Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Let’s take our time without dragging our feet

You have probably heard (because I have said it often enough this last year) that I have taken the pledge: once I step down from the presidency in July, I have promised that I will remain mum, bite my tongue and enter a kibitz-free zone on institutional issues concerning The George Washington University.

I mention this because by the time you read this column, you will have heard that my successor, as the 16th president of GW, will be the estimable provost of Johns Hopkins University, Steven Knapp. I think he is a wonderful choice (my compliments to the search committee) and I wish him Godspeed and a long and happy tenure at GW. It is perhaps one of the great, if largely unappreciated, facts of this institution that presidents have served an average of more than 12 years. Continuity is important (one Steve succeeds another), as is having a free hand without heckling from the sidelines. Thus, my pledge.

But while I am still the president of GW, I want to reaffirm my commitment to the four-by-four initiative. I do not intend to rehearse here the arguments for the new course structure. I have made them and been gratified to see four-by-four discussed with an open mind and generally, I think, favorably in the pages of The Hatchet. But I do want to remind readers that four-by-four is neither a radical nor an untested proposition. New York University, Duke University, Emory University, Boston University, Northwestern University and the University of Southern California – half of our market-basket schools – have already eliminated three-by-five, or are poised to do so.

I understand that the faculty may hesitate to make a judgment on the value of four-by-four quickly; a report is due a week before the Faculty Senate meeting in April, and some faculty may believe they must vote it up or down right away. It is, in fact, my hope, whatever the substance of that report may be, that the faculty will not make a final determination on the spot. The administration has never suggested that a decision has to be made immediately. I also hope that the administrative transition, from my tenure to that of my successor, will not justify a procrastinator’s approach to four-by-four.

To the contrary, it is my third hope that GW will begin the process of analyzing what we must do to implement a four-by-four regime – if only theoretically – and begin to do so immediately. Experience elsewhere and our own history here tell me that the process of analysis and planning will take two years. So, if we all agreed today that four-by-four is what we want and need at GW, we would see it beginning in the fall of 2008 at the earliest and, most likely, a year or even two after that. If we delay the analysis, we inevitably delay the implementation or the abandonment of four-by-four.

I am making a distinction – and I hope it is clear – between embracing four-by-four and examining what will be necessary to implement a new course structure successfully. It remains possible that, in the future, GW will decide that students and faculty will not benefit from four-by-four, that the costs (and I don’t mean only financial) will be too high and the payoff too low or that, for some metaphysical reason, four-by-four and GW are somehow incompatible. I do not believe so myself, but anything is possible. As I write, I notice a Hatchet online article discussing widespread uncertainty about four-by-four’s impact.

We will never have certainty unless we explore in detail how four-by-four will operate at GW and what we need to do to implement it if we choose to do so in the future. We need to do the strategic work – the analysis and planning I have mentioned – in any event. It is impossible to know if four-by-four will work for us at GW unless we take on this work diligently – and promptly. It is also impossible to know the opposite.

If we spend two years and decide that four-by-four is not for us, then we will have not wasted time, but instead saved ourselves from a fate worse than death. We will have lost nothing, but gained knowledge. And if after two years we decide that four-by-four holds out the promise and the benefits that many of us anticipate, then we will have spent our time well and wisely.

In either case, we have nothing to lose, nor will we have an unwanted obligation to fulfill. But we will have increased our knowledge and, perhaps, acquired wisdom to help secure GW’s future strength and happiness.

-The writer is the president of the University.

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