A portrait of former GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg at Colonial Inauguration
A portrait of former GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg at Colonial Inauguration Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The George Washington University’s catalog boasts about the various distinctions the school has earned over the years. It was named among the Top 25 colleges for African-Americans, according to Black Enterprise. It is second in the number of graduates who have become ambassadors or officers of the U.S. Foreign Service. It holds the 12th spot for the number of alumni who enlist in the Peace Corps, and it is profiled in Kaplan’s Unofficial, Unbiased Guide to the 328 Most Interesting Colleges.

The catalog, however, leaves out any mention of where the university stands in the list of “America’s Best Colleges” by U.S. News & World Report, the bible of college rankings for high schoolers looking to apply. No surprise there—few university presidents will admit to caring about that list or how it arrives at its rankings. GW’s recently retired president, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, is no exception. The university, says Trachtenberg, remains “focused on making ourselves the very best we can be, according to our own lights.…And if some reviewer at a magazine thinks that’s good, God bless them. They’re smart. If not…they’re in the magazine business, we’re in the education business.”

“You know, the truth is, they ought to take a look at my rankings of magazines,” he says. “What they would discover is if they don’t think well of us, we don’t think well of them.”

Why the fighting words? Take a look at the U.S. News rankings. GW is currently ranked 54th on the magazine’s list of national universities, a similar spot as Pepperdine University and the University of Maryland, College Park. It ranked 52nd last year, and though U.S. News considers the drop nearly statistically insignificant, it was a drop nonetheless.

Those rankings amount to agony for GW, because the university is tantalizingly close to the prestigious Top 50 in the U.S. News survey. For many years, in fact, the magazine didn’t bother to rank schools below the Top 50—it just listed these also-rans in alphabetical order. Four years ago, however, the magazine dropped the second tier and now publishes the Top 124 research universities by number. It did so for several reasons, says Bob Morse, the director of data and research at U.S. News & World Report. Among them was persistent lobbying from Trachtenberg.

“The idea that they didn’t care about the rankings—they might not care to actually publicize it, but they cared enough to encourage us to do the rankings the way we are printing them now,” Morse says. “Their position was, ‘We’d rather let people know we are listed 53rd.’ I’m sure they thought that would be helpful to them.”

Using an analogy, Trachtenberg tries to explain why GW’s non-top-tier spot really isn’t so important: “I sometimes help my wife cook, and I stand there and watch, and she looks at a recipe in a book, and she says, ‘Hmm, three pinches of salt, I think that’s going to be too salty,’ and she only puts two pinches in,” he says.

“You can’t go by what some magazine tells you life is supposed to be about.”