Will Dempster: Confessions of a Trachtenberg apologist

College students often have an almost compulsory need to complain about the way their university is managed. The latest example of this phenomenon at GW comes with student ire directed toward the administration’s decision to develop Square 54 – the vacant plot where the former GW Hospital once stood – into a joint retail, commercial and residential space. While students complain that downtown Pennsylvania Avenue’s last undeveloped property should be transformed into an academic super-structure, few have stopped to consider it to be possible that President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and his top administrative associates know what they are doing.

The development of Square 54 is not the end game of University development. Rather, it is merely one part of the University’s overall design to continue its massive investment in academic infrastructure. Last week, GW released a comprehensive development plan for its Foggy Bottom Campus to address its future needs. This plan, when analyzed in conjunction with GW’s Strategic Plan for Academic Excellence, reveals an ambitious University design to catapult itself into academia’s upper-echelon.

First published in 2002, the Strategic Plan provides a comprehensive program for improving diverse aspects of University life and education. In addition to offering suggestions on how to improve academics at GW – including already-implemented programs such as a more comprehensive writing program – one of its cornerstones is to ensure GW is healthy enough financially to continue its rapid growth.

In the last five years GW has constructed new facilities for the School of Media and Public Affairs, the Elliott School of International Affairs and the School of Business in addition to new dormitory projects aimed at improving student life. The state-of-the-art technology built into these facilities has enabled GW to partner with organizations such as CNN to provide students with hands-on learning and valuable internship opportunities. As the District’s largest private landholder, GW owns commercial properties at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., 2100 Pennsylvania Ave. and the land on which the International Monetary Fund building stands, in addition to Square 54. Without the revenue produced by these holdings, the University would not have the financial flexibility to construct a new building to upgrade its dilapidated science facilities or to address other priorities.

Unlike many universities in its market basket, GW has enormous potential to grow into a more prestigious institution. By enjoying the financial flexibility to build academic facilities with top-notch technology, GW will be able to achieve its goal laid out in the Strategic Plan of dually recruiting outstanding professors drawn by new research opportunities and attracting higher quality students intrigued by the possibility of a high-quality education and access to the resources of Washington, D.C.

In my eyes the person who deserves the most credit for GW’s transformation from commuter school into rising national powerhouse is Trachtenberg himself. As a precocious columnist several years ago, I crossed paths with Trachtenberg under less than amicable circumstances. Before a Hatchet editorial board meeting with him two years ago, and after an unintentional editorial gaffe on my part, I was among his most outspoken student critics. Like many students who have met with him under similar circumstances, I left with a renewed appreciation of how remarkable Trachtenberg’s vision for GW actually is. While there are aspects of his philosophy with which I still disagree, I still respect that at least he has a bold vision to improve the University.

Throughout his time at GW, Trachtenberg has earned the reputation – with some merit – of being more interested in making money than in education. This perception is coupled with a less-than-stellar track record of empowering students outside the Student Association. Because the SA has proven time and again that the views it represents are only the narrow ones of its functionaries, Trachtenberg should develop opportunities to aid students in learning about the way the University works. In doing so, he might be surprised to find out that students have the capacity to understand complex University issues and the ability to solve complicated problems. Such an empowerment initiative would help erase the negative feelings students have about their president.

Around The Hatchet office my defense of the president’s policies has resulted in my being labeled a “Trachtenberg apologist.” Perhaps such a moniker is appropriate. I am convinced, however, that the more students research and understand what is happening to GW under Trachtenberg’s leadership, the more “apologists” there would be on campus.

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is The Hatchet’s senior editor.

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