Picking GWU President to Speak Leaves Some Seniors Speechless

(Gerald Herbert - AP)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

George Washington University has had an impressive list of commencement speakers over the years: Desmond Tutu, Madeleine Albright, Bill Cosby. Last year they had George H.W. and Barbara Bush.

This year: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

He was chosen, according to the chairman of the board of trustees, because his 19-year presidency has transformed the university. Within hours after the student paper, the GW Hatchet, sent out an e-mail news alert about who was giving the keynote address, it became clear not everyone agreed with the selection.

Protest groups formed with hundreds of members. Petitions were handed around. Students posted doctored photos of Trachtenberg with duct tape over his mouth, and the soft-focus commencement shot the school had circulated of him speaking in academic robes -- but with a slice of pizza and apple core flying at his head.

"I'm upset about it," said Matt Schrader, a senior from Phoenix. "It's an egomaniacal act. It's the last straw. It's the perfect way for him to end his time here, because it so perfectly sums up his time at GW: It's all about him."

"I feel like a virtuous Don Imus," Trachtenberg said yesterday, laughing at the student reaction. "This is great stuff."

The most popular speaker in his time at GWU was Bill Cosby, Trachtenberg said. "He was terrific, and very funny. But he never did anything for GW before -- or subsequently."

He said that around campus yesterday, many students stopped him to tell him they are looking forward to his address. "And there's a small group who are hoping for a celebrity. I always think that tells me we failed them in some way. They're more outer-directed than we want them to be. . . . Have a sense that the commencement is about them and their accomplishments -- rather than yet another show, in which we bring in a visiting movie star."

On Facebook, some students wrote that they were embarrassed for Trachtenberg -- who has had an extended farewell tour, with receptions, visits, hugs and more than a few tributes to his years at GWU -- and bitter.

"This is ridiculous. I'm not even a senior and I'm outraged," one student wrote. "Let's burn something."

OK, so that might be a little extreme.

But there was talk of protests next week, and some students immediately began calling administrators' offices and parents to complain.

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