Student leaders reflect on their relationship
with Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
By Jeannette Belliveau and Jane Byrne
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s
relationship with GW students began even before
his first day on the job. Past presidents and
the current president of the Student Association
recall stories of how GW’s departing president,
who invites them back annually for a reunion dinner,
touched their lives.
President Trachtenberg works closely with
the Student Association presidents each
year. Here he poses with former Student
Association presidents at their annual reunion.
Raffi Terzian, BA ’89,
In the summer of 1988, Raffi Terzian, now
a medical director for occupational health for
the Main Line Health system in his native Philadelphia,
received an unusual invitation—to fly up
to Hartford, Conn., to meet the new incoming president,
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who wanted to establish
a relationship with GW students even before formally
beginning the job.
Here I was this young, wide-eyed 20 year-old,
and the incoming president of the University was
inviting me to meet with him. He flew me up there,
and I stayed with him in the chancellor’s
home. He was by default making an overture to
the student body by extending that invitation.
I remember seeing him for the first time. He
has a presence. You look at him, and he’s
got a smile on his face, a really warm smile.
He makes you feel like he’s really listening
This set a positive tone for our relationship
going forward. When we returned to campus (he
sat next to me on the plane back home to D.C.),
it seemed we had already begun to develop a good
I think he has a special place in his heart for
us, the student leaders. I always tried not to
miss a single one of those gatherings because
of him. It’s so important for me to be there,
it’s my way to pay tribute and to honor
him for his opening up his time and schedule for
At the end of that year, he had an installation.
I made a presentation on behalf of the students.
In the middle of that important ceremony, we embraced
on the stage. It showed his warmth as a person.
Later on, after he’d been here a couple
of years, he and Bob Chernak (senior vice president
for student and academic support services) stayed
overnight with students in the dorms. We lived
through the excitement of the basketball seasons.
When George Washington was playing well, I remember
how enthusiastic and upbeat he was.
GW is fortunate that he will be staying on in
a teaching role. I think that the students stand
to benefit enormously from that, and that he still
will have a presence on campus. He will let the
new president come in and do his thing.
The University is really blessed to have someone
of his caliber. To take a very good campus, and
then make it into a world-class educational institution,
well, he led that effort. To look around the campus
and to know that GW is so highly rated among high
school students … I don’t know if
I could get into it now! He raised the academic
standards. He’s leaving the institution
in great shape, and for that I think the University
community owes him a debt of gratitude.
He took GW and integrated it into the city of
Washington, and that’s very special. He
gave opportunities to students who might not otherwise
have had opportunities. GW went from being
in D.C. to being a part of D.C.
One other recollection—when we met that
first time in Hartford, he said a university president
only lasts five to 10 years. Nineteen years later,
he’s finally retiring. I have to poke a
little bit of fun at that.
John David Morris, BA
’90; MPA ’93
Morris succeeded Terzian as Student Association
president. He has returned to his hometown, Peoria,
Ill., where he is an elected member of the Peoria
council and vice president for development for
WTVP, the local PBS station. Morris recalls Trachtenberg’s
letters and influence on Washington, D.C.
The first time I met Trachtenberg was on his
first trip to campus. He was paraded around with
select groups of faculty and staff and students,
and I was at a little reception; there must have
been about 30 of us there. I gave him my business
card that I had printed up with my own money.
Well, I ended up on the Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
advanced PR mailing list. I must have had 20 pieces
of mail from him before he came on campus. Some
were mailings; some were personalized letters,
where he wrote “Excelsior” at the
bottom, from Latin, meaning “ever higher.”
President Trachtenberg, Incoming Student
Association President Nicole Capp, and current
SA President Lamar Anthony Thorpe
As president of the student body, I had incredible
access to him, to take him our agenda. We wanted
streamlined registration, and my job was to represent
the students. What I didn’t realize was
that he became my most valuable professor. He
taught me as we went along.
I remember a student writing him an angry, emotional
complaint letter, and I was copied on it. He wrote
her a four-page response, which included all sorts
of literary references. It really, I’m sure,
did not quell her anger about the issue at the
time, yet when you read the letter it was full
of lessons. I can only hope she kept her original
letter; each one of those letters is like the
signature of a hall of fame baseball player.
When Trachtenberg came in, he was seen as a businessman
and as a lawyer, but he is fundamentally an educator.
He does the things that great university presidents
need to do. He raises money to recruit faculty
and build buildings, but more important to the
story, he does things no other university president
One year a group of out-of-town high school kids
had their bus and their clothes and all their
luggage stolen when visiting D.C., while staying
in one of the big hotels. Trachtenberg asked me
to deliver boxes full of GW T-shirts from the
orientation programs; we had 50 extra to take
down to them.
I just don’t think there’s anybody
in the country in his category. He really is on
the planet to make a difference in educating the
future generations. George Washington [the nation’s
first president] had hoped for a university like
that, to turn out students who use their education
to strengthen democracy.
While some used to believe that Washington, D.C.,
was the most important aspect to George Washington,
I realize now that inextricably, GW is the most
important asset to Washington, D.C. I think Trachtenberg
is the one who showed the University that about
Through the extraordinary SA president reunions,
our friendship has grown and grown and grown.
When you are in the University community, the
president is daunting—he’s bigger
than life; because of all the regalia at the graduation
ceremony, it almost creates a movie star effect.
But you could still call Trachtenberg a friend.
He is my friend.
Carrie Potter, BA ’99,
A native of Omaha, Neb., who now lives in
Houston, Potter may be the only NBA agent (she
manages the Knicks’ Steve Francis for her
new venture, the Carrie Potter Group) who can
count on a university president for advice on
business philosophy. On occasion she joins Trachtenberg
and alumni to watch Colonials’ basketball
President Trachtenberg is always there to help,
especially during these last couple of years.
I’ve been looking at what the next step
in my career might be, and he’s been instrumental
in giving me advice and guidance. I learned a
tremendous amount about business from President
Trachtenberg. If I’m in a tough situation,
he’s always been extremely generous with
his counsel and support. He’s built a bond
with each of us presidents while he’s been
in office and has been overwhelmingly supportive
while we were still at the University and while
we developed our careers.
The first time I met President Trachtenberg was
the summer between freshman and sophomore years
when I served on the Colonial Cabinet. You could
tell he was very professional and very intelligent.
After my election, I always had a lot of respect
for the ability he has to develop a vision and
to involve people in not only believing in the
vision but in getting it to happen. President
Trachtenberg opened up the doors to teach me not
only about the student activities side but also
about how the business side of the University
worked, how different constituencies work. The
academic side is the core. Then there is the student
side, all the things students need to thrive and
develop and grow, and behind the doors all the
business things that make that happen—real
estate, finance, tuition, University budgets,
the academic calendar. He taught us how to balance
all the different agendas from all the different
groups and to put it all together. Students don’t
see all those sides; they think, “We want
this, we want this, we want this,” because
you are paying all those dollars, and there’s
a disconnect in realizing that those dollars fund
the health and wellness center and the new academic
buildings as well as immediate student concerns.
He has an open meeting time for students to come
in. Every time I’d have my list, and if
it was something that he couldn’t do, the
answer was never “no,” or that he
blew me off, or say, “I’ll look into
it.” He always respected the perspective
I had. He always explained the other side of the
story, noting, “You might think that’s
the most important thing right now, but the reason
it’s not happening is because of x, y, and
When I was elected being the first female, you
hear a lot of stuff about that, and you don’t
know how it’s going to change the dynamic
of the reunion group President Trachtenberg gets
together. It was male dominated. But he never
made me uncomfortable for a second. President
Trachtenberg always encouraged confidence in all
the presidents, no matter what the trials and
tribulations, wanting us to know that maintaining
confidence in your talents, that’s going
to carry you to your success.
In a lot of ways it is very fatherly advice.
He has lots of ideas and philosophies on how business,
society, and government function, and he’s
always been very mindful of certain responsibilities
leaders have to community and those around you.
Omar Woodard, BA ’05
In June 2005, Omar Woodard, then a senior
at GW, traveled to Israel to attend a five-day
foreign policy seminar with President Trachtenberg.
Given tough airport screening procedures in the
wake of 9/11, Omar almost didn’t make it.
I was standing in line at Kennedy International
Airport in New York when security officers started
asking me questions. My name is Omar. I am a Muslim.
I have a beard, and I gave all of the wrong answers.
They asked me if I was a Muslim, and I said yes.
They asked if I spoke Arabic, and I said yes.
Horrified, I realized they thought I was a terrorist.
The next thing I knew, I was pulled out of line
and all of my belongings were taken away—my
luggage, my camera, even my iPod. I felt discriminated
against and wronged. I didn’t have anything
to wear. I didn’t even have a toothbrush.
In New York, I was detained for three hours, and
I was held again in Tel Aviv for two hours.
Finally, I arrived at the conference five hours
late and vastly underdressed, shrouded in humiliation.
I was devastated. President Trachtenberg was concerned.
He pulled me aside and I explained what had happened.
Immediately, he put his hand on my arm, handed
me some money and said, “Everything will
work out. Go get yourself some new clothes and
whatever else you need.” He was sincere
and went out of his way to do what he didn’t
have to do. He was even able to coax me out of
my gloomy mood with his disarming sense of humor
and cheerful demeanor. I completely forgot what
I was angry about.
The rest of my week in Jerusalem was an unforgettable
experience. Stereotypes about relations between
Jews, Christians, and Muslims were challenged
by what I saw going on around me. I realized that
there are more commonalities between us than differences.
President Trachtenberg embodies that sentiment.
He has worked hard to build bridges across races,
religions, and creeds. I consider him a mentor
and a friend—someone I trust implicitly.
Much later, I went to him for advice about my
future. I was unsure about what I wanted to do
after college, and President Trachtenberg told
me something I’ll never forget. He said,
“Think about where you want to be 20 years
from now, and work backwards.”
That made perfect sense to me, and that’s
exactly what I did to get where I am today.
Lamar Anthony Thorpe,
Originally from Los Angeles and formerly
in the U.S. Navy, Thorpe, 25, will graduate in
May with a double major in women’s studies
I met Mr. Trachtenberg when I was first elected
president. We were at the Chamber of Commerce
event at the Marvin Center. He told me that he
expected a little bit more from me as Student
Association president because I was much older.
I had been in the Navy—I served in Guam
as well as Connecticut. I couldn’t let him
I really didn’t know what to expect from
a college president, because I came from a small
college, Three Rivers Community College [in Norwich,
Conn.]. When I did transfer here, my president,
Dr. Grace Jones, said, “I know President
Trachtenberg, and the best thing you can do for
yourself is to meet and get to know President
In talking with other administrators, I learned
that the relationship he has with students is
very rare. He plays racquetball, goes to basketball
games, where he can be found wearing his buff-and-blue
scarf. He’ll randomly talk to students on
He has quite the cartoon character look. I think
it’s easy for cartoon artists to have a
field day with his look. I have a button on my
backpack – Dec. 4 is “SJT Day”
in the District of Columbia, and was first held
in 2006. I have this button that I put on my backpack
from that event.
In his retirement, I wish him the best. He certainly
deserves the best. He’ll stay as a professor
of public policy. Students can take his classes—and
he has plenty of stories to tell.