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"Levey Live" archives

Q&A With Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

Tuesday, September 14, 1999

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Craig Cola/
Bob's guest today is Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President of The George Washington University since August 1, 1988. Previously, he was the president of University of Hartford in Connecticut for 11 years as well as Boston University's vice president for academic services and academic dean of the college of liberal arts for eight years. Trachtenberg is also a professor of public administration at GW.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

He holds a BA from Columbia University, a JD from Yale University and a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University. He was chosen to be a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellow in Oxford, England in 1968, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Trachtenberg's wife is Francine Zorn Trachtenberg, vice president of WETA. They have two children, Adam Maccabee and Ben Lev.

Here is a transcript of today's session:

Washington, DC: Mr. Trachtenberg:
I am a recent graduate of The George Washington University. -Class of '98- I was fortunate enough to attend GW without any financial aid. I find myself greatly frustrated over the exponential increase in tuition over the past five years, one that was insituted under great protest by much of the undergraduate and graduate population. Yes, it is true that the campus is in better shape than ever, with its new archways and gardens, but many of them were redone - over, and over, and over again. I can't help but think that my tuition money might have been better used to update the outdated book collection in the library, or the science labs in Bell Hall or for the student government, the Student Association. One yard behind the library was redone no less than 3 times in my four years at GW.
Thank you , and I appreciate your response.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Good question. Unhappily based on inadequate data, most of the physical upgrading of the campus such as the mid-camus quad was paid for by benefactors whose names you will note on the facilities such as Kogan PLaza not by tuition dollars. You're quite right. The tuition dollars are dedicated to faculty salaries, library and other academic enhancements. I can see that you benefitted from your time at GW University.

No. VA: Your school has high tuition, it's in the middle of a busy city with all its big city problems, and there's no where to park. Why should I spend $100,000 for my child to go there as opposed to some rural college which costs less and is in a safer location? This isn't meant to be hostile, I just want to know why GW is worth enduring the problems I listed.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Most people pay tuition for quality education which we believe we provide. Our tuitions are comparable to those at peer insititutions such as Georgetown, NYU, BU. That said, we have a parking lot under construction at this very moment which should directly address your concern.

Washington DC: Dr. Trachtenberg, How important are test scores in selecting applicants for GWU? Since students do not come in standard issue, can you think of a better way of selecting future students than using standardized tests?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: You're 100% right. Fortunately, most world class universities, GW included, used test scores as only one component of a cocktail of criteria for admission- Secondary school records, recommendations from teachers, pastors, coaches, family and friends, volunteer experiences are all part of the picture that is reveiwed to determine admission and financial aid awards.

Arlington, VA: You seem to be really engaged with the community and with your students. What's your secret and how can others benefit by your example? I taught a one day course in your environmental manager program five years ago and was thoroughly impressed with GWU.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Thanks for your kind words. I spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week focused on GW and it's constiuents. Students and faculty are obviously at the top of the list but alumni and the foggy bottom community and Washington, D.C. are right up there as well. We have a staff of people whose full time responsiblity it is to reach out to our neighbors and work with local groups to make the area around the unversity and the city in general better. we're convinced that unless the District of Columbia flourishes, GW won't be as good as it can be.

Bob Levey: I worry a lot about businesses (both local and not) that don't do their share to support higher education. How do you persuade a company that's wallowing in dough that you can't make a better investment in the future? It's even better than buying a skybox at Redskins Stadium, because the traffic isn't as bad!

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: I leave an enlightened self-interest. If we can show the business community that their interests are served by GWU in particular and higher education in general, they will focus some of their resources on universities and colleges. Since an increasing percentage of the new wealth in the greater Washington area comes from people with university training, ether in information technology or other disciplines, the approach shouldn't be as hard as earlier in the century. I think it's a matter of making the case and then making it again until an interactive conversation transpires.

Bob Levey: Can we get philosophical for a second? In my day (back when furry mammals ruled the earth), college was about education. It was about studying and mulling and experimenting and stretching. Now, more and more, college seems to be about credentials for future employment. Comments?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: From the outset, American universites were designed to train people for professional callings so for example Harvard College founded even before the United States of America trained clergy and the truth be told, we've always represented the liberal arts as a means of preparing for the rigors of careers as well as family life and civic engagement. Knowledge for it's own sake has been more talked of then acted on. And yet, I still think that even in these cynical times, there's more than enough room for Plato in our curriculum and if you look at the work expected of students doing degrees in business and engineering, you'll find significant chunks of the humanities and the arts as well. We try to educate the whole person at the undergraduate level and leave it to the graduate schools and the law schools and the medical schools to teach the more focused courses.

Bob Levey: In 1998, your salary was the 10th highest among all college presidents in the country (more than $400,000 a year, counting benefits). Do you feel you're overpaid? Underpaid? Neither?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: My children want to know why there are 9 presidents ahead of me. For the real answer to that question, you have to go to the people who pay me. I don't set my own compensation. I have been a university president for 23 years. Obviuosly, it wasn't what it is now when I started but it grew a little each year. My salary is about right compared to other university presidents at comparable sized private universities who've been in office as long as I have.

Washington, DC:
What about GW alumni?? Are you going offer free services and improve the quality of services to GW alumni in the DC area, like gym access, library access, computer access, etc.?!?!?!

CLASS of 1995 -- the graduation you ruined

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Regarding the 1995 commencement, which was scheduled to take place out of doors on the elipse, which had to be cancelled due to a electric storm, I take full responsibilty for the lightening, just as I take credit for the sunshine in the years that preceded and followed. Seriously, it is an act of God. Inevitably, one out of every 8 outdoor events are going to be effected by the weather. Everybody at GW felt terrible but we thought avoiding risks to life threatening lightening made the decision inevitable. We have offered to hold the commencement indoors at the MCI center which was unavailable in 1995 but later classes continued to insist on running the risk for the preferable outdoor event. I'm sorry you were disappointed. So were we all.

GW Alum: President Trachtenberg,

As a recent GW grad, I am most proud of my school and the experiences I had there. -Especially the basketball games- The only thing that I consider lacking is the relationship between students and the administration. One of my theories is that administrators have forgotten what it's like to be students and students have no idea what it takes to run a university. Tufts University has something called the Vienna table -I think- where students get to meet with the President and other administrators once a week to discuss university issues and get to know the people making the decisions regarding their educations. While I know that your schedule is busy and you hold brief office hours once a semester, is there any way to organize something like this? I think it would help a lot.

Amy '99

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Actually, I do office hours on a regular basis in which any student in the university is welcome to come see me one on one. We advertise my availabity in the Hatchet and I persistently have groups of students to my home for meals, receptions and other events and I have for many years spent at least one night in Thurston Hall and I regularly host town meetings between myself and students and I meet on a scheduled basis with the president of the student association, student leadership groups and editors of the student newspaper and I take lunch at least once a week in one of the campus dining facilities so that any student who has a need to see me can do so. I don't think GW or its administration lags in contact with the student body. I haven't heard that complaint from undergraduates or graduate students in years.

Arlington, VA: Not a question, but a comment. I am a 1995 graduate of GW with a BA in Psychology. I just wanted to let Mr. Trachtenberg know how much I enjoyed my time there, despite the disaster that was my graduation day. One of the reasons I attended GW was the diversity of the student population. As an African-American woman from DC, GW's campus provided me with the best opportunity to learn about different cultures. No other school in the area can claim that. I visit the campus from time to time and I'm glad to see that the tradition continues. Keep up the good work!

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: I'll answer these two at the same time.

Arlington, VA: Hello. Several years ago, I moved from the Northeast to the metro area to attend graduate school at GWU. Coming from a liberal arts college, I was thoroughly disappointed in GWU, as I felt GWU was being run more like a business than an educational institution. Have you heard similar comments from present and former students? What kinds of things can be done to change this?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: They reflect the diveristy of opinion held by GWU students. No university is exactly the right place for everybody. GW is perfect for some and inappropriate for others. A student who enjoys being in an urban research university environment will relish GW and its downtown Washington location. Someone who defines a pastoral liberal arts campus as their ideal will want to go to William and Mary, that's fine. I think students should attend the universities they find most suitable to their personal tastes and agendas.

Washington, DC: Regarding the Class of '95 comment earlier... I'm not a GW graduate, but was left standing on the sidewalk in the rain with a good friends mother sobbing on my shoulder after the cancellation... my question is WHY did you CANCEL it? Why didn't you just postpone it a few hours, since those summer storms usually don't last all that long? It was beautiful by 1pm, but that was too late!

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: We were instructed by the Park authorites from whom we borrow the use of the elipse that we had to cancel. Our preference was to postpone. They were concerned that people wouldn't leave and since many were sitting with umbrellas the tips of which were small lightening rods, they were fearful somebody might be struck by lightening and hurt or killed. Additionally, the firm which provided the sound system was terrified that it would draw a lightening blast and destroy their very expensive equipment. This was not your average drizzle. It was a once in 50 year lightening storm. Other commencements on the east coast were cancelled that day just as ours was as the storm moved across the country.

Bob Levey: So many universities sell their souls in order to take part in big-time sports. Just look at the latest mess--the scandal at The University of Minnesota where a tutor wrote papers for basketball players. GWU has avoided such trouble. How? And can you promise that your collective nose will stay clean?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: The best a university president can do is try to look after his or her instiution and communicate to all sectors of the campus that integrity hasd to be a part of everything we do not excluding the athletic program who among us has never been tempted to cut a corner. What needs to be clear to everybody involved in intercollegiate athletics is while winning is good, honesty and good practice must precede victory or else the victory itself is a sham and the victor a loser. I believe the coaches and the athlets at GW understand that. The administration works with them whenever the oppotunity presents itself to reinforce and reward that philosphy.

Bob Levey: What's the future of GWU Hospital? I went past it this morning and noticed that it's all spiffed up--colorful banners, new signs, etc. But will it be the good ole full-service place it has always been?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: We anticipate breaking ground for a brand new state of the art GWU hosptial on or about October 6. We have not yet arrived at a decision as to the fate of the old hospital building. We will start to consider that once construction of a replacement facility is underway. There are many institutional agendas that ned to be taken into consideration and also a perspective of Foogy Bottom community who we care about and who will be consulted and the city in general. We recognize this property located as it is on Washington Circle is very consequential and address it with the seriousness it desrves.

Arlington, VA: Your point about no university being all things to all students is well made. Having spent the last four years as a professional in higher education -in undergraduate admissions and advancement-, I'm curious for your opinion regarding how a prospective student can best use the guides that rank institutions when selecting which schools to apply to and enroll at. Thanks.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Whenever we make a serious life decision, one that involves years of our life and considerable sums of money, it's good to have as much information as possible. Selecting a college is no less important than buying a car. No one would think of purchasing an automobile without a test drive and perhaps without reading the buyers' guide. So it is with picking the right college. Students should talk to their high school guidance counselors. They should talk to friends who are enrolled at different colleges they are considering. They should read all they can get about the colleges both from general purpse guides but also on-line and in hard-copy from teh schools themselves. If possible, they should visit the schools, spend the night in a residence hall, attend some classes, get a feel for the environment and try to use all of this information, both objective and subjective to make a selection. And even then a little bit of luck always helps. Fortunately, if a wrong decision is made, it's not life-threatneing. 200 students a year come to GW as transfers from other colleges and uiversities. People who are generally disappointed by their selection ought to rethink it.

Springfield, VA: It's hard to believe that folks who should be looking foreward to their 5-year reunion are still obsessing about a cancelled commencement ceremony. Get over it. They still got their degrees, correct?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: I'm not going to touch that. I don't want to give anybody cause for further offense. but I do hope we've issued enough apologies and held 3 make-up events to compensate for any inadvertant offense arguabley commited by the university. If there are members of the class of 1995 who would like to be invited back for another GW commencement, the welcome mat is out.

Bob Levey: I discovered this morning that Jan. 22, 1998, was Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Day in the District of Columbia (libraries can be dangerous places). Can we look forward to another Trachtenberg Day in 2000?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: The honor voted by the D.C. city council reflects an overestimation of my talents. Long may it continue.

Fairfax, Va.: I read a while back that the presidents of the area universities get together once a year to discuss common concerns and issues. Does this occur?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: More frequently than once a year, we actually get together from 6-9 at times of year depending on whether we have a specific reason or not. Part of the purpose is comradeship, who can college presidents talk to after all except for their peers? But some of it is business. For example, we run an exchange program that allows students of Washington area universities to cross register and that needs to be administered from time to time. We have had other joint ventures, scholarships, guidance programs, loan programs, library consortium which we talk about at these meetings.

Washington, DC: What is up with that hideous hippo on the corner of 21st and H St.? Is that where my $120,000 tuition went toward?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Actually, I paid for the hippo myself. I really did. I bought it on vacation with the thought that we'd put it in the yard in front of my house. My wife wouldn't have it so we put it in front of Lisner Auditorium. People wondered at it so we took the prank a second step and added a plaque that alleges that it represnts the hippos that used to swim in the Potomac near Washington's Mt.Vernon plantation. It's a tongue and cheek light-hearted, let's not take ourselves too seriously item which the students and the campus community have come to enjoy.

DC: Regarding Mr. Levey's comment about GW not selling its soul for sports: If memory serves me correctly, a few years ago there was a promising young basketball star who was charged with rape. Not only was GW one of the last schools to pull out of the bidding, they sought to correct this egregious error by offering the victim a full scholarhip!
This does not seem to be the best way to handle the situation.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: I don't understand why you object to GW giving a scholarship to a woman who had been attacked. What quarrel do you have with her? She had wonderful grades. She came to GW taking advantage of the scholarship and benefited from the educational opportunity. The basketball player never came to GW. he went to Long Island University where I am told he was a redeemed citizen, played ball, studied and got into no trouble. While we lament the behavior which prompted all this, it does end on a positive note for the young woman and the young man.

Bob Levey: Competition to get into the nation's best colleges is more vicious than ever. Even The New York Times says so! So why isn't higher education behaving like every other industry--growing to meet the demand? Why aren't there four new Harvards and six new GWs?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Demographics tell us that we will have increasingly large high school graduating classes for the next 10 years. Univeristies will build and adapt to that challenge. But the growth period will end and institutions which have overbuilt will then have to shrink. Shrinking is far more difficult and painful than growing. Moderation and balance is therefore likely to be the watch word of instituional behavior.

Washington, DC: I am currently beginning the quest for a graduate education. I am hoping to get an MBA, possibly in Finance. My question is this: What does GW have as far as a grad program that makes it a better choice than the other wonderful institutions in the city?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: The answer exceeds the time and space allotted to this program. Please get in touch with me or the Dean of the School of Buiness and Public Managment directly and we'll craft you a reply personally designed for your needs.

Bob Levey: The world is going to the Web at an incredible rate--and I suspect education soon will, too. If students can learn on a computer screen from a "virtual university," won't GWU have a whole lot of empty, useless buildings?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Undergraduate education has a serious social component. I believe that college students will continue to come together on a campus for their education for many many years to come. your point is well taken with regard to graduate programs. GW and other insitutions are adapting their offerings to include a distance-learning option which will permit students to take courses online as well as on campus. We now offer GW degrees electronically and our inventory of courses and programs grows every day.

Arlington, VA: I graduated from Gee-Dub 8 years ago, and am now changing careers. While I would love to take the classes I need at GW, I simply cannot afford the incredible cost--why not have some sort of discount for alumni? Auditing does help--I need the credits.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: We do. Come to the alumni office and check it out.

Arlington, VA: Do they still call you "Tractor-butt"?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: They never did.

Arlington,VA: As a long-time supporter of GW basketball, both men and women, do you have any plans to shift games to the MCI arena?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: I wouldn't be at all surprised if you saw more GW games played in the MCI arena in the years to come but I anticipate that we will continue to play the majority of our games at the Smith Center where students have easy walking access and the team has a home court advantage. We're looking for a nice mixture which we will see MCI and the Smith Center to craft the best program.

Bob Levey: I worry about GWU's long-term growth, because it's so tightly hemmed in by downtown on the east, parkland on the south and densely developed residential neighborhoods on the north and west. Is there still room to expand, or is this a case of how-big-is-your-checkbook?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: Obviously, a urban university is going to have more space constraints than one located in a rural area. One of the reasons we associated with Mount Vernon COllege was to have access to playing fields and grass and trees for our students. The combined academic and other programs we have in place there focused on women's education is an enhancement of GW as well. We still have some buildable space in Foggy Bottom. We hope to add additional academic facilities, student residential facilities and such over a period of years and years as the institution continues to mature.

Bob Levey: Many thanks to President Trachtenberg for a spirited session. We'll do more of same next Tuesday, Sept. 21, when our guest will be Heidi Hartman, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Meanwhile, please join us this Friday (and every Friday) for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," our anything-goes program. It appears from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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