Interview: Trachtenberg speaks of past, present and future

GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg needs no introduction on campus. Unapologetic in his view that GW is going places faster than anyone anticipated, he sat down with The Hatchet to discuss recent Washington Post coverage, U.S. News rankings, hippos and student interaction. A full transcript of the interview is also available online.

Hatchet: Do you think you were portrayed accurately (in the April 7 Washington Post article)?

SJT: I don’t think it’s about me, I think it’s 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.

Hatchet: How would it affect you to know .that (Foggy Bottom resident) John Graves described you as a con artist, as uncouth and ruthless?

SJT: 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.

Hatchet: 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?

SJT: 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.

We recently did some comparisons of the GW data with the schools that are in the top 50 in the U.S. News and World 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. News 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 are consistently around the number 52 or 53, and I can assure you that was not the case a decade ago.

If you look at the law school this year, one of every nine applicants to law school in America applied to GW this year.

Hatchet: Yet it went down in the U.S. rankings.

SJT: 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.

Hatchet: The (Graduate) School of Education also went down.

SJT: 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.

Hatchet: A common question from students is: “is GW’s price tag worth it?”

SJT: 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 respond 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.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.

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 us seem to be in a competition to see who is going to be $5 more or less than the other one.

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?”

Hatchet: How much contact do you have with students?

SJT: 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.

Hatchet: Have you stopped teaching?

SJT: 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.

Hatchet: When you think of interaction with students, are there any memorable moments?

SJT: 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 this. 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.

Hatchet: Has a student ever come to you with a problem, or situation that made you stop, think and feel for them?

SJT: 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 an 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.

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, she relaxed.

Hatchet: When you came here, did you expect to want to be here longer than your contract?

SJT: 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.

I thought I would probably stay 10 years. Then life 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.

Hatchet: So, as you stand now, you have said before that you want to stay longer.

SJT: Yeah. This is an exciting job, and an 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 hits all of those buttons.

Hatchet: What do you think GW’s reputation is in the city?

SJT: Terrific. Maybe some people who don’t like GW don’t mention it to me. But wherever I do, 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.

Hatchet: When I think of Trachtenberg, when students think of Trachentberg, humility is not a word that comes to mind. Have you been humbled before?

SJT: 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 that is largely for others 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.

Hatchet: What’s up with the hippo?

SJT: 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 the secret Hippo Society, convening now.

Hatchet: What about putting fake ivy on the Quad?

SJT: We used to have ivy on the building across the street (West End). We discovered that it was harboring rodents. . We cut it down.

Hatchet: 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?

SJT: 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.

There is much in the world to make you melancholy, so what I wish for the class of 2002 is a better world.

Hatchet: What would you ask?

SJT: When I talk to students, I ask them about their own dreams, their own 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 earlier about the cost of attending GW – actually the price of attending GW. And 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.

Your 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 on your resumes. Your diploma hangs on the walls of your office. You are forever and ever Joe Smith, class of 2002, George Washington University.

I hope these people will be able to feel some sort of sense of ownership of the institution and become advocates for its welfare and advocates to it for its improvement.
-The writer, a senior majoring
in journalism, is Hatchet editor in chief.

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