David Ceasar: The other president

Amid the formal pomp and circumstance of University President Steven Knapp’s inauguration Friday morning, a familiar – and somewhat inane – figure greeted a half-packed Smith Center.

Donning a GW basketball cap in place of the more traditional mortarboard, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg made a borderline raucous entrance to the stage during the 17-minute-long processional. The former commandant of GW garnered audible laughter and chatter in an otherwise solemn event. He walked alongside his predecessor, Lloyd Elliott, and the two managed to get lost on the way to the stage.

Elliott, who was born the year World War I ended, dozed off at times and required light nudges from the administrator sitting to his right. Trachtenberg took a few moments to wipe down his Coke-bottle glasses while on the raised stage.

Disregarding formalities and not really caring what others think. These characteristics of Trachtenberg’s behavior during the ceremony are a bit emblematic of his tenure at GW. On top of being a higher-education administrator for nearly four decades, Trachtenberg has been part goofball, part celebrity.

Some may look at Friday’s silly behavior and consider the stark contrast between our president and his immediate predecessor. There has been much talk about how Knapp is focusing on the institution, not himself. You can find such rhetoric in this page’s editorial last Monday, as well as in a student speech at Friday’s ceremony. Student Association President Nicole Capp, a junior, talked about Knapp being one to put GW before himself on his list of priorities – possibly a thinly veiled swipe at the Trachtenberg administration.

Perhaps that is a fair criticism when mulling the way in which he left the University last school year. A police-escorted trolley carried Trachtenberg and his entourage to several residence halls and the Mount Vernon Campus Quad. Event planners lured hundreds of students to say “hi” to the departing administrator with thousands of dollars of free food and Chipotle gift certificates. And the same semester, who was the celebrity originally slated to headline Commencement? Trachtenberg.

But in only seeing this side of our 15th president, many overlook the native Brooklynite’s significant contributions to the University. Too many students, professors and community members have tunnel vision when evaluating now-professor Trachtenberg.

August 1988. Back then our school was a fraction of what it is today, in terms of facilities, faculty and fame. Trachtenberg built up the University by expanding these three F’s.

GW was a much smaller, much less prominent school when Elliott passed the reins to him 19 years ago. It was up-and-coming then, and there is much to be said about the transformations made during Elliott’s 23-year tenure. Our 14th president built Smith Center, Marvin Center, Academic Center, three main libraries and oversaw a 2,500 percent growth of our endowment.

But so much of what the University we know today is credit to Trachtenberg’s tenure and, dare I say, the development he oversaw.

His detractors say he was too construction-oriented, too much of a businessman and not enough of an educator. Yet, those holding these views fail to realize the infrastructural growth that is necessary for overall growth. New academic facilities make possible specialized learning (e.g. studio television production or simulated stock-trading), and new residence halls make campus living more comfortable. They also serve as a selling point that has bolstered interest in the University, which drives up applications, which in turn allows this institution to be more selective.

Beyond the comparative advantage seen in our facilities, Trachtenberg brought in a higher caliber of notable faculty and special programs to elevate our fame. CNN’s Frank Sesno and Colin Powell’s chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, among other new professors, have tremendous institutional knowledge in their fields and impart that to their students. “Crossfire” and its programmatic successors in the Jack Morton Auditorium showcased our University across the country and offered internship and volunteer opportunities.

And beyond the three F’s, Trachtenberg did much to strengthen another area of GW, though admittedly one still in want of improvement: a sense of campus community.

No president can change the geography of the Foggy Bottom campus. We are in the middle of the nation’s capital, with all the extracurricular and social lures to keep students off campus. But Trachtenberg built up our collective identity by developing a campus life department, creating the hippo mascot and the related Order of the Hippo secret society, and constructing a gated Kogan Plaza. Better dorm life and annual traditions, such as the interfaith Iftar dinner, have molded our student body’s character.

Playfully known as “G-Dub,” this University left its commuter-school roots and grew exponentially. The growth in some areas – namely tuition and the physical size in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood – are rightfully points of criticism. However, Trachtenberg’s legacy should get a more holistic examination, taking into account the countless improvements to the University realized under the leadership of our goofy last president.

The writer, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in political management, is The Hatchet’s senior editor.

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