GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg spoke about the role universities play in democracy and nation-building at the Woodrow Wilson Center Thursday afternoon.
“We have, with some exceptions, become a truly internationalist nation,” Trachtenberg said at the beginning of a 30-minute speech covering the progression of America as an international nation, the role of the United Nations in peacekeeping and buttered hot dog buns.
Trachtenberg, who has held GW’s top post for 16 years, is also a member of the Chief Naval Operations Executive Panel, a Pentagon advisory board, and chairs the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
“Knowing the world, knowing the globalizing world, is a requirement, not an elective,” Trachtenberg told the 30 people in attendance.
Trachtenberg, whose family kept kosher while he was growing up, recalled his encounter with a buttered hot dog bun in the United Nations cafeteria. The kosher dietary law forbids eating milk products and meat together.
“I … remember getting a hot dog in the cafeteria at the U.N. and thinking I have never tasted a better one,” he said. “I was probably right, because they had a secret. Before they put the hot dog on the toasted bun, they buttered the bun, and that made all the difference. Butter and meat did not get together at my house.”
Robert Pastor, American University’s vice president of International Affairs, also spoke at the event, saying colleges should forge relationships with foreign countries and multilateral institutions.
He said a university needs to be a “bridge builder,” “barrier buster” and “repository of ideas.”
“It should be skeptical about assumptions about conventional wisdom,” said Pastor, a former U.S. ambassador to Cuba and Panama and director of the Carter Center, an organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter to promote peace.
Pastor lamented what he called the difficulties foreign scholars face when they apply to study in the United States. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, federal officials enacted stringent immigration regulations that have prevented some foreign students from studying at American colleges.
“No president or any presidential candidate will address the issue for fear of seeming soft,” Pastor said.
Pastor also criticized what he said was the change in study abroad curriculum, “away from studying directly in a university abroad to studying in an enclave.” In recent years, colleges such as GW have opened study abroad centers that are staffed by American professors.
Trachtenberg said students are not getting the international experience when they are spared from learning the language and the culture of a foreign country.
“If you’re going to do it right, you need to spend a year there,” Trachtenberg added.
The United Nations Association of the National Capital Area and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars sponsored the event, which was one of many that seeks to foster discussions about an increasingly interconnected world community.
The speeches were followed by a Q-and-A session, when Trachtenberg addressed the federal government’s role in universities’ ties to other countries
Trachtenberg, who emphasized the importance of government funding in education, said, “We need to encourage our government to think of the university as a friend and resource.”