A UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT SPEAKS OUT ON HIGHER EDUCATION
By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, $26, 288 pages
REVIEWED BY GEORGIE ANNE GEYER
Several years ago, at a reception at the Tunisian Embassy, I found myself sitting next to the president of George Washington University, that humongous inner-city university in downtown D.C. I was enjoying my accustomed scotch and soda, while Steve Trachtenberg, a big, husky man with a square and handsome face and a kindly manner, was merely sipping fruit juice.
“You don’t drink?” I asked, for no special reason.
“No, I don’t,” he answered. Then he thought for a moment before continuing. “My father was not a drinking man,” he went on, “but every night when he came home from work, he would pour a little scotch in a glass and throw it down…. When I was 16, I said to him, ‘Dad, I’m old enough, I want to try it.’ And he agreed. I threw it down, and it was the worst tasting stuff I had ever tasted. Then my father said to me, “And you thought all the time that I liked it!”
That story was vintage Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who has amazingly been one of the most successful university presidents in the nation - during his 19-year presidency at GW, he built more than $500 million worth of new buildings, while everything from test scores, outside rankings and the endowment soared to their highest points in the school’s history - and surely the most charmingly whimsical. How this quirky, funny, open, preposterous, utterly brilliant and strangely well-balanced guy from Brooklyn became a college president at all is anybody’s guess!
But we are very lucky he did, for now, after his retirement in 2007, he has published this unusually thoughtful and highly readable memoir about (who else?) Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and (what else?) “the university” in our times. He allows you to engage here in that most wonderful exercise of reading: To enter the mysteries of another world and, in this case, to walk along with a man who is not a “master of the universe,” but surely a master of the university!
Because of his charming storytelling manner, it is easy to get lost in his effervescent sense of fun. Who else, for instance, would have walked out on the stage of the GW auditorium with President Clinton during the Clinton administration and, after the announcer soberly announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States of America and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg,” walked up to the podium and soberly, but absurdly, said, “Good morning, I’m Stephen Joel Trachtenberg?”
Who else, realizing the extent to which visitors cannot quite figure out where inner-city universities begin or end, would have purchased a hippo statue that has come to represent the spirit of G.W. (why, no one knows), marked off the four corners of the school with statues of George Washington and, dreaming of an impossible belltower, instead found a recording of bell music that is played regularly - neatly making both students and parents believe that there really IS a GW belltower?
But despite the personal, folksy, autobiographical tone of the book, there are many lessons here about higher education today, about the dominating culture of the faculties and about the extraordinary amount of spirit, chutzpah and sheer hard work that it takes today to be the president of one of these immense and mysterious institutions. For instance:
“It’s a big mistake to underestimate the strength of the status quo in universities,” he writes. “The culture is entrenched. And it is not a culture that asks, ‘What can we do to be more student-oriented?’ Too often, the first constituency is the faculty. I don’t think the university is well served by this. Other aspects of society take technology into acount and are seeking ways to be more and more productive. Universities say, ‘no, no, no, what we will do is have our faculty teach less! Even if we have fewer students and fewer classes, salaries must go up.’”
He finds the faculty too often “passive aggressive,” recalling how the university faculty once passed a resolution in May demanding that the dean not do anything until they returned from their summer vacations in the fall. He opines that it should all sound simple enough - invite faculty members in, persuade them and they will simply come along. But such attempts are “Sisyphean,” he finds, because “far too many faculty members don’t appear to be very interested in learning more about university administration; nor do students, even (or especially) PhD candidates.”
This, not surprisingly, leaves that strange and too-often unknowable creature of our times, the university president, as the man up there, trying to swim against the tide, trying to be CEO of a huge organization that no one quite understands or standing still and simply trying out how to do everything at once. Mr. Trachtenberg also brings a unique perspective in that he is obviously a liberal who looks at the political correctness of modern education with disdain - and, more importantly, honesty. No ideologue, he. More, a man who is a passsionate learner and teacher who is able to look at modern education with a critical, but loving, eye.
In fact,Mr. Trachtenberg obviously so loves “the university” of our times and of all times, and he has somehow achieved the impossible with a city university - making it, even stuffed into downtown Washington as it is, into a place with a saucy personality of its own and an excellence that surpasses expectations.
In the end, he says, “The point I am making is about planning and entrepreneurship. Universities are overly committed to how things get done and insufficiently aware of chance, and so they tend to be ‘get-along’ institutions rather than ‘get-up-and-dance’ institutions. It is in their genes. But sometimes there is a president who takes a university ahead a couple of chapters rather than a step at a time.” But then, everybody always knew that Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was a dancing man.
• Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.