Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg hasn’t held GW’s top post for seven years, but his controversial comments last week made a splash across liberal blogs, Twitter and alumni listservs.
Since his 19-year tenure ended, he has become a frequently quoted higher education expert, penning five books and speaking at conferences across the country. His colleagues say he’s always been quick to speak his mind, a trait that’s put him in the spotlight in the past as he speaks out on topics like high tuition costs, lavish student services and now, sexual assault.
Faculty and former administrators say his latest remarks continue to show the contrast between the boisterous Trachtenberg and his more mild-mannered successor, University President Steven Knapp.
Trachtenberg, who said his comments were “taken out of context,” said women should not “drink in excess” so they can be alert enough to protect themselves from an attacker, a statement that prompted angry emails from students and faculty flooding his inbox.
Several days after the incident gained attention, Knapp released a message to the GW community that drew a line in the sand.
“He is free, as an individual faculty member, to express his personal views. My responsibility as president is to make my own and the university’s position – and the steps the university is actually taking – as clear as I can,” Knapp wrote. “My strongly held position is that sexual assault under any guise and regardless of the circumstances is utterly repugnant and unacceptable.”
Robert Chernak, who worked with Trachtenberg for more than four decades across their tenures at three universities, said Knapp’s statement, though not totally out of line, had “shades of throwing someone under the bus.”
“I think the reference that was made in the beginning of the announcement was that he disagreed with Trachtenberg’s philosophy and put him in a bad light, but I don’t think that’s what Trachtenberg intended – although he should have been more careful in his choice of words,” Chernak said.
Trachtenberg said he has a “cordial, but arms-length” relationship with Knapp. The two had lunch just after Knapp took the helm in 2007, when Trachtenberg gave Knapp “a kibbitz or two.” But the pair have not spoken frequently since, he said.
“Ex-presidents need to take a low profile if they can. I’ve had some trouble with that for the last couple of days. You don’t want to be in the president’s face. You want to give him the chance that you’ve had – it’s his turn,” Trachtenberg said.
But Trachtenberg has still stirred up controversy for the University, said Charles Garris, an engineering professor and the chair of the Faculty Senate.
“Nobody ever had control over Stephen Trachtenberg,” Garris said.
‘A bull in a china cabinet’
Garris called Trachtenberg “a truly aggressive communicator,” who would send articles or memos to faculty members several times a week while he was president. Knapp is “very reserved, very cautious and a very different type of personality,” he said.
“[Trachtenberg] likes to talk and gets himself in trouble,” said Garris, who has worked at GW for more than three decades. “I think they realize occasionally he’ll make a blunder, but his heart is in the right place. I don’t think he’s regarded as an enemy, but he’s someone who puts his foot in his mouth.”
Trachtenberg was like a “bull in a china cabinet” when he first came to GW, Chernak said, recalling times when Trachtenberg clashed with neighbors in Foggy Bottom as he expanded campus.
“There were times when Trachtenberg might have been considered more vocal, outspoken and controversial,” Chernak said. “He’s bright, he’s engaging and he’s personable. As a result, he lets his guard down and may do or say things that could become a point of opposition.”
During Trachtenberg’s 19-year tenure, he led an explosion of campus construction, lifted GW’s reputation and raised tuition.
The University’s sticker price doubled during his presidency, making a GW education the most expensive in the country, and its acceptance rate dropped to 37 percent. Ten years ago, Trachtenberg also helped spearhead GW’s fixed tuition policy, which keeps tuition the same for returning students, while also hiking the price for tuition 16 percent that year.
Knapp has made affordability a larger focus during his tenure, hiring a provost of diversity and inclusion, creating a link between the admissions and financial aid offices for the first time and forming a task force to focus on making GW more accessible to lower-income students.
Marybeth Gasman, a higher education professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said Trachtenberg must take extra care when making public statements because they hold more weight than those of a typical professor.
“He used to be the living logo and main speaker of the institution,” she said. “In this case, if it’s bringing negative press to GW then Trachtenberg needs to step back and realize that’s happening and he’s probably stepping over the line. The problem is your current president has to clean up the mess and do damage control.”
Last fiscal year, Trachtenberg made a total compensation of about $433,000, according to tax filings. His compensation, which includes benefits, topped $3.7 million in 2007, a total that is twice what Knapp currently earns and made him the highest paid executive in higher education at the time, according to analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
A pattern of speaking out
Trachtenberg’s comments about sexual assault – which he made on “The Diane Rehm Show” last week – follow a past pattern of speaking out on higher education issues that cause a mixed response. GW does not schedule Trachtenberg’s media appearances, University spokeswoman Candace Smith said.
“Trachtenberg often displayed a lack of care in thoughts and words as president and apparently has not changed since his retirement. Otherwise, he would have known to be precise on a topic like this one,” said economics professor Donald Parsons.
In an interview with The Atlantic five years after he stepped down as president, Trachtenberg compared selling GW to selling vodka: “raising the price and upgrading the packaging to create the illusion of quality.”
The Atlantic also dubbed Trachtenberg “the high priest of runaway college inflation” and when the Washington Post wrote an article last winter about GW’s rich-kid, Gatsby-like reputation, Trachtenberg was quoted as saying, “The cost of excellence is expensive.”
Knapp responded to the Post story saying it was a “distorted characterization of our students.”
Trachtenberg said though he is several years out as GW’s president, he still keeps the school’s reputation in mind during interviews or when he makes statements.
Retired presidents must walk a fine line between speaking their minds and avoiding stepping on the toes of the current president, said Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors.
“Former presidents have the responsibility not to speak like an irresponsible fool, which in this case was not entirely honored,” Nelson said. “He also has an added responsibility of judgement that your average member doesn’t have because he’s still identified at the institution.”
Nelson, who has studied academic freedom policies, added that Knapp could also have condemned Trachtenberg’s remarks without fully infringing on his freedom as a professor.
Now, Trachtenberg holds an endowed professorship in public service. His name is on the University’s School of Public Policy and Public Administration and he comes to Foggy Bottom campus almost daily, using an office on the sixth floor in the media and public affairs building.
Trachtenberg has also helped bring in donations to the University during Knapp’s tenure, using connections he built during his time as president.
Knapp’s response pointed out that Trachtenberg has freedom as a professor to express his opinion – an important aspect of tenure. He declined to comment on whether GW has a problem with sexual assault or address the impact of Trachtenberg’s comments.
“I have never made a public comment about an expression of opinion by any member of the University’s faculty and I believe that by doing so in this case it’d set a very problematic precedent,” Knapp said in an email to a professor that was obtained by The Hatchet.
Jacqueline Thomsen contributed reporting.
This article appeared in the September 2, 2014 issue of the Hatchet.