Posted Wednesday, April 5, 2:23 a.m. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg got a lot of advice from his food Tuesday. On the day he announced his retirement from GW after nearly 20 years in Rice Hall, the cap to his soda told him “You’re doing the right thing.” A late dinner at a local Chinese restaurant yielded a fortune cookie that said, “Overlook not your own opportunity.”
Trachtenberg didn’t need the ironic one-liners for reassurance. After contemplating retirement for the last year, he made the decision to leave in July 2007 with the dogged confidence that allowed him to inject his values and personality into every nook and cranny of this school, from the presidential administrative fellowships to the many scholarships and awards that bear his last name.
Trachtenberg is approaching 70, but a lack of enthusiasm and energy is not behind his decision to step down from the presidency. He has never let up from a relentless schedule – he returned from a trip to Hong Kong earlier this week – and still relishes the dogfights that come with making university policy. Rather, at an age when most people think about moving down south, he sees opportunities – opportunities to teach, spend more time with his family and learn.
Even at a school that has had only 15 presidents since its inception in 1821, Trachtenberg has been here a long time: 19 years when he leaves. “That’s longer than FDR,” he quipped Tuesday night. He’s seen presidents come and go at D.C.’s other universities; he’s seen mayors and presidents come and go; and he’s seen his wife ease out of full-time employment and his two sons graduate from college and start careers.
“I just felt like it was time,” said Trachtenberg, who spent more time on vacation this summer than he has in years past.
Still recovering from jet lag after his return from Hong Kong, Trachtenberg sat down for a late dinner Tuesday night at Meiwah – hot and sour soup and a shrimp plate. Tacked to a wall behind him was a photo of him and the restaurant’s owner. The other photos gracing the wall all contained notable figures, some of whom Trachtenberg called Tuesday to deliver the news of his retirement.
In his almost 40 years in government and academia, the Brooklyn native and James Madison High School graduate has forged friendships with a lot of high-profile people – and has become one himself. On Tuesday he spoke to university presidents, academics and politicians. Some told him to stay; others inquired about the impending vacancy atop GW.
Trachtenberg, who will retain the title of president emeritus and teach as a University professor of public service, looks forward to a lower-profile role at the school. His successor, no matter what his credentials, will have big shoes to fill.
It is not hyperbolic to say that Trachtenberg, in his almost two decades in Foggy Bottom, remade GW in his own image. He presided over an almost five-fold increase in the endowment; put up dozens of academic and residential facilities; and gave GW a national identity separate from that Jesuit school down the road. He’s done all of this not without controversy. Trachtenberg has plenty of detractors, who point out that he has made GW the most expensive university of its kind; upended the sleepy residential character of Foggy Bottom; and taken out a large amount of debt to finance GW’s unprecedented expansion.
The manifestations of Trachtenberg’s quirky personality should also not be overlooked: an improbable unofficial mascot, the hippo, sitting in the middle of campus, leaving passersby with the impression that Trachtenberg is winking at them; a residence hall called Ivory Tower; his non-sequitur but humorous stories infused with the wittiness of an urban intellectual from a Saul Bellow novel.
Though he’ll be stepping down from the presidency with a lot of goals not yet at fruition and with many critics, Trachtenberg will be leaving on top – with his many accomplishments, with his health and with enough confidence so that he doesn’t need a fortune cookie and a soda to tell him he has a bright future going into his 70s.