Alex Shoucair: Cementing a Legacy

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Finally! GW has actually been ranked No. 1 in something – the size of our former president’s compensation. Checking in at whopping $3.7 million, our ex-president (and current faculty member) Stephen Joel Trachtenberg raked in more than twice as much as the nation’s next highest-paid former University administrator in 2007-2008, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education. But in a year filled with public derision of astronomical executive compensation packages, the payout given to “SJT” is sure to raise eyebrows and more than a bit of criticism.

In a world where we now speak of money in terms of trillions of dollars, $3.7 million can seem insignificant. It is not. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers given America’s spend-crazy culture. For example, Trachtenberg’s salary is 1/56th of the New York Yankees’ absurd payroll. But instead of being flummoxed by the sheer scale of spending these days, what if we evaluated Trachtenberg’s salary in terms of how much scholarship money it could provide to students in these hard economic times? Or the kinds of renovations it could provide for our dilapidated library, whose fundraising campaign has raised a paltry $150,000 towards its $5 million goal.

When I first saw the story of Trachtenberg’s salary, my instinctive response was to be outraged – I was angrier than a Tea Party protester. But before we work ourselves into an irrational populist tizzy, it is worth noting that the school negotiated SJT’s pay package based on what they thought he was worth to the University. And, believe it or not, there is a compelling case to be made that SJT was worth every penny.

For the current underclassmen at GW who weren’t around to experience the long, legacy-building goodbye the school gave to SJT in 2007, it is hard to appreciate what he did for the school. The fact is that much of what we know GW as today can be attributed to former President Trachtenberg. His work in transforming this school into a nationally-renowned institution that recruits top-tier faculty and students speaks to the incredible change he brought to the University during his 19-year tenure. Furthermore, a school spokeswoman stated that Trachtenberg’s retirement payout increased because he did not take sabbatical and stayed at the school for the University’s desired length of time.

But the SJT worshiping aside – and there’s been plenty of it in recent years – what kind of message does this high compensation send to students and parents who pay some of the highest tuition in the world and are currently suffering through a deep recession? I don’t begrudge now-professor Trachtenberg of what he lawfully earned. Rather, I question his acceptance of it. As a lifelong educator committed to the success of his students, what a fitting gesture it would be for SJT to give a little back, perhaps to kick-start the abysmal failure that is the Gelman fundraising drive.

Trachtenberg’s mammoth windfall has given him the opportunity to cement his legacy as the best president the University has ever had. Giving back just a fraction of the salary the student body has so graciously bankrolled would show students that administrators are not only attuned to the challenges of this economic crisis, but also serious about improving our education.

The writer, a senior majoring in Asian studies, is a Hatchet columnist.

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