The ivory tower power with a sense of humor

Steve Trachtenberg did not go to the Graduate School of Education and Human Development’s council meeting last Friday with crowd-pleasing news.

The group of administrators and faculty had submitted a proposal for GW to erect a new building for their school, and Trachtenberg was telling them to get in line. Many schools within the University want better facilities, he said, and the GSEHD would simply have to wait its turn – unless they find a way to fund a new building completely from alumni donations, which isn’t likely.

And yet somehow, for moments during his half-hour address, the small room in the Alumni House sounded like the D.C. Improv.

Trachtenberg joked about his trip to Peoria, Ill. the day before – “When I went to Paris a few weeks ago, the bellhop asked if I was there for biesnisss or pleasore. I said it’s always a pleasure when I come to Paris. When I got to Peoria I told them the same thing.” – in between pointing out that, by the way, the Faculty Senate thinks GW’s next priority should be a new science facility, not a new education building.

Council Chair Gene Rotberg was less than amused.

“There are 1,500 graduate students (in GSEHD),” he said, stressing the importance of having a strong education school in the nation’s capital. “What is it that you think you’re going to get out of a science facility, Steve? You’re not Cal Tech here.”

No, Trachtenberg conceded, but “I can’t continue to have a physics department where, in order to do their research, they have to go to Los Alamos.”

The group did not appear moved. So Trachtenberg pulled out a story he had told many times for the GW sailing club.

Several years ago, Trachtenberg bought new sailboats for the student group after members came to him during his office hours one year and said they had been invited to competitions all over the place but did not have any boats to practice on.

“I said, ‘No boats? You must not be very good,'” he recalled. “They said, ‘We know. That’s why other schools invite us.'”

And with that, if only for a moment, a skeptical crowd was all smiles.

It is that combination of humor, presence and political savvy that has helped Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the 15th president of George Washington University, sell his ideas and deflate his critics through nearly four decades in higher education.

Since taking the helm in 1988, supporters say Trachtenberg, 67, has transformed the University from a sleepy commuter school to a top-flight academic institution with ever-improving facilities, faculty and student life. His critics would liken him to Montgomery Burns, the megalomaniac billionaire from “The Simpsons.” They argue that he has run the University like a corporation, wiping out a historic residential community and putting a GW education out of reach for most below the upper-middle class.

“People who are on the front line to make hard decisions and where the buck has to stop over a period of time are going to be in the disfavor of certain individuals, because that’s the ramification sometimes of making hard decisions,” said Robert Chernak, a GW vice president who has worked for Trachtenberg since he was at the University of Hartford. “At times, you’re going to push the envelope.”

But even those who ardently disagree with Trachtenberg’s decisions, many Foggy Bottom residents excluded, can often be charmed by him. And that, perhaps as much as his actual ideas, has helped him survive for 17 years as GW’s top politician, real estate negotiator and chief decision-maker on which of his constituents get new sailboats and buildings.

“Even sometimes when you’re done having a disagreement with him, you walk out of the room still loving him, because he can be funny,” Chernak said.

Often times, though, it isn’t so much what Trachtenberg says but how he says it. He speaks with the vocabulary of Stephen Joel the academic but does so with a dialect and mannerism that is pure Steve from Brooklyn, an unusual combination in a university president. Then there is the cowboy hat and boots he sometimes wears, which seem to be equally eccentric by both New York and ivory tower standards.

“I said once about Steve Trachtenberg that he was the best cross between 14th Street New York and the academy,” said John Silber, former longtime president of Boston University and a mentor to Trachtenberg. “He had the street smarts that you normally don’t expect of a college administrator.”

For Trachtenberg, intellect and idealism first came together during the 1940s in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. His goal? Read every book in the local public library.

“I started out reading all the books in (stack) A, and I worked my way through to C, when I realized that there were new books up in A and B that I had somehow missed,” Trachtenberg said. “Well of course what was happening was people were taking books off the shelf and putting them back while I wasn’t there, so I suddenly despaired and gave up the project of reading all the books in the Brooklyn Public Library.”

Such an endeavor might have seemed strange to his peers, but both his parents always stressed education, particularly his father, who hadn’t finished high school.

“I fell in with a crowd of friends whose families had similar philosophies, so all of us would reinforce each other,” he said. “We had study groups when I was still in high school. We would spend a half hour on a Saturday night before we went out on a date running through vocabulary words for the SATs.”

Trachtenberg’s diligence as a student earned him degrees from Columbia (undergraduate), Yale (law) and Harvard (master’s). But he said he never envisioned a career in higher education. He had worked in both politics, as a legislative aide to an Indiana congressman, and in law, as an attorney with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, before taking a job at Boston University in 1968.

“When I got into university administration as an associate dean, I thought I would do it for a couple of years and then go back to practicing law. I was helping out a friend who had been named dean at Boston University and asked me to come be his deputy,” Trachtenberg said. “Two years passed, I was having a good time, I was making a contribution, and I met a graduate student there who I ultimately married, so that gave me reason to stay on campus.”

But when Silber became president of BU in 1971, he quickly promoted Trachtenberg to, among other positions, dean of students. Vietnam anti-war activism on college campuses was at its peak, and BU was no exception. Student demonstrators tried to virtually shut down the university, protesting America’s involvement in the war and demanding that military recruiters be barred from campus. Silber took a hard line. The administration would not “be intimidated by a bunch of hooligans,” he said.

Between the two groups stood Trachtenberg, still in his late 20s and the primary negotiator between the Silber administration and the student activists.

“A lot of the older administrators had caricatures in their minds about the students. And similarly, that was reciprocated by the students,” Trachtenberg said. “There was something of a generation gap, and since I stood halfway in between the generations, I was kind of a translator.”

In one instance, Trachtenberg helped avert a potentially violent clash between police and demonstrators with his trademark humor and diplomacy.

“I went in to negotiate with the students and I said, ‘What’s your first point?’ And they said, ‘We want U.S. troops out of Vietnam,'” he recalled.

With a straight face, Trachtenberg responded, “Okay, you got it. What’s next?”

John Silber was a president who transformed Boston University from a commuter school to a university of national prestige, expanding facilities and improving the quality of both faculty and students. But his actions were often controversial, a fact that was not helped by his blunt temperament.

“I worked at BU. I’ve actually seen grown men, tenured faculty and vice presidents, come out of John Silber’s office crying,” Chernak said. “No, literally.”

Trachtenberg was in many ways similar to the man he used to work for when he became president of the University of Hartford in 1977 – except in his demeanor. New buildings went up, academic reforms were made, and by the end of his presidency Hartford had gone from a local school to one that drew most of its students from out of state.

When he became president of GW in 1988, he continued on the path of expansion – both in buildings and in the number of students who filled them – with the ultimate goal of elevating another sleepy city school to national prominence. A decade later, it appeared he had done just that, when U.S. News and World Report ranked GW among the nation’s top 50 schools in 1997.

But for each of Trachtenberg’s initiatives, there is a process of persuasion and negotiation – within his own administration, with student and faculty leaders, with Foggy Bottom residents and often with city officials, all of whom have opposed his ideas at different times. Be it a tuition hike, construction plan or academic reform, Trachtenberg’s ability to implement his ideas is often a test of his political skills.

And every once in a while, they come up short.

His attempt to give a convicted sex offender a basketball scholarship in 1995 was met with controversy and was thwarted by public outcry. His scheme to change GW’s class-credit structure and create a mandatory summer session for rising juniors was shelved in 2003 after he could not overcome faculty dissent. And his relationship with some residents of Foggy Bottom is perpetually contentious.

“It was a different world before he got here. He is the one that pushed up the enrollment, and that and the subsequent over-development is the problem with him,” said longtime neighborhood resident and Trachtenberg critic Ellie Becker. “There are a great number of people who don’t trust him.”

She added, “You know about his letters, don’t you? He writes incredibly snide letters to people. He thinks he’s funny.”

To the residents’ consternation, however, so do a lot of other people. And that is partly why Trachtenberg has remained relatively unscathed by his opponents.

“Just as surely as a soft answer can (compound people’s frustrations), a humorous answer that gets other people to laugh can just end an issue,” Silber said. “It’s pretty hard for people to be angry when all of the sudden they find themselves laughing. It’s a disarming device, and he’s very good at it.”

As for the ideas he hasn’t implemented, he isn’t done yet.

There is a taskforce currently looking into the change in class credit structure. And although his contract expires in 2007, Trachtenberg said he plans to stay on as president for another three to eight years.

There are students and faculty members who have concerns about where the University will go during that time. Some of those concerns were expressed to Trachtenberg himself during a February meeting with student leaders, where participants talked about student debt, the ever-rising cost of a GW education and the lack of available meeting space for student groups, among other topics.

Trachtenberg fielded each question before explaining toward the end that students were just one of several constituencies he has to answer to, all of which want greater resources while keeping tuition and enrollment under control. He made this point the way only a Brooklyn academic could – with a reference to “Star Trek.”

“A university is like the Klingons,” he said. “It has more than one heart.”

And with that, if only for a moment, a skeptical crowd was all smiles.

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