The long-serving senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services and a bastion of former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s tenure will leave his post after 24 years.
Robert Chernak said he will stay on to teach in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, where he earned his doctorate in 1997, for three years after a six-month sabbatical starting in July.
“I think I fulfilled my obligation in the transition between the Trachtenberg era and Steve Knapp’s era,” Chernak said. “It’s always great to go out when you’re on top. It’s always good to go out when people don’t expect it.”
University President Steven Knapp lauded Chernak’s contributions to the “transformation of this University from a largely regional to an international University,” noting the vice president’s leadership in driving a vast increase in selectivity – from admitting 81 percent of applicants when he first arrived in 1988 to an all-time low of 31 percent in 2010. For more than two decades, Chernak oversaw a massive expansion of financial aid to reach this year’s record institutional pool of $160 million.
The vice president had a hand in creating Colonial Inauguration, GW’s freshman orientation program and Colonials Weekend. He also facilitated the expansion of varsity sports from 16 to 22 teams and the addition of 13 residence halls to the University’s housing options.
Chernak described his time at GW as “a very labor-intensive 24 years.”
“This is not a Monday to Friday job,” he said, recalling late-night phone calls about snowstorms and interrupted dinners with his wife.
Chernak said he learned from mistakes over the years, remembering a scheme to raise school spirit by ordering GW-logo sneakers to sell in the bookstore.
“We bought hundreds of them. They didn’t sell too well,” he laughed. “We had a fire sale.”
Provost Steven Lerman will soon launch a search to replace Chernak, Knapp said.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees’ Student Affairs Committee Alan From praised Chernak’s passion for students, which he said would become his legacy at GW.
“He really, really loves the students of this University. There is absolutely nothing more important to him. He treats them as his own children. He absolutely loves what he does,” From said. “You can’t take him away from the fabric of this University.”
The trustee joked that his relationship with Chernak outlasted both of From’s previous marriages combined and that the pair was approaching their golden anniversary.
Former Vice President for Communications Mike Freedman, who worked closely with Chernak before assuming an administrative spot at the University of Maryland last month, described Chernak’s retirement as the “end of an era.”
“Bob gave GW its vibrancy, its fun and its personality. Intangibles, to be sure, and all worth their weight in gold. Simply put, he and Steve Trachtenberg formed the greatest one-two punch in the history of this University,” Freedman, the founding director of the GW Global Media Institute, said.
Chernak and Trachtenberg, who served together at GW for 19 years while Trachtenberg was president, worked together as higher education administrators for 33 years across three universities.
Their match started at Boston University, where Chernak received his undergraduate degree and first worked as an administrator with Trachtenberg, a meeting Chernak called “fate” in 2006. The pair then moved to the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where they served together for 11 years until Trachtenberg was offered GW’s top spot.
When he stepped down as president, Trachtenberg described Chernak as his closest partner in his administration.
“I’m Batman and he’s Robin,” Trachtenberg told The Hatchet as he announced his retirement in May 2006.
Five years after leaving GW’s presidency, Trachtenberg continued to praise his tag team with Chernak.
“Bob is the O to my H2. Together we made water. Without him, I was just hot air,” Trachtenberg said.
The University received two six-figure gifts from an anonymous donor to recognize the administrator’s service, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger said, declining to give specific amounts or pinpoint a date to the donations.
At least $100,000 has been set aside to establish an endowed need-based scholarship fund named for Chernak and his wife Linda Chernak. Another six-figure donation will dedicate a new scoreboard for the baseball team’s home field in Arlington, Va.
Chernak said he looks forward to teaching, which will act as a transition between his administrative role and full retirement. He taught intermittently over the last two decades, something he remembered as “the best part of [his] week.”
“You can’t go from 100 miles per hour to zero,” he said. “It’s a way to stay involved with faculty and former colleagues. You have continued student contact, you go to the basketball games, you go to the theatrical performance. You’re part of a community.”
Chernak said he hopes to spend more time at his second home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. and travel with his wife.
“It’s time to pass the baton on to another generation,” Chernak said.
Lauren French contributed to this report