The Big Wigs: meet GW’s top administrators

Every University has its head honchos, and GW is no different. Students will hear these administrators’ names again and again without, sometimes, ever meeting them face-to-face or really knowing what they do.

Learning about GW’s administrative hierarchy is just as important for incoming freshmen as learning how to navigate campus. Read on in order to become more familiar with and learn a little bit about the freshman year experiences of top GW administrators.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

Title: University President

What that means: Oversees the entire University. In his words, “I have to figure out how to steer the ship on a day-to-day basis. Most of what I do freshmen don’t have that much understanding of. But buildings don’t just jump up by themselves.”

GW career: Arrived as University President in 1988 and announced last spring that he will retire in July 2007.

Date of Birth: December 14, 1937

Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in American history, Columbia University, 1959; law degree, Yale University, 1962; master’s degree in public administration, Harvard University, 1966.

Trachtenberg said he remembers his freshman year of college “in bits and pieces” and in “events and emotions.”

Columbia was a men’s college when Trachtenberg was there and when he arrived freshman year, he said it wasn’t what he expected.

“I had been the ‘big cheese’ in high school – I was head of the student body and valedictorian of my class – but I found out in college that I was not as accomplished as I thought. Everyone was head of their student body and valedictorian of their class,” he said. “Nobody was impressed.”

Trachtenberg got stuck with two upperclassmen for roommates his freshman year, but said it ultimately worked out even though one of them got him into trouble.

When he lived on the eighth floor of his residence hall, his roommate decided to throw a water balloon out the window and hit a woman passing by, who turned out to be the secretary of the dean of students.

School officials approached him and his roommates about the incident and since his roommate had already been admitted to medical school, and the incident could have affected his acceptance, Trachtenberg took the blame and was placed on academic probation for the rest of the year.

Trachtenberg, having his one stint of rebellion, advised incoming freshmen to take it easy their first year at GW and to try not to stress out like most freshmen do.

“Relax. It’s all going to be okay, and behave sensibly even if it is the first time away from your parents,” he said.

Trachtenberg came to GW after 11 years of being president of the University of Hartford, a position he reluctantly left. He said he got a phone call from a professional headhunter looking for presidents for universities, but he wasn’t interested until George Washington University was one of the names on the list.

He said he is glad he made the decision to move to Washington. Trachtenberg will have served as the longest president of a D.C. university when he retires next summer.

He said, “I would do it again.”

Robert A. Chernak

Title: Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services

What that means: Oversees traditional support services including enrollment, safety and security like UPD and 4-RIDE, intercollegiate athletics, career services, counseling services, student services, community services, parent life, GW Housing program, Greek life, student activities, Marvin Center and licensing.

GW career: Arrived alongside Trachtenberg in 1988 as senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services.

Date of Birth: August 25, 1946

Hometown: Chelsea, Mass., consisting of less than two square miles and 38,000 people.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, Boston University, 1968; master’s degree in counseling, University of Massachusetts 1975; Ph.D. in education, GW, 1997.

Chernak remembers having a hard time adjusting to college during his freshman year at Boston University because he came from a small high school in the suburbs of Massachusetts.

“I can remember being overwhelmed by the size of the institution or even going to classes in different buildings,” Chernak said, adding that this was despite being geographically close to home.

He advised incoming freshmen not to be too quick to judge their roommates, remembering that he and his freshman year roommates ended up being fraternity brothers in Phi Sigma Delta, which is now Zeta Beta Tau, and remained friends all the way through college.

Chernak started his professional career as a faculty member at a junior college in Boston. He then got a job at Boston University as the special assistant to the vice president for student affairs. Once Trachtenberg entered the scene as vice president of academic affairs at Boston University, Chernak stuck with him through the rest of his career – from Hartford to GW.

“I guess you can say I was lucky in my professional life, hooking up with President Trachtenberg and riding his coattails,” he said.

In a Hatchet story about Chernak and Trachtenberg’s long professional relationship last month, Trachtenberg said “I’m like Batman and he’s Robin . we just make a good team.”

Because of his job at GW, Chernak said he is “probably the most accessible” and has the most interaction with students. He encouraged incoming freshmen to remember that he is approachable.

He said, “This office is always open to them.”

Louis H. Katz

Title: Executive Vice President and Treasurer

What that means: Oversees the support side of the institution, focusing on all financial affairs, technology, facilities, auxiliaries, parking, real estate – in his words “the business side of things.”

GW career: Became executive vice president and treasurer in 1990

Date of Birth: January 14, 1950

Hometown: Indianapolis, Ind.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics and finance, Purdue University, 1972; master’s degree in business administration, Tulane University, 1986.

Katz said that his first year at Purdue was the first time that he was really away from home. He spent a lot of his time socializing with a new group of people and pledging the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi.

Katz said that for all freshmen it takes time to adjust to a new environment. “You do good things, important things and stupid things,” he said.

But his suggestions for incoming freshmen at GW are to get involved in as much as possible.

“Take advantage of what the University has to offer, what D.C. has to offer and all your new friends,” he said. “You really need to take it all in.”

Before coming to GW, Katz worked at Tulane University for eight years. He moved to D.C. to work at GW “just because I thought it was a great institution and my wife and I would always love visiting Washington.”

Katz said that his job dealing with the non-student and non-academic side of the University limits his contact with students on campus.

“I deal with them on a different level,” he said. “But I have a pretty much open door policy.”

He added that he has an internship program that allows dozens of GW students to hold jobs in his office each semester and many of them have gone on to get full-time positions there.

“There’s one person who is still here 16 years later,” Katz said.

This summer you won’t find Katz at CI sessions – instead he’ll be at the beach, reading and getting exercise.

“I believe that you should get the most out of life that you can and remain active,” he said.

Donald R. Lehman

Title: Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

What that means: Has administrative oversight with the schools and other academic divisions of the University; is responsible for academic planning and educational policy in admissions, curriculum, research, the libraries, academic computing, distance learning and faculty personnel administration.

GW career: GW physics instructor in 1969; left to conduct post-doctoral research; returned as a physics assistant professor in 1972; full professor in 1982; associate vice president for research and graduate studies in 1993; vice president for academic affairs in 1996; executive vice president for academic affairs since 2003.

Date of Birth: December 13, 1940

Hometown: York, Penn.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in physics, Rutgers University, 1962; master’s degree in space physics, Air Force Institute of Technology, 1964; Ph.D. in theoretical physics, GW, 1970.

Lehman remembers being a part of the swim team and exploring New York City – which was only a short train ride from New Brunswick, hometown of Rutgers University – during his freshman year.

He said his freshman year was also very much about having a social life, like it is for most college students today. But his activities were a little different.

“The big event on party weekends was to take the fire hoses on each floor and point them outside through the stairwells at each end of the dormitory and spray people walking below,” Lehman said. “Seems really calm compared to what happens today.”

Lehman, a physics major and a mathematics minor at Rutgers College, the men’s college of Rutgers University, initially came to GW in 1965 as a graduate student in physics, while simultaneously serving in the U.S. Air Force as a program officer for high-energy particle physics at the Air Force of Scientific Research.

In the fall of 1968, he returned to civilian status and began teaching at GW the following year. He said that his advice to all students is to remember why they are in college.

“I believe strongly that all our students should constantly challenge themselves academically; that is, taking the tough courses and going beyond the ordinary,” Lehman said.

He also added that incoming freshmen should plan ahead academically so that they can take advantage of everything that GW has to offer.

“Be humble about what you know and make your academic experience the best possible as this is a once in a lifetime chance,” he said.

Michael G. Freedman

Title: Vice President for Communications

What that means: Oversees all University media activities and public affairs initiatives, publications, advertising, graphic design, University events, GW’s broadcast partnerships and is the administrator of Lisner Auditorium and the Media and Public Affairs building; serves as the advisor to WRGW, GW’s radio station.

GW career: Started in fall 1992 as GW’s director of public affairs; left to become head of CBS network radio in 1998; returned as GW’s vice president of Communications in 2000.

Date of Birth: April 29, 1952

Hometown: Detroit, Mich.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in speech, Wayne State University 1974.

Freedman worked his way through college. During his freshman year, he was already working full-time at a local radio station and continued through the rest of college, working 50 hours a week.

“Part of it was because of my desire to be in radio and part of it was by necessity,” he said.

Freedman had a different college experience than most students do today. Wayne State was mostly a commuter school, and he didn’t live on campus.

He said his college had “a less than vibrant” campus life and it wasn’t until he started working at GW that he was able to actually understand how important it is to be involved in student activities.

Freedman also teaches a journalism course in the School of Media and Public Affairs called “Radio News History and Practice” where he trains students “to write for the ear instead of the eye.” He said the class also travels all over the city and includes many guest lecturers, particularly from CBS. He’s taught the course for the past 10 semesters.

“I like to think that, other than SASS, my division has more involvement with students than any of the others,” he said. Freedman said his office deals with the presentation of events from the Kalb Report (a public affairs program that has a partnership with GW) to the University’s CNN partnership to Commencement.

His advice to incoming freshmen: “Take full advantage of all the opportunities that GW and Washington offer you. Keep your priorities straight. Dive into your classes the same way you dive into all enrichment programs in Washington. Get some sleep. Have fun but keep a small sense of seriousness about everything you are doing. You can’t do everything, so you do have to prioritize. It’s the easiest year for people to overdo it. Be measured.”

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