets talk about the basketball team. You had the scandal earlier about the athlete who had to leave GW eventually, Ritchie (Parker, who was convicted of a rape). Kind of a blow-up situation, then we have Attila Cosby convicted in 2000 of sexual assault, currently serving jail time. Is that just one of the risks of trying to get higher profile athletes who are going to put GW in the national spotlight?
T: Well, it is the risk of having a compassionate attitude about people. Let me put it another way: whatever it is that Ritchie Parker, bless his heart, did, had he not been a basketball player, the world never would have known. He could have come to GW, he could have gotten a scholarship, he could have gotten through, been an English major, been editor of the Hatchet, and the world never would have known. The reason that the world knew about his transgression was precisely because he was a basketball player and the sports sections of the New York newspapers were doing a vendetta on him. The best story that tells the details of what transpired is worth reading. It appeared in Sports Illustrated. I recommend it to you. In any case
Ritchie Parker never was admitted to GW, we were only considering him for admission. Although I think we might well have admitted him had we been left to make that decision on our own, we would have done it in ways that I think would have been helpful to him as a student, as a young man and ultimately, I think to the University. He went on to graduate form Long Island University, he’s had no problems in his life while he was in college, and he has had no problems since. He is a social worker now, and seems to be a constructive citizen. I thought when I met him that he had the possibility of that kind of an outcome, and that is why I encouraged him to come here.
H: The case is a little different with Attila Cosby.
T: It is indeed. Attila Cosby turned out to be a problem. You take some risks. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. That was a case where, unhappily for Attila and GW, clearly it didn’t, because he is clearly a talented athlete. But he came form a troubled background and he couldn’t shake it.
H: Is GW going to be less willing to take those kinds of risks with its athletes in the future.
T: Well, who knows? We have a different coach now. A lot of these things have to do with the coaches, who do the recruitment. I myself don’t meet these young men until the process is done and then its courtesy to bring them round. But I think Karl Hobbs is a much more careful practitioner in these matters.
If you are going to be recruiting students who come form troubled homes and backgrounds facing all the challenges that some of these kids do, you are going to have to expect to strike out sometimes.
H: “Crossfire” is now on campus, which is a big accomplishment for our media relations office. But, this week you had a U.S. News report in Washington Whispers GOP members saying they are going to boycott the show, comparing it to “Jerry Springer,” that they do not like the new live GW audience. Quoted in a live, national well renown magazine. Any comments on that?
T: That’s just it – hardball. That’s just “Crossfire.” They are playing their game out, obviously trying to use a collateral attack, to get the “Crossfire” people to g a little easier on them .I cant believe that they are going to abandon the opportunity to have their people make their points on the air. They will probably get the young Republicans to start showing up and appearing more regularly to that the Republicans on the show don’t feel that they are abandoned in a sea of liberal undergraduates. But I don’t get it, either.
H: On the topic of speakers, (Afghanistan leader Hamid) Karzai came to town, spoke at GU. We had the chance to get him. Do you want to comment on what happened there?
T: What do I know is we had (Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Prime Minister of Denmark) the other day, and GU didn’t. People come, people go, and we get out fair share I think. We try to get anyone we think is going to be interesting, but you can’t get your self all knotted up over the fact hat someone goes to speak at another university.
H: How much contact to you have with students?
T: A lot. I lunch over at J Street probably one day a week. I come in, I pick up something to eat, I look around, find a table sit down, talk to people. I stop people in the street. Thursday night (April 11) I have two hours of seeing students in the office, people come up to do office hours with the president. Recently, this last year, I taught. So I had class. But I don’t get paid to constantly be in touch with the students. I get paid to represent the student and the faculty and the campus in general to the world that they can’t reach.
Whether its foundation or alumni elsewhere. I got out to raise money and speak and meet with alumni groups. I wouldn’t mind sometimes staying home more often.
H: Have you stopped teaching?
T: No. But I don’t do it all the time. It is very time consuming. I like to kid with professors about it, but teachers have work. It takes a lot of preparation.
When I taught this course last year it consumed 14 Sundays, because the class was on Mondays. I ended up studying pretty much from breakfast until dinner, reading the material and getting ready. My wife started saying: “Hey, what’s going on here. You are out on the road or you are spending Sunday preparing for your class.” I wasn’t there for her; I wasn’t spending enough time with the family. I will teach again, but I can’t do it every semester.
H: When you think of interaction with students, are there any memorable moments?
T: I married a student. When I was a Dean at Boston University I met and fell in love with and married a graduate student. So I have a soft place in my heart for them.
I am not sure what you mean exactly by your question, but obviously if you don’t like students; this is not a line of work you should be in. It’s like someone who doesn’t like sick people becoming a doctor – it doesn’t follow. I like students because what they do is important. I like professors because I think what they do is important. I think my job is to try and make is possible for those tow groups to do their work. It is fulfilling for me.
H: Has a student ever come to you with a problem, or situation that made you stop, think and feel for them?
T: Sure. I solve the problem, too. All the time students come to me with financial problems, they come to me with family problems, and they come to me with simple things. I was once standing in line at J Street getting something to eat, we were approaching Christmas and there was a young woman behind me, from Hawaii as it turns out, she was getting ready to go home for the holidays, but she had an internship. The residence halls were closing and she was stuck because she was leaving the day after the residence halls closed and she had to stay and extra day to do her job and she wasn’t sure where to stay. I took her home with me. My wife got her a bedroom in our house and we put her up for the night. I don’t think that is such a big deal. But it is certainly an example of direct action.
She seemed a little apprehensive when I first suggested to her that she come spend the night at my place. But when I explained that my wife and my children were going to be there are well, she relaxed.
H: You’ve been here for awhile. When you came here for a while did you expect to want to be here longer then your contract?
T: Well, I didn’t know how long I was going to stay. None of us do. My experience had told me that it takes about 10 years to make a meaningful contribution to a university.
Those who stay for a shorter period sort of pass through but don’t leave any lasting change, while I made my career as a university administrator. I don’t think of myself as a careerist. In other words, I am not one of those guys who have been at five different universities as president. I like to come someplace, dig in, and do work that creates a legacy, and a permanent; I hope positive change for the institution.
So, I thought I would probably stay 10 years. Then live starts to take on a roll. Things that you have no control over. I never could have anticipated that Al Gore was going to lose or win the presidency, so, had he been elected I might have thought about an opportunity in federal service. He didn’t, I didn’t.
H: I didn’t know you guys talked about it. Had you spoken to him about it?
T: With Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).
H: So, as you stand now, you have said before that you want to stay longer?
T: Yeah, this is an exciting job, and I important and meaningful one. I am too young to retire. If I am going to work I ought to do something that is meaningful important and fun. GW is all those buttons.
H: Is it going to be personal factors, or legacy being finished factors that prompt you decision to leave in the future?
T: There are always going to be things to do here, so you are never going to be done. That’s why when I leave they will hire someone else. But I suspect to some extent it will just be a matter of years. GW presidents have long tenures, unless they die on the job, which has happened as well. Lloyd Elliott stayed 24 years, President Marvin was here about 30 years, and so I am just a kid in this line-up. But if a do another five yeas I will be 70, and that will probably be a good time to do something else.
H: You mention Elliott and Marvin, if they were around, looking at what you are doing right now, what do you think their reaction would be?
T: I don’t know. They are, one of them is. Lloyd Elliott is still alive and well. I run into him a couple of times a year and we chat. I hope I’m making his feel proud of the trust he put in me, when I succeeded him and that I am carrying his work forward the way he left it to the next step.
All the presidents at GW, presumably, have wanted to make the institution better, stronger, more fully articulated. Give it a greater academic standing. I presume, as that is what I am trying to do, they would applaud my work. We are all different personalities and people, and we probably have our individual take on how you do that, but I don’t think there would be any quarrel about the principle.
H: What do you think GW’s reputation is in the city? We know what the reputation is among some neighbors in Foggy Bottom, but.
T: Terrific. Maybe some people who don’t like GW don’t mention it to me. But wherever I go, people come up to me and tell me how great they think the University is, what good job they think we’re doing here, how impressed they are with he students they meet.
The quality of the interns . people really praise our students all the time, and do it more and more with each passing year . our students are doing better and are better. Similarly, I know that external groups are applauding our faculty. Whether it’s the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which now has given an outstanding teacher of the year award to GW faculty three times. This year (Professor Gerald Feldman) in physics, before that Jarol Manheim in Communications. More and more of our faculty get honorary degrees and citations from respected professional associations. So I have a feeling that people think well of GW.
H: When I think of Trachtenberg, when students think of Trachentberg, humility is not a word that comes to mind. Have you been humbled before?
T: I am always humble. I am humble before my Lord; I am humble before my betters. I don’t think that means you have to be sniveling or apologetic. I embrace life and I try to live it robustly and happily and thoroughly. I am ambitious for the University and I get great joy in praising the institution and praising the accomplishments of the faculty, the students and the alumni that compose the University.
I don’t think that I am boastful about myself. I think is largely for other to say, but I don’t think of myself as somebody who is lacking in humility. But maybe it’s not humble to say that.
H: What is on your mind, what do you want to talk about. If you were sitting here with the entire graduating class, or the whole school, what would you want to say? What would you want to ask them?
T: Well, we live, once again, maybe always, in daunting times. You pick up the daily paper and it is full of war and murder and tragedy and fire and illness, scandal, embezzlement. I think if you dedicate yourself something, that during the coarse of your lifetime, you’ll actually be able to see progress and change and an enhanced world for your children. While it is clear that the world is a better place today than it was when I was an undergraduate, it also seems to me that problems prove to be far more intractable than we might like.
I think sometimes, these days, about he Israeli ambassador who was a visiting faculty member for a year and with whom I keep in touch. There is a man who has devoted his entire life to trying g to bring about peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He is now an older man and he had a stroke. He was one of the world’s most gifted orators, and he can barely speak now.
I think what it must be like for him to sit in his home in Israel, reading the same papers hat you and I read about Palestinians so desperate that they blow themselves up, and Israelis so desperate that they get into tanks and watch on the West Bank. This must be part of him life and to some extent therefore your and mine. That progress towards peace, which seemed to be inclemently transpiring, has been flung back and you probably won’t see a real reconciliation in that part of the world for another 50 years. Before then only a cease-fire, not reconciliation. And then maybe for only a little while.
I think about Afghanistan. I think about synagogues being blown up in Paris. There is much in the world to make you melancholy, so what I wish for the class of 2002 is a better world. I have two sons, one’s 23, starting law school next September, one’s 26 he’s finishing the first year of an MBA program. I would like to see their futures unencumbered by some of the tragic things that go on all around us.
H: What would you ask? What would you know about students?
T: When I talk to students I ask them about their own dreams and ambitions. I ask them how well the university is serving them. Are they enjoying themselves, are they getting an education in the their judgment? Do they feel they are getting value? We talked about the cost, actually, the price of attending GW. We touched only on the dollars – tuition, room and board. that’s peanuts. The real expense of attending GW is that you invest a portion of your life, which is so finite and undetermined and different for each of us. This about it. If you were to live 80 years, you spent four of those years here, that is high percentage. Is that a sound idea?
You affiliation with GW is almost like a tattoo. What you discover is that once you have attended a university you are associated with it for the rest of your days. They make mention of it in your engagement announcement, they make a mention of it in your wedding announcement, they make a mention of it in your obituary and it becomes a topic of your resumes, your diplomas hang on the walls of your office. You are forever and ever Joe Smith, class of 2002, George Washington University. It’s almost like an umbilical chord; it wraps you closer and closer to the University.
I hope these people will be able to feel some sort of sense of owner ship of the institution and become advocates for its welfare and advocates to it for its improvement.
H: A lot of freshmen are coming in here not knowing anything about his University – they’ve never heard of it before. They may walk in the center of campus, go to a basketball game, come to your office, one of their questions might be: ‘what’s up with the hippo?’
T: It’s fun. The original hippo I brought on an impulse some years ago when I was wandering around on a sailing trip. I wandered in to Newport Rhode Island. I was killing some time and I brought a hippopotamus and brought it back to Washington not sure what to do with it. We set it up outside of Lisner (Auditorium). People kept asking us: “What’s up with he hippo?” So we put a plaque on it that recorded the story of the hippo.
We thought that is was too ridiculous that people would recognize it for what it was – a gag. But then, people took it seriously, and the hippo began to become part of the culture of GW. We ended up with the Hippodrome, the hippo showed up on sweatshirts, book covers and things. I guess that is one of the strange ways that tradition grow on university campuses. It seems to me as good a way as any. It gives us yet another quasi-mascot beyond Big and Little George. We have a hippo as well. It’ll either go forward, or some day it will wind down. We have the secret Hippo Society, convening now.
H: What about the fake ivy on the quad?
T: We used to have Ivy on the building across the street (West End). We discovered that it was harboring rodents.
H: So no ivy in the future?
T: No, we cut it down.
H: How does Harvard get away with it?
T: I don’t know.
H: Do you want to get that magic recipe?
T: I don’t remember a lot of ivy there.
This article appeared in the April 15, 2002 issue of the Hatchet.