Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: A better University comes with a price tag

In a Hatchet editorial called “Confession of a Trachtenberg apologist” (Oct. 24, p. 4), Will Dempster said so many nice things about me that I hope he is not in mortal danger from those on campus who believe I may be the Prince of Darkness. It was such a favorable piece that it could even appear churlish of me to take exception to one observation, but I must. I have already done so privately with Will, but it seems appropriate, since his column reached a larger audience, that I should reply to the same audience, and I thank The Hatchet for giving me the opportunity.

The one observation was this: “Throughout his time at GW, Trachtenberg has earned the reputation – with some merit – of being more interested in making money than in education.” This is not true. Unlike Scrooge McDuck, I do not look forward to wallowing in cash. I do not care about making money; however, I do worry about money. And if I am not worrying about money, who should be – a professor of chemistry or anthropology? They have other fish to fry.

When I am worrying about money, which is most of the time, what am I really worrying about? The answer is simple: the things that money can buy – or, more explicitly, the things that money can buy to make GW a better institution and a GW education even more valuable.

In the same issue of The Hatchet there was a story about canceling the Monumental celebration in order to help pay for Commencement on the Mall. But what is the real topic here? Not the Monumental celebration, not Commencement, but the $150,000 above the current budget. That money, if we can find it, will finance both.

Look around you as you go about the campus. Look at all the new buildings, at those under construction, and at those we are refurbishing. All these projects cost a great deal of money. But are we talking about money? Are we talking about bricks and mortar for their own sake? No and no again.

We are talking about the facilities that further education. We are talking about classrooms, libraries and laboratories. We are talking about the equipment and materials needed to outfit them, about the need for staff to constantly maintain, clean and repair them.

Many students would not be able to come here (or would have to run up even larger student loans) if we did not provide financial aid. Is raising money for this purpose “making money” or making it possible for students to get a fine education?

Renting out the Marvin Center for uses by outside groups may bother some, but the money we earn from those fees helps keep the Marvin Center going – and remember Marvin was just remodeled at a great cost. Is it a better place now because of that? I think it is immeasurably better and I doubt any student who experienced Marvin before and after would disagree with me.

The same is true with the issues I have had (sometimes endured) with the faculty. They want more classrooms so they don’t have to teach at the crack of dawn, otherwise known hereabout as 8:00 a.m. They want new buildings for their departments because the ones they occupy now are not up to snuff. They want annual raises and they want sabbaticals. And students want a great deal too. Students want smaller classes, seminars especially, which means hiring more faculty to teach the courses.

These are all good, and I could bombard you with more examples, but it is not necessary, as Winston Churchill said, “to make rubble bounce.” I will simply say that every single desire directed at me at GW by faculty and students (and staff, as well) always has, and certainly always will, come with a price tag attached. Yes, such desires advance education, at least most of the time, and most of them are good ones. It is my job to see that we can finance these desires, because you can’t pay for them with love.

I should add that I am not by any stretch of the most fevered imagination alone in my belief in the importance of raising money for the sake of making a university a better place. The Chronicle of Higher Education just released a survey in which 768 college and university presidents were interviewed on a number of subjects. Overall, five of their six chief “concerns” were financial, mainly about fundraising.

In the spring 2003 issue of the GW Magazine, we interviewed 13 men and women with GW degrees who have become college or university leaders. When asked the general question about what their day is like, 11 mentioned money (fundraising, talking with donors) directly and the other two managed to touch on the subject indirectly.

Are all university and college presidents money-mad, even though we come from very different backgrounds? I think it is more likely that we are sharing a common experience and a common desire, which is to make our institutions better, to offer better instruction and amenities, to pay better salaries and enjoy better facilities.

If you don’t believe that all these things come at a price, I probably can’t convince you that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. And if people feel they are superior because they don’t have to deal with financial issues (I am not including Will Dempster in this characterization), then they are adopting an artificially elite posture.

The result of such thinking could cause trouble. It might lead to Marxism or some other form of academic totalitarianism because guys like us who run universities and raise money will get together and rebel. Or, more likely and less jokingly, we will say, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get.”

And what you get will be far less than what you have now.

-The writer is the president of the University.

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