Still “Trachtey” after all these years: An interview with President Trachtenberg

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg has always inspired strong feelings since coming to Foggy Bottom in 1988.

Some view the Brooklyn native as a visionary who transformed GW from a third-rate institution to an academic and economic juggernaut through the construction of state-of-the-art facilities. Others see him as a land-grabbing modern-day Uncle Scrooge who has unfairly hiked tuition and ruined the residential character of Foggy Bottom. He has been praised by ambassadors, politicians, and professors and vilified by local residents and several media outlets.

But Trachtenberg, beginning his 17th year as GW’s biggest cheerleader and head fundraiser, pays little attention to criticism while following a course he hopes will make the University a premier institution for the next 20 years.

Before coming to GW, Trachtenberg, 66, a graduate of Columbia and Yale universities, held the presidency of Hartford University for 11 years and was an academic dean at Boston University.

With his trademark Coke bottle glasses and bowtie, Trachtenberg is a constant presence on campus, and is fondly known as “SJT” and “Trachtey.”

In a recent interview with The Hatchet in his smartly furnished library on the eighth floor of Rice Hall, Trachtenberg said he rarely thinks about retirement and wants to stay at GW for at least a few more years (his present contract expires in 2007).

“I cannot off the top of my head think of many other things I’d rather be doing,” Trachtenberg said. “Part of the reason one stays a long time at a university like GW is in addition to the work being fun and it being a great privilege, and having great colleagues, there aren’t a whole lot of positions better in academic life.”

In a discussion that touched on many topics, Trachtenberg talked about racquetball, the decriminalization of marijuana and GW’s inability in recent years to break into the U.S. News and World Report’s top 50 national universities rankings.

Hatchet: How long are you planning on staying at GW, and do you ever think about your retirement?

SJT: Not very much. In order to have an impact on a university, a university president has to stay for an extensive period of time because the work is largely collaborative. You have to do it jointly with vice presidents and deans and alumni and trustees and faculty. That means you have to be there long enough to have built personal plausibility and trust so that people will go along with your proposals.

H: At 66, do you find it difficult to relate to and interact with students?

SJT: Not if they can play racquetball. I play racquetball two or three times a week, and generally there are students playing, and I find that I’m getting on fine with them. I wander around J Street and sit down with people and talk to them. I keep that running dialogue running with students and faculty.

H: What’s the best way to reach out given that you have a lot of responsibilities that keep you in the office and off campus?

SJT: I’m highly visible, I speak regularly at public events, I write and publish articles and letters. I don’t keep my views or my thinking to myself, I do op-ed pieces in The Washington Post, I testify in front of Congress.

H: Do you regard GW’s inability to break into the U.S. News and World Report’s Top 50 in recent years a failure?

SJT: I think the U.S. News and World Report polls are a game. It’s fun to shoot craps with that every year and see how we come out. And of course, I’m always pleased when we’re highly ranked. But there’s no distinction among the 40th and 60th schools. It has nothing to do with reality.

H: Although faculty and student dissent quashed your plans to implement a year-round calendar last year, you still call for changes to GW’s “agrarian calendar.” What steps will you take this academic year to bring students and faculty to your side, and will a year-round calendar ever be adopted here?

SJT: I think the proposal that I made was inevitable, and I’m going to keep jaw-boning it. I don’t think I’ll be the president that puts it into place, but I think the institution will have to continue to find ways to work smart and find ways to use assets to its maximum in order to hold prices down and do the many things the faculty and students want. I don’t think (the proposal) was quashed; it was put off for further study.

H: At a recent trustees meeting, you said GW’s relationship with the city was “better than it has ever been.” What does that mean, and was the University-D.C. relationship ever bad during your tenure?

SJT: The University’s relationship with the city was never bad. It’s better these days; it’s actually good. City people and University people like each other. We hang out. I’m getting an award in a week from the Tunisian government for some assistance GW has given to Tunisian students. And they asked me to have somebody come and introduce me. And I asked (D.C.) Mayor (Anthony) Williams if he’d do it, and he said ‘absolutely,’ and he’s coming to participate in that celebration. We are friends.

H: Some people criticized GW’s response to last year’s five student deaths? Do you think GW could have done more to help students cope with loss?

SJT: I think GW does a very professional job in that regard. I looked at what’s been done and is done at other universities and nobody has a whole lot more going on than we do. But people, when they’re under high stress, are going to be critical. The University should always be trying to improve what it does, and we have a taskforce looking at that issue. And if they find ways to move our service up a notch, we’ll do it.

H: In 1972, you called for the decriminalization of marijuana in an essay. More than 30 years later, do you still support that position, and do you think GW has too strict a drug policy compared to other schools?

SJT: I think it’s a mistake to take modest marijuana use and turn it into a crime, and then use that as a device for taking away financial aid from students and doing other draconian things. (Society) overreacts in some cases, and then we take what ought to be small disciplinary matters and turn them into social issues. (But) there’s (also) been research on marijuana since I wrote that article that suggests it may be more harmful than I was aware of at the time.

H: If a student gets caught with a small amount of marijuana in their room, they get kicked out of their room. Is that an appropriate punishment?

SJT: The focus there as you put the question is on the student. The responsibility of the University is to focus on the students, plural. What we need is to have a policy that persuades students that we are opposed to drug usage. So we may be a little more severe in our policies than we would if two people, like you and me, and you had an apartment in my house, and you said to me, ‘Steven, cut me some slack here.’ But the institution can’t afford to be easy about it.

H: Who will you be voting for in the upcoming presidential election?

SJT: That’s an American right to keep that to yourself, but I’ve been an active Democrat all my life.

H: When former GW President Lloyd Elliott retired, the Board of Trustees allowed him to choose which school would carry his name. Assuming you find yourself in a similar situation, what school would you like to be named after?

SJT: It’s really premature; I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I’ve devoted most of my career to one form of public service or another. So I would think something having to do with public policy or education.

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