On the record with SJT

He is a man obsessed with change in pursuit of success and during his 15-year tenure, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg has performed a facelift on GW and the surrounding community. GW has bought and built nearly two dozen buildings including multiple hotels, acquired two campuses, expanded its boundaries into Virginia and more than doubled undergraduate enrollment during his tenure. And that is just the beginning of the list.

GW’s fourth longest serving president, Trachtenberg’s supporters say the Brooklyn, N.Y. native is an academic genius, and his critics say he is truly a businessman who is indifferent to the surrounding community in his pursuit of property. He currently has four years left on his contract but says he will stick around until he feels his job is done, saying recently that he still has “six ideas an hour.”

Trachtenberg, 65, recently sat down with The Hatchet in his eighth floor Rice Hall library decorated with multiple statues of hippos, busts of the University namesake and gifts from foreign leaders. Not a fan of succinct answers, Trachtenberg’s responses to a host of issues during this one-hour interview could fill two whole pages of this newspaper. I wasn’t able to include that he said GW is better than Georgetown because it has a Metro stop and hotter cheerleaders. Enjoy his quotes though, you may be the last class to see four full years of Trachtenberg. For those with time and patience, the full transcript is available at here.

On our consistent Tier 2 position in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings

“The measure of a University is against its own mission, its not against the mission of other institutions. Where U.S. News and World Report and many other rankings go wrong is they confuse the vision of a university with the basketball team. Its possible to put two basketball teams on a court and have a relatively simplistic conclusion that one is arguably better then the other. Universities are much more subtle … They have a pluralism about them, a multi-culturalism about them that makes a kind of up and down, black and white test of a basketball game impossible.”

On cutting red tape

(The University was ranked 7th in the country in red tape last year in a Princeton Review survey of students of 345 universities.)

“All Universities are complex and we are increasingly obliged by government regulations, by security issues, by all sorts of post-industrial complexities to maintain a bureaucracy to drive the mission of the institution. We have to make the institution a more user-friendly place … we have a whole variety of initiatives to try to make the entire institution more institutionally huggy and less governmental. But this is very hard in a city whose culture is as relentlessly governmental and bureaucratic as Washington, D.C.”

The uniqueness of college

“I think there is a subtlety to the quality of the experience that alludes you until you have graduated and gone away for a couple years and then you look back nostalgically … I think the whole experience is hard to appreciate completely close up, which is why the notion that college is the best four years of your life is so widely held. I don’t believe college is, or should be, the best four years of your life. I think the best four years of your life should be the four years you have lying ahead.

There is a specialness about the four years when you are an undergraduate that I think is hard to replicate in other very exciting periods of your life. It is one of the few times when people are almost risk-free. They can try things out. People can try out for drama, can try out for politics. People can create roles for themselves in ways that the sanction and severity of later life do not as easily permit.”

Three priorities for the next four years and future after end of contract

“It is all together possible I will want to put out the horizon another five years in 2007 or go year to year after that. By then I will have put in 20 years and I may just want to put in a year or two to finish up something. I am still having a terrific time and I am still healthy and I still have six ideas an hour.

Three priorities:

1. “Maximizing (the University’s) sunken costs” (A GW committee released a report in May analyzing the effects of a mandatory summer session between sophomore and junior years.)

“… We are looking at … how we use May, June, July and August in a more efficient and more contributory way both academically and strategically, so that the University like the rest of the world, runs on a 12-month calendar … I think there’s something sinful to having all these classrooms and laboratories and studios and libraries in which we’ve invested immense sums and then not using them fully.”

2. “Bricks and mortar”

“… We are constantly advised by different schools in the university, by deans and faculty , by students of continued needs at the university which are required for them to be able to do their jobs. Some of those needs have to do with providing residential facilities for students … there is a need for new science facilities and I could go on and continue listing buildings. It’s an unending roster.”

3. “People”

“… We need to continue recruiting the very best faculty we can and then giving them both the compensation and resources they need to do their jobs … and you want to get the very best students, you want to get an interesting mix of students, black, white, men, women, athletes, musicians, butterfly collectors, historians, politicians and pre-dental students, the whole mix. It’s a full-time challenge.

The future of GW’s $40,000 price tag

” ‘Who knows’ is the answer. We have ambitions to keep it as temperate as we can. We’re not insensitive to the situation our students face. On the other hand, we have students who prefer to get value from their experience, and want the best education they can get, rather than to save a couple of hundred of dollars on their tuition. The future is very hard to predict. I know what we want in our hearts, but I cannot give you a contract as to what will happen.”

GW’s constant growth and change

“It’s progressive thinking … if universities are going to thrive … they need to be dealing with the changes of their environment and the opportunities presented by innovations and technology and other things, so that they are at the cutting edge. Who wants to go to a 19th century university in the 21st century? … We’re not in flux, we’re just doing our job.”

“Change is always difficult, and memory is the enemy of change. But once change has transpired, particularly when it turns out to be positive, people quickly forget what it was like in the olden days and come to see the new reality as the way things have always been. I think any organization that is not trying to constantly re-invent itself is doomed, stasis sets in, and this is particularly true at universities that are supposed to be at the cutting edge of thinking and innovation and novelty.”

On GW-community relations

“Universities and adjacent communities have always had certain kinds of disputations. And they are to some extent rooted in generational misunderstandings … There is something about significant numbers of young people, healthy, buoyant, singing, that distinguishes them from the more settled aspects of the community … the neighbors came here knowing GW was here, and their complaint is that GW has been too successful. ‘We liked GW when it was smaller, more quiet, when it wasn’t so robust.’ Well, nobody ever promised them that we would fail or be less successful, just to make them happy … there is a small handful of people who are committed to being disgruntled and no matter what we do to gruntle them, they’re unhappy. I think to some extent, the pleasure in their lives is being unhappy with George Washington University.”

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