Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is a fairly big name. Literally, it’s long. It’s a mouthful – 23 letters to be exact. If I made everyone say my middle name whenever referring to me in a speech or in print, it would amount to only a paltry 18 letters. As GW’s president for the past 18 years, Trachtenberg has also made a big name for himself among the D.C. power brokers in politics and business, while being known around the country in academic circles for his often-repeated main accomplishment at GW – let’s see if I can get this right – “Trachtenberg turned a sleepy commuter school into a nationally recognized University.” But, as big as Trachtenberg’s name already is, the search for his replacement provides the opportunity to grab someone with an even bigger name to help boost the school’s power to raise funds, attract better students and enhance GW’s reputation.
Trachtenberg’s accomplishments at GW are vast. While only history can write a man’s legacy, I’m going to bet that it will look kindly on Trachtenberg’s tenure here. For all the lingering problems – a disgruntled part-time faculty looking to unionize, a less-than-stellar University endowment, exorbitant tuition costs and an often-bumbling bureaucracy – there is no doubt that the GW of today is fundamentally a better institution in many respects than the GW of 1988, when Trachtenberg first arrived.
Many believed that academics were often an afterthought during the construction of classrooms and residence halls. A review of budgets, academic department cuts and faculty salaries adds some credibility to this claim. During my few years here, I have enjoyed a new gym, Elliott School building, Ivory Tower residence hall, business school building and a good number of renovations to older facilities. It is because of Trachtenberg’s penchant for construction and expansion, however, that his administration has literally set the physical stage for a new president to arrive and deal with the pursuit of academic excellence directly. Who better to do that than someone who already has national recognition, credibility and experience?
In 2001, when the University of Miami was looking for a new president, they were able to nab Donna Shalala, not only an accomplished academic, but also a nationally recognized name due to her work on President Clinton’s cabinet. During the same year, Harvard appointed Larry Summers, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, as its president. I’m not trying to equate GW’s prestige and ability to hire with that of Harvard, but Miami is a different story. It is also a private University with an undergraduate enrollment comparable to GW. And, for what it’s worth, GW beat the University of Miami in this year’s U.S. News and World Report college rankings.
The publicity surrounding the hiring of a president with national recognition like Summers or Shalala would immediately benefit GW’s reputation, while the connections and experience brought by someone of their caliber would benefit GW’s quest to improve academically as quickly as it has been able to improve its facilities.
Trachtenberg was the up-and-coming academic that this school needed when it first hired him, but his time here has changed GW’s needs. With GW’s popularity – and enrollment – soaring in recent years, there is no reason to pluck a dean or a vice president from a smaller school, plop them down in Washington and hand over the keys to GW. This presidential search is a singular opportunity to lure someone recognized nationally – someone with a “big” name – to complement what is fast becoming a nationally recognized school whose two-letter name – GW – seems to get bigger every year.
-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet senior editor.