Students reflect on Trachtenberg’s legacy: the hippo

For some, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s legacy will be the growth of GW or his testy relationship with Foggy Bottom residents. But many students said they will remember the president for bringing something else to GW: an unofficial mascot.

Improving academic rigor and institutional prestige, construction of new buildings or even fostering a top-tier basketball team did not seem to register with students as much as the bronze hippo statue located at the corner of 21st and H streets.

“I really don’t have any reaction,” sophomore Siobhan Chapman said last week, referring to Trachtenberg’s decision to retire in July 2007 after 19 years at the University. “The only thing that I really think about that guy is the hippo.”

As the story goes, Trachtenberg purchased the hippo statue from an antique store while on a vacation in New England in 1996; as a gift to the class of 2000 it was placed outside Lisner Auditorium. Since then, it has received an increasing amount of attention on campus and was declared GW’s unofficial mascot in 2001.

Other students said Trachtenberg’s retirement does not affect them very much and said that if they saw him on the street they might not even recognize him. But the hippo is something they recognize and will remember.

“We saw him at CI and that was it,” freshman Jordan Weil said. “But if he took the hippo back, I’d be pretty upset.”

Trachtenberg said he thinks his relationship with students at GW “is terrific” and said he engages with students in a variety of ways – including playing racquetball with them a few days a week and talking with them on the street or at J Street. He also holds office hours where students can discuss issues with him about once a month.

“I know hundreds of students,” he said in an interview last week. “I know thousands if you go back over the years. I think on the whole my relationship has been outstanding.”

Several students said they didn’t care about Trachtenberg’s departure and knew little about the tension between the GW administration and some faculty and community members, or achievements the administration has made.

“I didn’t really follow it so much. I don’t think that students care about that kind of stuff,” sophomore Alex Matz said. “You’re going to have issues with whoever is the president.”

Trachtenberg disagreed and said students do care about things that come out of his office – particularly the academic achievements GW has made over the years.

“Students like the idea that they are associated with a school that is succeeding,” he said. “They like the idea that they have prevailed.”

Other students agreed that Trachtenberg has done well during his 19-year reign as leader of the University and will leave at a high point in GW history.

“He’s been here long enough. He did everything he wanted to do and built up the campus,” sophomore Charles Basden said. “He can end it on a good note.”

GW parents, as well, believe that Trachtenberg has done a good job during his tenure and has made GW a more prestigious university for their children.

“The nation’s capital should have a first-rate university and thanks, in part, to Pres. Trachtenberg it now is among the best,” Norman Gelfand, a member of GW’s Parents Association Advisory Council, said in an e-mail. “With his talents, drive and personality he will be a hard act to follow.”

“I think President Trachtenberg’s legacy will be that he brought GWU into the future, and has positioned the University as a place of academic leadership,” said GW parent and Ph.D. student Christine Magee.

Junior Michael Virga agreed that Trachtenberg will be remembered fondly and said that he thinks his stepping down doesn’t mean he won’t be involved in making University decisions.

“I think history will smile upon him,” Virga said, adding that “I think we all have a strong feeling that his successor will take orders from someone higher.”

Trachtenberg doesn’t think so. He said,out of respect for the new president, he plans to spend the first year “inconspicuously” catching up on his reading, taking classes, perhaps writing a syndicated newspaper column about higher education and maybe even teaching as a visiting professor at another university such as New York University or Boston University before he “sneaks back quietly on campus.”

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