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Until George Washington University appointed him its 15th president, Steven Joel Trachtenberg in 51 years of life had had only one nickname.
During a Brighton Beach boyhood, during undergraduate semesters at Columbia and law school years at Yale, during striving days and nights around Capitol Hill and Cambridge, Trachtenberg’s buddies called him “Track”—as in sidetrack, backtrack, track record, fast track, tracking like it was on rails.
But at GW, which recruited Trachtenberg in 1988 on the basis of his preceding and stellar record at the helm of the University of Hartford—where he made a name for himself by making a name for that theretofore lackluster institution—some Foggy Bottom wag dubbed the new chief executive “Tractor Butt.”
And ever since, “Tractor Butt” it has been; the tag would resonate more harshly except that it is difficult to call someone “Tractor Butt” without conveying a sort of affection.
Still, another man might be stung. Another man might sting back. But Trachtenberg—who, after all, keeps farmer’s hours—is geared more to the long haul than to the sprint and, being built wide and close to the ground and therefore equipped with a center of gravity that would inspire envy in a sidecar racer, can hardly protest the sobriquet’s accuracy. He has taken the slagging in the same brisk good humor with which he has moved through 25 years of academic administration.
At GW, at Hartford, at Boston University, the lawyer-turned-educationist has made a generally smiling and successful mark in a realm whose most accurate axiom is the one that posits that the infighting is so vicious because the stakes are so small.
In six years of tireless and ebullient promotion, Trachtenberg has raised both GW’s profile and its bank account, to say nothing of its tuition and its average undergraduate’s SAT scores. But in the process he may have hoisted himself with a petard of his own manufacture; one professor described the president’s constant iteration of GW’s incipient greatness as the equivalent of “dancing in the end zone without having scored a touchdown.”
Critics claim that, on campus or off, Trachtenberg emulates his nicknamesake’s capacity to plow over obstacles and opponents, that he romps the university’s urban setting like a Brahma bull, that he is relentless, that he is single-minded, a master of the end-run, the stiff-arm, the back-stab. He is using GW as a rung on the Trachtenberg career ladder, no, he is trying to turn everything south of Pennsylvania Avenue and west of the White House into Trachtenberg World, no, he wants the planet to be Trachtenberg World.
But to gripe that a university president’s agenda is the advancing of his institution’s hegemony is like complaining that a man is a mammal. It’s his job. And universities historically have prickly relationships with neighbors; in medieval Europe, swordplay was a regular feature of interactions between students and townspeople in Oxford, Paris, Bologna, Sienna.
As the campus magnate, Trachtenberg is a lodestar for the lunatic fringe—he has fairly heavy security and limited access to his office, thanks to some loon’s deliveries of pin-filled dolls—and all manner of hectoring comment, often without the slightest relation to reality. Like bedizened Mexican peasants speculating on the fate of Emiliano Zapata, students spin webs of splendorous invention:
No sooner had Trachtenberg moved to town than his sister got a plum no-show job with the university. (Trachtenberg is an only child.)
Trachtenberg squandered $4 million-plus in GW cash that should have gone for library books and computers on the glittery new “J Street” food court on the main floor of the Marvin Center. (The money, $4.6 million actually, was put up by catering contractor ServiceMaster Management Services Inc., which anticipates an eventual profit on the investment.)
Trachtenberg hates students and wants nothing to do with them. (Several times a year, Trachtenberg spends the night at a university residence hall to stay in touch with students. Alerted during the Jewish High Holy Days of 1993 to the plight of a sederless freshman, he invited the boy to break matzo chez T. Last month, when 40 students missed the well-publicized deadline for filing financial aid paperwork, imperiling their registrations and residencies, he figured out how GW could dip into endowment money for low-interest loans that, with time and a refilling of the coffers, may evolve into grants in aid.)
In many ways, the Age of Trachtenberg has been a semigolden one for GW.
Under Coach Michael Jarvis, a Trachtenberg hire, the university’s basketball team has made it to the NCAA Final Four; what may be less well known is that Jarvis’ contract stipulates bonuses if players graduate within five years of starting at GW.
The university has seen its endowment swell to $300 million, its graduate schools’ reputations rise, the attraction among smart high-schoolers of its undergraduate programs increase. Today, GW boasts 5,000 undergrad enrollees, 12,000 graduate and professional students, and a faculty of 1,200-plus, the majority holding Ph.D.s.
Call it smoke and mirrors or call it the ministrations of that man behind the curtain, but in setting a hundred flower beds to bloom and erecting dozens of stylized busts of the founding father from whom GW takes its name, Trachtenberg has lent a corporeality to an urban campus where it can be difficult to see where the school stops and the world starts.
Trachtenberg’s forays have not come without expense, however. Neighborhood skeptics see the Washington busts as boundary stones of an empire endlessly invading. Trachtenberg’s effort to channel a $50-million federal allocation to GW’s aging medical center foundered. He is likely to prevail in a bid to house prestigious public-broadcasting operation WETA on campus, but at the cost of having his honor challenged because his wife is a vice president of the station.
For his part, Trachtenberg is having a big boss time. Around town and around the nation, he hobs with the nobs. He makes $260,000 a year and another $27,500 in benefits, earning him 17th place on a recent Chronicle of Higher Education list of the best-paid university presidents in the U.S. He drives a smooth black Lincoln. He, his wife, and younger son Ben—Adam is away at college—inhabit a handsome GW-owned villa in Kalorama, where the university chief entertains enthusiastically and often in public rooms decorated with scores of vintage photographs, many on New York City themes, that Brooklynites Francine and Steven Trachtenberg have collected over the years. The dominant images are by D.C. artist Gillian Brown, whose 20-piece photo grid Blackbird With Children fills a great patch of one wall, and August Sander, whose contribution is one of his German workers posing rigid and bullnecked over the fireplace. Another engaging touch is a glass-topped case filled with scores of cigar-cutters; Trachtenberg burns four or five stogies a week, down from a more serious habit that ran afoul of the doctors and the times. The family’s private rooms are on the mansarded third floor, once home to previous owners’ servants; in a telling design touch, the covers of the president’s two latest books hang in frames in the tiny powder room off the basement entry foyer.
Trachtenberg probably is not as big a shot as he someday will be, but neither does he kid himself about the ephemerality of his good fortune. A few weeks ago, he and his wife held a reception at their home for the parents of 10th graders at Sidwell Friends School. The host could claim a unique bit of common ground with the father of one of Ben Trachtenberg’s classmates. “I was talking with President Clinton,” Trachtenberg said. “I told him he and I have the same arrangement; we each get to stay in the house as long as they let us.”
When America acknowledges leaders of universities and colleges, it does so with flourishes and ruffles, sometimes making college presidents into heroes, sometimes making heroes into college presidents.
And often enough, having mythologized a campus leader for soaring accomplishments, America likes nothing better than to hold a torch to his waxen wings and send him plunging. Latter-day presidential descents (last month’s inglorious departure of Leroy Keith from Morehouse College amid allegations of impropriety in his compensation and living expenses; Donald Kennedy’s 1992 exit from office at Stanford University following a federal research funding scandal; Richard Berendzen’s bizarre and tawdry demise at American University in 1990 thanks to an obsessive habit of making lewd anonymous phone calls) differ little from their historical precedents.
But America has put more college presidents on pillars than in pillories. In the 19th century, titans of education, some of whom had scrabbled like robber barons to build the fiefs that earned them fame, were ossified by public ardor into obelisks of righteousness, monuments of morality. And in the 20th century, college presidencies, while growing drastically more brief, also have stood twice as way stations on the route to significantly higher office—for worse and for better.
Woodrow Wilson’s 1902-10 tenure as Prince ton president, which preceded his election as New Jersey’s governor, signaled the massive ambition and hubris the didactic Democrat would bring to the White House. The Princeton presidency also presaged the pattern of Wilson’s demise. Midway through it, he suffered a neurological event, perhaps a stroke like the one that had punctuated his years in the 1890s as a Princeton professor and another that would cripple his final years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. In battles to establish a preceptorial system of instruction and a reorganization of Princeton along the lines of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Wilson fought with faculty and deans as savagely as he later would fight with Congress over the League of Nations.
Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed the hero part first. Having won the European edition of World War II as Supreme Allied Commander, he accepted the presidency of Columbia University in 1948, thinking he was sidling into a cakewalk of semiretirement. Within two years, Eisenhower had quit, deeply embittered and not sounding at all like the grinning warrior about to serve two belovedly anodyne terms.
Accustomed to giving orders and seeing them obeyed, Ike was a neophyte at the persuasive arts required of a college president. He griped about having to sortie against a “wall of deans” in trying to work with the faculty, whose meetings he described as “a special hell.”
Trachtenberg is a president of a different stripe. He may share certain traits with Wilson and Eisenhower and many other university heads, but he also differs significantly.
Like Wilson at Princeton, Trachtenberg at GW already has one presidency on his résumé. Wilson had run Bryn Mawr; Trachtenberg, the University of Hartford. Both men trained as lawyers and pursued graduate degrees; neither obtained a doctorate except by honoris causa. Wilson’s love for language and his intense devotion to speaking and writing has an echo in Trachtenberg’s frequent speechifying and bylines (of the latter’s 25-page curriculum vitae, 15 pages are filled with publication references; in July, the American Council on Education collected selected Trachtenberg speeches and articles in the hardbound volume Speaking His Mind: Five Years of Commentaries on Higher Education).
Trachtenberg clearly is as political a fellow as Wilson was. Vide his canny distribution of honorary degrees at GW. The university has tapped influential local politicians (the late John Wilson), high-profile cabinet members and generals (Louis Sullivan, Colin Powell), an actual president (Ronald Reagan), a first lady (Hillary Rodham Clinton). Trachtenberg is a skilled worker of crowds, deliverer of testimony, orchestrator of photo opportunities. This autumn’s GW “course” featuring Clinton and her predecessors Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, and Rosalynn Carter may tend toward the soft side of the educational menu, but its return on investment, coveragewise, has been excellent. Ditto the utility of persuading CNN to stage remote broadcasts of the talking headbangers from Crossfire and Capital Gang at the Marvin Center theater as school was starting in September.
It will not do to overdraw the similarities, however.
Wilson presided over an institution where he had been a professor and an undergraduate, and which, for this neurasthenic son of a Princeton man, bore heavy mental baggage. In a posthumous psychological study, Sigmund Freud theorized that Wilson’s Oedipal complex regarding his minister father pushed him to take the university reins as a means of satisfying his superego, which “demanded major statesmanship in excelsis: the presidency of the United States, the presidency of the World, and the presidency of Heaven.”
Trachtenberg, the son of an immigrant Ukrainian Jew who sold life insurance, trails an impressive skein of Ivy-draped degrees and clearly revels in his achievements, but is more concerned with imposing a quality-control system on the GW education than ascending to sit at the right hand of God the Father or anybody else’s old man. Though he has taught for many years, it has always been as an atypical faculty member—some would say a front-office fifth columnist—moving into instruction from a position in administration.
Like Eisenhower, Trachtenberg moves through his domain with élan, and like Ike he is quick with a grin, popular with his staff—and able with a burst of ursine gruffness to set them hopping like fleas. However, as might be expected of a Brooklyn Jew compared with a Kansas Mennonite, Trachtenberg is no Eisenhower, and vice versa.
In contrast to Trachtenberg’s stuttering but driven journey through school, which included a momentary dalliance with athletics (he quit wrestling after his first full-face encounter with an opponent’s armpit), Ike went to West Point to grab some free college and run in Army’s football backfield—until his knee gave out and he was reduced to cheerleading. The Army became his life, and the Columbia presidency a fluke piece of war booty (when queried about the job, he urged recruiters to hire his brother Milton, an actual educator).
Trachtenberg, in contrast, made dean in his early 30s and, although he still considers himself at heart a lawyer, has hewed to an ascending route in academic administration. His first GW contract called for six years, and last spring he and the university came to terms on another six. He is GW’s man to the bone, 24-7-365, as he was Hartford’s, and before that, Boston’s.
Though they differed in many aspects, Wilson and Eisenhower did share a characteristic that persists among university and college presidents. They were white-guy Protestants in a field where it remains the rule that a leader display the well-known Northern European tanning gene, a nose with which, in Tom Wolfe’s phrase, “you could shave roast beef,” and, for a first name, a last name, preferably of several syllables and familiar to devotees of The Official Preppy Handbook. In the collective imagination, the university president is a variation on Ronald Coleman in TV’s The Halls of Ivy, with a touch of John Vernon as Dean Wormer in National Lampoon’s Animal House and a squidge of Garry Trudeau’s caricature of Kingman Brewster in Doonesbury. In such company, a Brooklyn kid who grew up on the Torah is a member of a minuscule minority. Only campus chiefs baptized in Eastern Orthodox churches rank lower on the scale of presidential religious affiliation, and they hardly show up at all.
But if Trachtenberg is something completely different, perhaps completely different was on the shopping list. Like the body politic, the body academic often selects leaders as much out of reaction to the old guy as out of desire to embrace the new guy.
The epic (1927-1959) reign at GW of autocratic President Cloyd Heck Marvin begat the decentralizing decades presided over by Lloyd H. Elliott, who arrived in 1965 against the wishes of the faculty, distinguishing himself not as a personality but as a manager and fund-raiser.
A man of the shy reserve that often is interpreted as chilly aloofness, Elliott built the buildings and ran the machinery. With his doctorate in education, with his car and driver, with his dark suits and his grave demeanor, he was of the old, in loco parentis school of schoolery, and during the latter ’60s, when GW was Radical Demo World Headquarters for all the boys and girls bent on smashing the state and listening to Joe Cocker and Leon Russell at Lisner for free, man, did not go with the flow. He hunkered in the bunker, and even after the ’60s had blown past he handled crises at arm’s length. As the ’70s oozed into the ’80s, Elliott’s presence shrank even further. In the last years of his presidency, GW’s main claim to fame was its surgeons’ success in saving the life of Ronald Reagan, hauled to the medical center’s emergency room after John Hinckley plugged him in March 1981.
Meanwhile, neighboring universities Georgetown and American, which in Elliott’s early days had occupied the same general shelf on the metropolitan area’s educational esteem warehouse as GW, began to climb—GU on the shoulders of John Thompson and his hoop-twanging hard-court wizards, AU on the posturing of astronomy-professor-turned-president Richard Berendzen.
GW’s star had not grown more dim, nor its standards declined—but the other universities’ lenses were being polished and focused and rotated more often. The trustees wanted a lighthouse keeper who could pierce the fog, so they hired a headhunter who brought them the head of Steven Joel Trachtenberg.
F. Scott Fitzgerald may have been correct about most American lives when he said they lack second acts, but Trachtenberg’s life has been a steady rolling scenario of new scenes.
He was born in December 1937 in Brooklyn to Oscar and Shoshana Trachtenberg, who hailed from different shtetls outside Odessa but met in New York City, married, and moved into a ground-floor apartment on the ocean in Brighton Beach. Later, they had places in Sheepshead Bay. The former was heavily Jewish, the latter a melting-pot stew whose ingredients also included Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, African-Americans.
Trachtenberg remembers having friends in every group while he was attending P.S. 254. While in high school, he became close with a black youth, Robert Maynard, who would rise to prominence as a Washington Post reporter and editor/publisher of the Oakland Tribune. The two met as promising NYC public-school students convened by the system for a seminar at school board headquarters downtown. The session ended late in the morning; instead of returning to class, the boys ditched in favor of a ramble through Manhattan, cementing a friendship that lasted until Maynard’s death in 1993.
Unusually for the era, the Trachtenberg family also developed many ties to the city’s black bourgeoisie through his father’s work as an assistant manager with Metropolitan Life Insurance. When New York state regulators banned discriminatory practices that had imposed a color line on life insurance sales, Oscar Trachtenberg was alert to the possibility of doing well by doing good. He pitched a black physician on a policy. The doctor bought, was pleased, and told his friends. All over town, the doors of New York’s black middle class opened to the man from Met Life. Oscar Trachtenberg, who encouraged Met Life to hire black agents, eventually would become the only white member of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Real Estate Board.
Life insurance is a social business; selling in clients’ homes, agents are invited back without their actuarial tables, and naturally want to reciprocate. In 1952, the Trachtenbergs bought a row house on Corbin Place in Manhattan Beach, and set about evening the entertainment score. Given the era and the environment, the pleasure was not unalloyed. When inviting friends of color, Shoshana Trachtenberg alerted the nervous Nellies in the neighborhood to the social nature of the call, lest rumors of blockbusting flower.
“Whenever my folks had a dinner party, I would be summoned to make an appearance. The guests would have come from all over Brooklyn and New York City—educated, cultured people with fine careers and homes in the Hamptons,” Trachtenberg said. “I had a sense that this was a rare and very special opportunity, and one that was slightly secretive. They were in our home, we were in their homes.”
These experiences left him “totally comfortable” among African-Americans, according to Trachtenberg. “I have no guilt or anxiety or sense of strangeness toward them, although that was not always so,” he said, illustrating his self-deprecation, as he often does, with a story:
(Later, at age 18, a freshman at Columbia University, he accompanied his dad to a Christmas party hosted by the Bed-Stuy Real Estate Board. Oscar Trachtenberg swam into the hand-shaking and back-slapping and left his son to nurse a Scotch and soda. To Steve, his own seemed to be the lone pale face in the room until he spotted a pretty blond woman. He asked her to dance; once out on the floor, he opened his mouth and inserted both feet.
“I said something about being glad to meet her. “I’m glad to meet you,’ she said. “No, I mean I’m really glad to meet you,’ I said. “I was feeling like the only white person here.’ She looked at me and smiled and said, “Well, you still are.’ That experience taught me about the infinite variety of human alternatives.”)
He did well in public school, and by graduation from James Madison High in 1955 he had become the president of the student body and editor of the student paper. “I had the conventional high-school anxieties about zits and calculus and girls, but in retrospect it was fairly normal,” he said.
In one way he was not; he was an only child in a society that prizes multiple offspring. Trachtenberg dismisses the notion as pop psychologizing, but there is strong evidence that, despite the often malign conclusions reached about only children as manipulative, selfish, and dependent (Elizabeth Wurtzel), even monstrous (Lee Harvey Oswald, Josef Stalin), onlies tend toward gregariousness or sufficient appearance of such (Franklin D. Roosevelt), toward ambition (Frank Sinatra), toward professional focus (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). In sum, toward success.
Swimming in adultness, only children are encouraged to see all things adults do as being possible for them to do, notes Ellie McGrath in her book, My One and Only: The Special Experience of the Only Child. In many ways, the profile that McGrath sketches—enthusiastically included in the household’s adult life…early to develop verbal and social skills…quick to cultivate behaviors attractive to older folks…encouraged to expect the best of people…inclined to take the calculated risk…evincing the energy and ambition of the oldest child without the anxieties and jealousies to which senior siblings are prone—fits Trachtenberg to a T. Even his reluctant self-analysis connects the dots of McGrath’s portrait:
“I am a prudent risk-taker—neither completely cavalier nor risk-averse. I am not invulnerable to external judgment, but I have the internal strength to take criticism and keep going if I earnestly believe that my path is sound. You do not want to be so certain of your own compass that you allow it to take you off a cliff, but you cannot change course each time someone shouts at you.”
Trachtenberg’s onliness did affect his choice of college. “My mother leaned on me not to leave the city,” he said. “She thought Philadelphia was too far away because it was in another state.”
Shoshana and Steven made a deal: he would live in a Columbia dormitory and visit home regularly to do his laundry and get a nice meal. Declaring himself a pre-law major in government and history, he joined Zeta Beta Tau fraternity. The semesters breezed past, punctuated by summers spent as a waiter and busboy at resort hotels in New Jersey and the Catskills. During the school year, he sorted Christmas mail at post offices in Brooklyn and Manhattan, sometimes toiling two shifts in a row—eight hours on, half an hour off, eight hours on—in his words, “the kind of thing for which a 19- or 20-year-old has the stamina. It was instructional; jobs like that teach you that there is nothing terrible about working hard.”
In 1958-59, he served as the secretary of the student governing board, and was thinking about a government career. That dictated a decision: law school or a master’s degree in the then-fledgling field of public administration? His adviser pushed the law because it would provide a fallback position that the untested M.P.A. might not.
He enrolled at Yale Law, taking courses in the graduate school of political science as well; in that guildsmanly boot camp, one of his closest friends was an intense fellow name of Alan Dershowitz.
Trachtenberg “never ceases to amaze me,” said Dershowitz, who has gained fame as a defense attorney, civil libertarian, professor at Harvard Law School, and the guy Ron Silver played in Reversal of Fortune. “He is equally at home in the streets of Brooklyn and in the chambers of the high and mighty and powerful in Washington. And he is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
Another member of the Yale Law class of ’62, James Friedman, heads Dartmouth University, noted Dershowitz. “If you had asked anyone in our class back then who would be a university president, nobody would have imagined it would be Jim Friedman, who was shy and studious. But everybody would have imagined Steve Trachtenberg as the president of a university,” said Dershowitz, adding that when the top chair at Harvard was vacant a few years ago, he recommended his pal for the job.
Dershowitz attributes Trachtenberg’s progress through academia to “infinite patience” and his skill as a perspective-taker. “Steve has the ability to see through the eyes of others, and he is good at both the long term and the short term. I mean, he is a guy who can even get along with John Silber!” the attorney exclaimed. “I sometimes look at the people with whom he is friendly and I wonder, how can it be possible for him to be my friend and their friend, too?”
Upon graduating from Yale in 1962, Trachtenberg was hired by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). He worked in the general counsel office in New York, where he mostly handled procurement contracts. The first year, he enjoyed himself, but Year 2 was a rerun of Year 1, with every indication that Year 3 would replicate Year 2.
Scanning the long and grinding road for exit ramps, he applied to Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government for that deferred M.P.A., meanwhile stumbling onto an opening for a legislative assistant on the staff of Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.).
He came to Washington in 1965, trading AEC contract review for the livelier life of the Hill rat. He answered mail and wrote speeches and carpentered legislation. Immersed in the assembly of the Elementary and Secondary Education Acts and the Higher Education Act, in whose 1965 passage Brademas played a lead role, Trachtenberg became interested in education as a specialty.
Two years into his Hill stint, the Kennedy School beckoned, offering to count his law school work as a year’s worth of M.P.A. study. He consulted with Brademas; if you don’t go to Harvard now, the rep said, you’ll never go.
Trachtenberg went, completed his master’s, and enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, concentrating on educational policy. He was at the cusp of 30, dating the daughter of Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Julius Stratten, and about to settle into the academician’s cycle.
Harold Howe had other ideas. Newly named U.S. commissioner of education, Howe needed an assistant; he got Trachtenberg’s name from Brademas.
Again the horns of a dilemma, again the consultation of a mentor, in this case Stratten. Stay at Harvard, the MIT chief said; if you don’t get the degree now, you’ll never get it.
Howe disagreed. “He told me, “You’ve earned degrees at Columbia and Yale and Harvard. You’ve got to stop studying life and start living it,’ ” Trachtenberg said.”
This time, his bent for the calculated risk prevailed. He punted his Ph.D. program and returned to D.C., spending 30 months writing legislation and speeches, and trouble-shooting. “I had as much clout as, or more, than the commissioner himself,” said Trachtenberg. “The period 1966-68 had a tremendous impact on the federal role in education. Even with the issues of race and the war in Vietnam, there was a sense of promise, with programs like the Job Corps and so forth, that we could ameliorate or perhaps prevail over the problems of the day.
“It may have been innocent to think that, but there is virtue in innocence, which inspires us to be better, to have ambitions, to reach out in ways that sophistication discourages.”
Well before November 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected and the Republicans swarmed the bureaucracy, the young political appointee could see the pink slip peeking out of his in-box.
But the son of Oscar Trachtenberg did not lack an eye for the main chance. He learned of an English-Speaking Union grant good for a year of informal study at colleges around the U.K. as a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellow. He applied and was selected, but also wanted something to come home to.
A co-worker was going to Boston University as a dean; he said that if Trachtenberg could make it to Beantown the next January, there would be an associate deanship in liberal arts waiting for him. Trachtenberg could.
“I was curious,” he said. “It made sense to try it for a year or two, so I played that card.”
His entry into academic administration began with a visit from an irate art instructor. A torn window-shade was rendering the classroom too bright for a slide show. What was Dean Trachtenberg, the formerly major Washington dude, going to do about it?
“I called maintenance and got them to fix the damned shade. It was a humbling moment, and a harbinger,” he said. “I eventually spent eight years at B.U. in a variety of roles, doing what needed to be done.”
(His first week at B.U. also brought him Francine Zorn, a graduate of Brooklyn’sErasmus Hall High pursuing a master’s in art history and working in that department as a secretary. “She said later that she had heard there was a new associate dean who was young, single, Jewish, and cute, and she decided I was worth a look,” Trachtenberg said. “She says as soon as she saw me she knew what she was doing, but it took me a little longer.” They were wed in Israel in 1971 amid a crowd of relatives and friends. The best man was Alan Dershowitz.)
Trachtenberg developed a reputation for nondeanlike demeanor and appearance. He wore a beard, jeans, and turtlenecks, sometimes accessorized with a full-length fawn-colored, silk-lined coat of Spanish leather. One student journalist called him “the people’s dean”; a more skeptical writer tagged him as “a wolf in freak’s clothing.”
Appropriately for a Scotch drinker, Trachtenberg appeared in one of Dewar’s’ long- running “Do-ers” ads. Having bet a friend that the ads’ subjects were real people, he had queried the company for confirmation. Dewar’s won the wager for him, and asked him to provide details on his professional background and preferences in hooch. The result made Trachtenberg, if not a household face, then at least a dean who could boast of having appeared on the back cover of Playboy.
Within four years, he had served as B.U. associate dean of liberal arts, executive director of the Soviet and Eastern European Studies program, dean of university affairs, associate professor of political science, and assistant to John Silber, who became B.U. president in 1971 and remains in that job. In 1973, Silber appointed Trachtenberg acting dean of arts and sciences—in those days, an instant ticket to the status of bootlicking toady, administration running dog, and fascist satrap. This was particularly true at B.U., where Silber, an arch-conservative academic well ahead of the arch-conservative academic power curve, relished his role as a one-armed lightning rod for invective, demonstrations, and bomb threats. Trachtenberg often was at the tip of the rod. But he kept his wit, which he displayed regularly in a column for the student paper. One essay began:
“The other day, a young man, whom to the best of my knowledge I had never previously met, walked up to me on Bay State Road and, without provocation of any sort on my part, called me an “asshole.’ After a split second of shock at the uninvited abuse, I thought to question his proctological credentials, but he was gone. An honest man? A rear admiral? A hit and run anus scholar in search of another specimen perhaps. More likely someone making a form of minipolitical statement….”
He learned how to absorb, how to deflect, how to delegate, how to hire, to fire, to listen. He came to appreciate the mantle of office, which besides attracting curses lent gravitas in an arena where a little mileage is good and a lot of mileage is better. He was the dean.
“It was astounding. They would come in and talk,” he said. “I would listen and answer. And on reflection, the things I told them usually made sense. The word must have gone out that Trachtenberg was not a fool, because they kept coming.”
Nonetheless, Trachtenberg had the urge for going; he interviewed for a couple of college presidencies for which he did not make the final cuts, and when the University of Hartford called, he was ready to say yes.
The Hartford task was to weld into a unified regional institution a local university cobbled together from once-independent entities. A few of the schools had their own boards of trustees ranking not quite beneath the university’s own board of regents—perhaps a valid structure for the University of California, but not for a 5,000-student institution of mostly commuting enrollees. Trachtenberg saw his job as divining an image and selling that image, and he began to divine and sell with a vengeance.
“The people at Hartford believed that the institution had been founded in 1956, the year these several programs were unified under a single board of regents and identified as the University of Hartford,” he said. “I explained that the university actually had begun in 1821, because that was the date of the founding of the art school, and in academia seniority is important. It makes all the difference in where a dean or president marches in an academic procession, in which representatives march in the order of their schools’ foundings, with the oldest going first.”
Trachtenberg converted Hartford to his we’re-all-in-it-together outlook by exercising the first law of administration: When dealing with a position you do not want, you do not fill it. The subsidiary boards gradually atrophied, and the Hartford regents’ authority blossomed.
His 11 years at Hartford were “a terrific time,” he said. “Those were building years; I built up the endowment, the faculty, the infrastructure, the student quality. We built a residential complex for which Cesar Pelli was the architect. U.S. News & World Report recognized the institution as one of quality in its annual assessment of American colleges and universities.”
Trachtenberg at Hartford “was absolutely a breath of fresh air, of energy, of optimism,” said José Calhoun, who chaired the regents’ board that hired him. “He was very much what the school needed, which was to consolidate and to build.”
Trachtenberg liked his work, but when a recruiter waved the GW job, his dorsal hairs rose. “I had a curiosity about running a larger and more complex institution,” he said.
Neither Hartford the institution nor Hartford the town wanted to see him leave. “The response was touching,” Trachtenberg said. “A delegation from the regents came and asked me to reconsider. The policeman on the beat, the carwash guy—they were urging me to stay.”
And he was tempted. “I was 49 or 50, and if I had been 56 I might have stayed,” he said. “But I felt that it was too soon in my life to be completely defined, to say that who I am is what I will be. I was wary about returning to Washington for the third time in my career, but I also felt I had to try it, to test myself.”
Willingness to be tested is a key gauge of success for a college president, who can expect little to remain constant during his tenure but change. Fortunately, a burgeoning library addresses the topic. Along with the who, what, where, when, and why, there is much writing on the how of presiding over a university, as well as how to pick a president (Trachtenberg co-edited one such volume, The Art of Hiring at America’s Colleges and Universities).
Peter Flawn’s 1990 A Primer for University Presidents: Managing the Modern University is the guide Ambrose Bierce might have written on the topic. The xerically droll Flawn, who headed the University of Texas at both Austin and San Antonio, suggests that presidents who need a plane not bother the board of trustees, but instead get the alumni to buy and maintain a fully instrumented and pressurized jet with two engines and two pilots. He also offers more earthbound advice: “Know the name of the football coach….Be benign at all times….You cannot be a good fellow with students….Nothing is off therecord….Faculty morale is always at an all-time low….Have a working office in the house….The only acceptable behavior for an Anglo-Saxon president is to accept personal and institutional guilt for historic injustices.” In a witty and knowing review of Primer for a trade journal, Trachtenberg hailed its “mordant wit” and compared Flawn’s prose to that of Swift and Orwell.
The university presidency has even been deemed worthy of continuing statistical analysis, like the human hearts of the Framingham study. One such data collection is sliced and diced quadrennially by the American Council on Education. Another is conducted by a team that includes Harvard-based sociologist David Riesman, who with Judith McLaughlin co-authored Choosing a College President. According to Riesman, the job mutates like a virus.
“What we are seeing is relatively short terms for presidents—four to six years. That change began with the student protests of the ’60s, with the rise of the student as consumer, with the rise of faculty power—and with the lack of authority by all authority,” said Riesman, who wrote the landmark study of anomie, Lonely Crowd. “That is the main problem of our society and of the university president.”
When asked if he had ever been a college president, Riesman laughed.
“I know too much. It is a hazardous position,” he said. “When I meet with college and university presidents, I encourage them to maintain the interests they had before taking the job and, long before any crises, to reflect on what they would like to be doing after their presidencies.”
Riesman likened the university presidency to the office of mayor in a big city. “The city can have a big accident occur, or the breakdown of the sewer system; the campus can have a rape or a suicide or any number of events,” Riesman explained.
Municipal-grade pressures are among the factors leading to the hiring of nonacademics like Trachtenberg, Riesman said. “Quite a few vice presidents, provosts, and deans see the position for what it is and they do not want it,” he explained. “This surprises faculty members and students, who tend to think that it is the greatest job. You would be astonished at how few candidates there are for the eminent places.”
In addition, trustees and administrations often crave LaGuardian panache. “They are looking for that worldly person to serve as a negotiator, as a fund-raiser—a person who is at home outside the academic world,” Riesman said. Legal training is less important in a president than might appear, although attorneys’ quick-change artistry is appreciated.
“A lawyer is accustomed to thinking in terms of handling cases and moving quickly from one arena to another,” he said. “Members of law school faculties teach torts one year and federal civil procedures the next. In the English department, professors are not moving from Milton to Joyce every semester.”
For Riesman, it bodes well for a university boss if, like Trachtenberg, he can keep quotidian concerns from gaining a hammerlock. He hailed the GW chief’s frequent appearances in print as an indication that he is doing the job and not vice versa.
“Day-to-day pressures do not seem to fully preoccupy him,” Riesman said. “His ability to write an article or review that has lots of energy and liveliness and enthusiasm indicates that while he is fully occupied with George Washington University, he has leeway beyond it, and that is important.”
Trachtenberg arrived in D.C. in August 1988 to see if he would repeat his Hartford glory days or live the Chinese curse about interesting times. For a time, the latter aspect prevailed.
For example, GW’s acquisition of a new president’s residence drew fire from budget-minded critics. The house, a splendid brick structure at 2241 Bancroft Pl. NW, has a courtyard, an airy second-floor terrace opening beneath a canopy, and a formal living room at once cavernous and welcoming. The dwelling’s size and cost—$1.9 million—signaled that GW was under new management. President Elliott had occupied a smaller house nearby at 2330 Tracy Pl. NW, which GW purchased in the simmer of the ’60s when many universities moved their presidents into houses far enough from the quadrangle to discourage visits by student marchers. The $1.45-million sale price of that property did not attract as much as attention as the tab for the new house.
That GW could afford the Bancroft Place place illustrated Elliott’s conservative husbandry of resources. But Trachtenberg’s hiring was also a reaction to that conservatism. The trustees fervently wanted to move the university out from under the long shadows being cast by Georgetown and American, and if it took a hefty mortgage and a steady diet of cocktail parties, so be it.
GW had some of the symptoms that had ailed Hartford. For one thing, its rich history had faded in memory. Although “Columbian College” was organized in 1821 by a Baptist minister, Luther Rice, he stipulated that creed be no bar to admission or employment. The first campus was a 46-acre tract bounded by what are now 14th and 15th Streets NW, Florida Avenue, and Columbia Road. In the 1820s, Columbian opened a medical school at 10th and E Streets NW, but until the Civil War had ended, the institution struggled to stay afloat. During Reconstruction, the college sold its campus, relocating to the financial district on H between 13th and 15th. Demand for advanced degrees led to a graduate school. In 1873, Columbian College became Columbian University, and in 1904 the school acquired its current name. Edwardian-era financial reverses nearly bankrupted GW in the years preceding World War I, but President Charles H. Stockton pulled the chestnuts from the fiscal fire, in the process moving the university to Foggy Bottom and setting the stage for Marvin’s 32-year run and Elliott’s 23 years.
When Steven Trachtenberg arrived, GW was hardly exploiting to the fullest its proximity to the capital’s welter of government, lobbying, and media activities. The school squatted between the White House and the State Department like a guest at a wedding reception unwrapping a day-old tuna sandwich. The school was stale, ready for a jolt of pepper sauce, and Trachtenberg had a case of McIlhenny’s.
Not everyone on campus felt the need for a jalapeño enema, according to a couple of GW professors lunching at the J Street glitzeteria. They readily offered their comments on Trachtenberg, on GW, and on the combination thereof; just don’t use our real names, said Professor Blue and Professor Buff, who already were teaching at GW before Elliott arrived.
“Elliott was a builder,” said Professor Blue. “He decentralized the administration. He saw that function as managerial, like the secretary of the Army providing the logistics to support the troops. Elliott was also a gentleman, and the atmosphere was civil, but in times of trouble he tended to hunker. By the end of his term, the quality of the academic experience here was better than its reputation.”
Blue and Buff agreed that the university needed more effective agitprop, but said Trachtenberg has overdone it. “There is a feeling around the faculty that there is too much hype, too great an amount of attention being paid to the surface,” Blue said.
That was when Buff made his crack about Trachtenberg not waiting for the touchdown to dance in the end zone. “But I am sympathetic with a certain amount of hype,” he said. “We could have had a little salesmanship a lot earlier.”
The institutional memory of Marvin, who ran GW from his desk, is stirred by the intensity of Trachtenberg’s ambition, the profs said.
“Marvin personally decided who got raises and who was hired,” said Buff. “Trachtenberg wants to be in the Marvin mold; he wants to leave his personal stamp on everything. Any opportunity there is for publicity, he is out there on the edge. He tends not to have much respect for the faculty position, so there is a corresponding tension. He is always seeing how far he can push things.”
Blue nodded. “He thinks that the administration should have more say, and as a result there is a lot of distrust,” he said. “On the other hand, he is good on his feet. At the first faculty meeting he attended, he had to explain the steps he was taking to balance the budget. I found his reasons plausible, and although I may tend to overrate the importance of a sense of humor, humor is in short supply at a place like this.”
Buff granted that point, but said that Trachtenberg’s wit is the sole factor that keeps him from infuriating people. “He has an enormous ego,” the professor said. “If he didn’t have a sense of humor, he’d be John Silber.”
Both professors said Trachtenberg’s extemporaneity can be a drawback. “He sometimes gives in to the impulse to make a smart remark on a serious subject,” Blue said. “That remark may be funny in the moment, but it travels without humor, and it makes him sound like a mean smart-mouth. He also has a way of making jokes at someone’s expense.”
Trachtenberg has kept the undergraduate applications rolling in, but the professors expressed concern about his shift from the more modest tuition and lesser incidence of student aid that characterized the Elliott era.
“Trachtenberg raised tuition so it was parallel with Georgetown’s, but he also increased the amount of aid,” said Buff. Persistent deep discounts on undergraduate tuition shift the cost of funding the university to graduate school tuition, he explained, likening the situation to health care, where patients with insurance are charged more than bareback riders. “The plan is that, as GW’s reputation rises, we will cut back on the discounts, but I do not think that will happen,” he said. “If you do not hand out the scholarships the way we have been doing, you risk encountering price resistance.”
“He may be overdoing the tuition discount,” agreed Blue. “The theory is that as you gradually improve the quality of your students, the degree becomes worth more, and it may be true. No one can prove that there is a better way to do it, and Trachtenberg has the decision power.”
While rearranging management staff and redistributing deanships, Trachtenberg was revamping GW’s promotions to prospective students and donors, forging plans for a badly needed renovation of the medical center, and devising image-boosting gestures like a plan to bring WETA’s television and radio stations into a new communications building.
Although mired in the D.C. bureaucracy, the WETA proposal probably will fly, once GW’s lawyers, including zoning-meisters Wilkes Artis Hedrick & Lane, finish shaking the regulatory tree. But the medical center remains unrefurbished. The financial vehicle to which GW had attached its medical center hopes—a $50 million federal grant with $75 million in matching, university-raised funds—was torpedoed by opponents in the city government and in Congress.
GW’s medical center originated as a federal facility built during WWII on the basis of projections about returning GIs’ need for medical care. Those needs did not materialize, and GW acquired the hospital partly to expand training opportunities for its medical students. Now the center needs a $150- to $200-million make-over, a hefty but not impossible sum except in the American medical system, where an urban hospital eats fortunes in uncompensated care. At GW, that expense totals $30 million yearly, Trachtenberg said.
“If we had a rational medical scheme in this country, that $30 million would be income, and we could borrow against it, carry the debt, and rebuild the center,” he said. “Instead, we live in apprehension year to year, nervous about making a commitment to the physical plant. We can borrow some money and raise some from patrons andalumni, but there is no corporate community or foundation community here, no state government. Who has the deep pockets? The answer consistently is: the federal government.”
Until home rule, the feds regularly funded hospital construction and maintenance in D.C., he noted. “But with home rule, Congress cynically said, “Oh, D.C. can do that now.’ But the precedent exists,” the GW president said.
Soon after Trachtenberg arrived in August 1988, he started on the medical center case. He spoke to Mayor Marion Barry, who along with then-Del. Walter Fauntroy blessed his campaign for federal funding. Scouting the Hill, Trachtenberg found Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who had graduated from GW law school in 1952 and had demonstrated his concern for D.C. in long service on the Senate District Committee.
Trachtenberg approached Inouye, who liked the idea but wanted a second opinion. He sent the GW chief to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a powerful player in health matters. Hatch and his liberal alter ego Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) both backed the package, provided that GW contributed $100 million to balance against the $50-million federal outlay.
The House and Senate authorized the outlay, and in 1990 President George Bush signed it. However, an authorization vote is like getting the seller of a house to accept your offer; the real chore is getting the loan. While GW was angling for an appropriation, Barry came to grief, replaced by the markedly less-well-connected Sharon Pratt Dixon, and Fauntroy’s nonvoting but nonetheless significant slot went to Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped sink the funding plan. (Norton, who was at Yale at the same time as the GW president, and is said to have less than warm feelings for him, would not comment on him or GW for this story.)
“I made my rounds again, but as the likelihood of appropriation rose, so did the opposition,” said Trachtenberg, speculating that the resistance had its origins with rival health care providers. He reconfigured the arrangement, but the momentum had been lost, and the appropriation never materialized.
“The medical center’s need is as great as ever and I am as dogged as ever,” he said, noting that a Washington City Paper article chronicled his calendar of visits to congressional offices. “I am never ashamed to be caught at my work,” he said. “My purpose is to do everything I can to make George Washington University a better institution. That seems to me to be an honorable purpose, and one I am not easily discouraged about. I believe the city would be a better place if GW has a new hospital with which to provide health care to D.C. residents.”
The hospital-funding debacle, as well as the GW president’s conclusion that his school does not get sufficient credit for its contribution to the city and surrounding area, prompted a 64-page President’s Report in 1993. On its cover appeared the message: “GW is an economic power in Greater Washington. The sum total of its direct and indirect economic impacts during FY92-93 was a staggering $1.6 billion.”
Using data developed by GW’s Greater Washington Research Center, the broadside boasts that the university is the city’s largest private employer, among its biggest nongovernmental purchasers of goods and services, and, gosh darn it, a pretty big fiscal deal in a city that is perennially on the verge of destitution. In 1992-93, GW spent $442.6 million on stuff and services; 24,299 vendors received orders from GW, compared with 10,990 getting orders from the feds. The university generated $13.7 million in D.C. property, retail sales, hotel, parking, and personal income tax revenues.
In contrast to the image left by the medical center controversy, the report emphasized, GW is not an ingrown beast that exists separately from the city, planting its front hooves in Uncle Sam’s trough and shoving more deserving D.C. projects aside.
Another professor who did not want to be identified (and you thought tenure meant never having to say you’re sorry) voiced great satisfaction with Trachtenberg, for some of the very reasons that others have faulted him.
“He entertains lavishly. But when he gives parties, he makes sure members of the city at large are invited—students from black high schools, faculty, community activists. He holds these parties for the greater glory of the university; he wants luminaries around town to know about GW. He has instituted a lot of ceremonials, and I adore it,” the professor said. “If you would be loved, you have to be lovable, and you do that by having events around which people can wind their affection.”
Another change wrought by Trachtenberg has been an improvement in GW’s racial climate. Like other private schools in Washington, George Washington generally had a poor history of race relations—desegregating only when it became the law of the land; episodes of racist hooliganism by undergrads; scant effort to embrace the city’s African-American high-school students.
Now graduates of D.C. public schools can apply to GW at no fee, and there is a full scholarship program for the valedictorians of inner-city schools. Among Trachtenberg’s earliest rounds of visiting was a series of appearances at the city’s black churches to let congregants know his mind was right.
And no longer is GW overwhelmingly white. “There has been a substantial influx of black undergraduates,” the professor said. “Not only those who get scholarships, but run-of-the-mill D.C. kids. Walking around campus, you can see that we have 8 to 9 percent black students as opposed to 2 percent.”
For all his street savvy, Trachtenberg professes befuddlement at the friction between GW and the city it inhabits. “It is dissimilar to the relationship between the University of Hartford and the Connecticut legislature and the Hartford political community,” he said. “Obviously, there was some friction between the university and the locals when it came to the political agenda. But the basic attitude was that the university was a good thing that provided jobs and enlivened the city with recreational and cultural opportunities. Washington seems less focused on those benefits. The city government takes for granted that the universities have always been there and will always be there. The city seems less responsive to the idea of enhancing the universities, of making things happen.”
And the newspaper! “In Boston with the Globe, in Hartford with the Courant, even in New York City with the Times, the papers see themselves as critical observers of the universities, but also as boosters,” he said. “The Post appears to be more focused on its national and international responsibilities than its local responsibilities.”
For example, a recent edition of the Post‘s quarterly “Education Review” supplement did not include a single article by a D.C.-area scholar, he noted. “The writers were from Boston University and New York University and the like—no Georgetown, no Catholic, no Gallaudet or Howard or GW. If this were an affirmative action issue, it would not be acceptable.”
Neither does the city’s ruling daily deign to even take note of commencements, which get big play in the Boston and New York papers. “GW does a commencement with 20,000 people on the Ellipse, with a Cabinet member as a speaker, and we get three lines,” protested Trachtenberg. “I’m told that as a matter of policy the Post does not cover commencements; that is the same as your landlord telling you, “Oh, this is the usual lease—there’s no need for you to read it.’ ”
Lack of news coverage intertwines with government intransigence to tilt the municipal board against the universities, he maintained. “The positive role that GW and all the universities play in doing good for the city and its inhabitants, rich and poor, is downplayed,” Trachtenberg said. “There is constant criticism of what we do, and our own blind generosity has begotten a lack of knowledge about that generosity.”
He challenged the assumption that GW is straining at the shackles to gobble up Foggy Bottom. “No university in the city is as restricted as George Washington,” Trachtenberg said. “Universities traditionally have put up physical and metaphorical walls and gates to separate themselves from the community. They have been criticized for not reaching out, and when they do reach out their motives are suspect.”
Some people like Trachtenberg, but among those who don’t are a number who won’t be specific about exactly what bugs them. He is unctuous, they say. Arrogant. Trachtenberg has heard the complaints; invited to speculate if his Jewishness has something to do with it, he related an anecdote from his days of interviewing for the Hartford job. A member of the search committee took him aside and said Hartford was not ready for a Jewish president and that, as a result, he would vote against Trachtenberg’s candidacy.
“I replied that his opinion reflected an obsolete viewpoint that was perhaps slanderous to his community in 1977,” Trachtenberg said. “I liked him a lot. I found his candor breathtaking.”
When the vote came, it was unanimous for Trachtenberg’s hiring save one. “I asked that man a favor,” the GW president said. “I asked him to keep his eye on me and the university for a year and then report to me. At the end of that time he took me to lunch at his country club and explained that when we had last spoken he had made a bet with himself, and he handed me a large check made out to the university with his apologies.
“My sense is that a Jew becoming a university president is like John F. Kennedy becoming president of the U.S.,” he added, alluding to the nation’s first Roman Catholic president. “Once it happens it becomes a nonissue. Some people may be put off by it, some people may think it’s terrific. I also think that some of the attitude toward me may be more a matter of New York style versus D.C. style rather than my being Jewish. You know, Bernie Nussbaum. It’s true, when I walk into a room people do not say, “That is a university president.’ But if the average university president serves five or six years, and you have someone like me who has served as a university president for a total of 17 years, then you have to redefine the university president in terms of the 17-year man, I think.”
Trachtenberg seemed more hurt than irritated at the suggestion that he comes off arrogant. “I can sometimes be impatient, but if people think I am too enthusiastic now, they should have seen me when I was in my 20s,” he said.
“I have been a university president long enough to have had enough of my critics come to me and say that on reflection some decision I made was right,” he said, recalling the grumbling that initially greeted his installation of street clocks around the GW campus. “Students complained that the money should have been put elsewhere, but in the last couple of years the clocks have begun to appear in photographs in the paper and the yearbook. New graduates pose beneath them with their diplomas.
“I believe that a university campus is a developing work of art that has deep psychological messages for the people who work and live there. Like the bricks we are putting in with graduates’ names. In the last year, the only criticism we got about the program was from someone whose name was omitted. People come back to see “their’ bricks. People want to leave a mark.”
Having renewed his contract for another six years, Trachtenberg is pondering the proper length of a president’s term. “More than 12 years is too long, five is too short,” he said. “The trappings are fun: being called “Mr. President.’ The job fills you up and relieves you of the obligation of personal engagement.” He does not consider himself a model, but a point along an incremental shift that has taken place in higher education.
“James Fisher, who has written widely on the subject, advises college presidents to be distant and aloof, cool and mysterious,” he said. “I could not do that, it would be untrue to what I am.”
Instead, he sees himself as a guy with a job to do, one that requires him to be there and not there at the same time. “If you never see the president on campus, something is wrong, but if you always see the president on campus, something is also wrong,” he said. “It means that he is not at the Ford Foundation when they are handing out grants.”
Reviews on Trachtenberg from a pair of councilmembers are mixed. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) is enthusiastic; Councilmember James Nathanson (D-Ward 3), about to yield his representation of his ward after losing the primary to Kathy Patterson, has harsher words for the GW president.
“Steve has done a very good job in representing the university,” said Evans. He hails Trachtenberg for trying to defuse the prickly situation, for instance by moving to build more on-campus housing so fewer student group houses are sprinkled around Foggy Bottom.
“He has gone out of his way in comparison to other universities and the prior occupants of his job to open up a dialogue with the neighbors,” the councilmember said. “I have always found him to be very forthcoming and easy to get hold of, although there are those who think he does not do enough and that he is not to be trusted.”
Nathanson, for one. “I get the feeling that Steve Trachtenberg and GW are the bull in the china shop of the Foggy Bottom community,” he said. “Any time we have attempted to put any structure into the way the bull operates, Steve has become very upset. GW is not satisfied institutionally to do what it does; it seeks to do well in that which it expects to do.”
Nathanson accuses GW and other universities of “running roughshod” over their neighbors. “In doing that, they lose credibility regarding their positive contributions,” he says. “It is like the Nation of Islam, which says, “These are the good acts we do, ignore all the rest.’ ”
GW neighbor Barbara Kahlow has a push-me-pull-you reaction to the university leader. “President Trachtenberg is a charmer, but he is nonresponsive to our concerns,” said Kahlow, vice president of the Foggy Bottom Association. “He is very aggressive about purchasing properties outside the campus boundaries and expanding the university’s presence into this residential neighborhood in a way that is alarming for many people.”
Relations between citizens’ groups and the university are better than in the past, but Kahlow still maintains that the neighborhood organizations are treated to a steady diet of fluff. “They may have a party or let one of the groups use a GW room for a meeting, but they are not really sitting down and dealing with us,” she said.
Kahlow claims Trachtenberg aims to Colonialize everything between the White House and Rock Creek Park, with Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues forming the north and south boundaries of his fiefdom.
One locus of alarm is a plan to build a health and wellness center at 23rd and G Streets NW, along the western perimeter of what has been understood to be the limit of the official GW campus. According to Kahlow, the campus plan calls for high-traffic buildings to be located farther east.
“That has galvanized the community,” Kahlow said. “They have not dealt on the big picture with us, except to give us a slide show and tell us, “This is what we are doing now.’ We are saying, “Wait a second! The campus plan says all high-activity things are to take place in the middle of campus.’ ”
For all her criticism of Trachtenberg—“He is so transparent that everyone sees right through it”—Kahlow thinks that, had he been steering Georgetown’s abortive bid for a power plant, he would have prevailed. “I also cannot imagine, if he and I were on opposite sides of something like the Georgetown cogeneration plant issue, that President Trachtenberg would not call me and say, “Let’s sit down and find a way to work this thing out.’ ”
Trachtenberg is doing fine in a high-wire act, according to Richard Berendzen, whose rise and fall at American University was a painful exercise in hubris.
“The position involves so many publics, each of which views the needs of the institution and the responsibilities of the presidency in strikingly different ways,” Berendzen said. “Alumni see things one way, the board of trustees another—so do the undergraduates, the staff, the faculty. And even within those groups you can encounter extraordinary diversities. The question is, how do you get those fiefdoms to come together cohesively, while dealing with the external forces of the local and national economy as well as day-to-day topics people do not normally think a president must deal with—the physical plant and its many hundreds of employees, personnel issues, affirmative action, disability litigation?”
Berendzen, who juggled the same medicine balls and chain-saws for 10 years at AU, sees Trachtenberg as hitting all his marks. “He is flying high,” the former president said. “He has brought in money, he has improved the applicant pool, he has made good appointments of deans.”
On Berendzen’s scale of warning signs for presidents, Trachtenberg is out of the red zone. The ex-AU chief said that presidents must be alert to shrinking undergraduate applicant numbers (GW’s are rising), sagging donations (the opposite is true at the university), or a major project that cannot be brought to fruition (well, there was that medical center business). Another indicator of a troubled presidency is disproportionate dissonance. “It can be a symbolic issue,” he explained. “A new policy can be found obnoxious or you fire a popular professor or you abolish a popular program, and it becomes a polarizing issue. You never know what is going to be a flashpoint with students.”
Trachtenberg’s open-office hours provide a window into the torque and tedium of his chosen profession. At a recent one, his first guest was a pre-law student with a financial aid dilemma. Call this person L.
The president sat at a table in his pleasantly disorganized office overlooking I Street NW, flanked by assistants ready to take notes. In the corner stood a dark plastic statue of George Washington festooned with Mardi Gras-style lagniappe beads, a hard hat, and a GW T-shirt.
L. began with small talk, describing the J Street eatery as “excessive” and “impractical.” Trachtenberg replied that such food courts are all the rage on campuses, and by the way, ServiceMaster footed the renovation bill. Then the transfer political-science major cut the rebop. Using inflective quotation marks, she explained that GW had“awarded” her a presidential scholarship—$5,000 merit stipends given to students reaching a grade point average of better than 3.7.
“That’s good news, isn’t it?” Trachtenberg asked.
No, said L. She already was receiving scholarships, loans, and grants in aid totaling $23,000. The wizards of finance at accounting had shifted the moneys around so that she wasn’t getting any more cash, and L. had learned that she was going to have to stay registered for 15 hours of course work while working 40 hours a week. If she dropped a course, there went the presidential money.
“But the university has essentially given you a wrap-around scholarship,” Trachtenberg said. “You’re still getting a pretty good deal. If you could cut your course load to 12 hours without losing the scholarship, would you be happy?”
“Yes,” said L., revealing that she already had made such arrangements with the assurance that she would not be docked that troublesome five grand.
“Then what is the problem?” Trachtenberg asked gently. “We estimated your need and we gave you 100 percent of it.”
“No,” the young woman said; her package was $1,000 less than the full charge. She gave the impression of believing that if the presidential scholarship were truly merit-based, she would be entitled to the whole enchilada, even if in doing so she turned a profit.
“We are not going to give anyone 100 percent-plus on a scholarship. There is so much in each jar at financial aid, and we try to do the greatest good for the greatest number,” Trachtenberg said. “On balance, there is no shame in needing a scholarship, but there is honor in receiving one. I urge you to take pride in getting the presidential scholarship.”
The conversation ended with Trachtenberg asking L. if she found the GW education satisfactory. Yes, L. said stiffly. When she had gone, Trachtenberg expressed wonderment that a $5,000 scholarship could be a problem for anyone.
“The only trouble with that young woman,” he told his aide, “is that she is a pig. But she’ll make a great lawyer someday.”
Another visitor that day was a grande dame from the neighborhood. She was a Resident Action Coalition member with a charming, if fuzzy manner.
“The opportunity to see you was irresistible,” Madame X said. “You remember that last year we talked about D.C. issues.”
“Yes, yes,” Trachtenberg said with opaque enthusiasm.
“You are right up on my list with Jack Evans and Mark Plotkin and John Ray,” she said.
“Mark is a GW grad,” Trachtenberg said gamely. “Is that a Picasso badge you’re wearing?”
“No, no,” she said. “It’s from the health fair downstairs.”
She asked if GW students could speak at the ANC-2A meeting against the congregate housing bill. Their participation might change minds now set on passing the restrictive bill.
“I encourage them to go and speak,” he said.
“I urge you to send those young people out. They would shame these old people,” Madame said. “Shame is powerful.”
“You should have met my mother. I don’t know how I can do more,” Trachtenberg said, noting that GW is building a 450-bed residence hall, with plans for more on-campus housing for medical and law students.
“These projects are good for the university and good for the community,” he said. “I have no ideological quarrel with doing that. Some people can’t take yes for an answer.”
Madame commented on the rowdiness of some GW students living near her.
“What can I do?” Trachtenberg asked. “Jack Evans has told me that I ought to do something about our students. If we get a complaint, we send our police to ask them to quiet down. But they are citizens. They have the same rights as busboys or lawyers. I can’t pass a law, but the city can.”
Madame clucked her tongue in agreement.
“People seem to project onto me an authority, a power, some kind of magical properties that far exceed reality,” he said. A secretary entered to whisper that someone was on the telephone. “Tell him I cannot take the call,” Trachtenberg said.
There was one last matter on Madame’s mind. She and her husband had been in Russia when tickets for the next week’s Van Cliburn concert had gone on sale. Might the president be able to assist?
Trachtenberg hailed a woman in the outer office, scoring a pair of tickets. He thanked Madame for her visit, saying he looked forward to their next chat. Madame mentioned that her husband was available as a guest lecturer on foreign affairs.
“I’ll pass that along to our new dean, Harry Harding,” he said.
Madame asked after Adam Trachtenberg, who had entered college since last they spoke.
“He is splendid,” the president said. “We go into Chinese restaurants. He says things to the waiters in Chinese. Then he tells us what will appear on our table, and it appears.”
Madame exited stage right, to be replaced by Debate Boy and Mr. Sensitive Pony Tail Man. Surprisingly inarticulate for a member of a championship argument team such as GW’s, Debate Boy presented Trachtenberg with a petition enumerating several grievances: his unhappiness with the debate coach, who after a spat over policy had bounced him from the team for a few days (they made up), his refutation of Trachtenberg’s claim that the debate team was No. 1 in the nation, his desire for a clearer delineation of the process by which he might pitch a bitch about his coach. Teachers and a dean had threatened him when they learned he had scheduled this conversation, Debate Boy said; they hinted that he might be vulnerable to lawsuit for slander and libel and worse.
Throughout, Mr. Sensitive Pony Tail Man, in his flowered shirt and khakis, with his black backpack at his feet adorned with yin-yang symbols and sewn-on letters spelling out in red and black the message “FUCK WAR,” sat in silent Eddie Vedderish repose, a gauzy sketch of beard outlining his soft chin. When he finally spoke, it was to buck up Debate Boy.
“I urged him to come to you,” he told Trachtenberg.
“Well, if you’re found dead in your apartment, we’ll know what was going on,” the president told Debate Boy. He explained that in touting the debate team he had used statistics from the organization that ranks such matters. Yes, said Debate Boy, but there are qualifiers. When the university embraces these standings, it is false advertising.
“But you’re talking about conferences,” said Trachtenberg, his patience visibly draining. “Our basketball team plays in the Atlantic Ten. If we were in the Big East, we would never get to the NCAA finals. That does not make our NCAA participation illegitimate. It is OK to say that our debate team competes in a relatively incompetent conference, but you cannot say that a team that is ranked No. 1 anywhere is chopped liver. What relief do you seek?”
“We need a new debate coach,” Debate Boy said. “What if Mike Jarvis only showed up for half the games his team plays? We would not go the NCAA.”
Trachtenberg blinked. “If a student told me Mike Jarvis was not behaving appropriately, I would tell him to follow the lines of authority,” he said. “I tell you the same thing; take it from the coach to the department chair to the dean to the vice president for Academic Affairs. The coach put you back on the team. He fixed that problem. I cannot fix it twice. So God bless you.”
Not for nothing was Debate Boy back on the team. He reiterated his iteration, again mentioning thinly veiled threats and laying his petition at the president’s elbow.
“This is like the tale of Rashomon,” said Trachtenberg. He handed back the petition. “I suspect that if I call the dean he will explain his purpose. If I read your document I would worry about ex parte communication. I am at the top of the university food chain. If you follow the route I mentioned, your petition may come to me and I want to view it with a blank slate, with impartiality. You have had a chance to vent your concerns, and I expect the dean or the vice president to dispatch this matter.”
Trachtenberg had stood, signaling the end of the audience with a graciousness worthy of a pope, when Pony Tail Man suddenly reached into his backpack and jumped up. A frisson of alarm twanged inside my skull—KILLER U’GRAD WHACKS GW PREZ, my imaginary headlines blared—until I saw what was in his hand: a little automatic camera.
“I just wanted to have my picture taken with you,” said Mr. Sensitive Pony Tail Man. “I know I’m never going to be in this office again.”
He handed the camera to one of the assistants. The students arranged themselves around Trachtenberg, Debate Boy holding his spurned petition against the president’s chest, so that it, too, would be memorialized. All three grinned like golden retrievers. The flash flashed twice, and the students pumped the president’s hand.
“My mom will be happy,” said Mr. Sensitive Pony Tail Man, and they were gone.
Trachtenberg sent them away with a smile and a wave. He leaned back and stretched like a man who has just spent a long day in the seat of a John Deere.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I feel positively Talmudic.”
Then a secretary came in and told him there might be more to the story of the seemingly greedy pre-law scholarship recipient. The young woman had made it straight-faced out of the president’s office, but she was in tears by the time she hit the hallway, the staffer said, handing the president a small sheaf of papers. Trachtenberg instantly refocused, hunched and grave. In the area outside his office were some people engaged in a day’s-end yakfest. Trachtenberg glared at them from his doorway.
“Hey, it’s a little too fraylich out here,” he said, utterly without humor. “I’ve got some work I need to do.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Guion Wyler.