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Lessons from GW’s 15th President

By Chris M. Kormis

Steve Trachtenberg is a natural communicator. Just spend a few minutes talking with him and he’ll enlighten you with a colorful story snatched from one of his many experiences. He’s not just sharing stories with you, though, he’s teaching and inspiring you.

Each year President Trachtenberg delivers some 25 speeches in the United States and abroad. He has written several books and book chapters, and is the frequent author of articles on higher education that have been printed in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Journal of Education, The Educational Record, and The Presidency, among several others. Plus, Trachtenberg keeps the U.S. Postal Service in business with the hundreds of letters he writes each year to parents, students, faculty, alumni, colleagues, dignitaries, and friends.

Now, sit back and “listen” to Trachtenberg the teacher as you read six of the lessons from his writings and speeches throughout the years.

Lesson 1: Becoming GW’s 15th President

During his inauguration as the University’s 15th president on April 16, 1989, Trachtenberg introduced himself to a packed house in GW’s Charles E. Smith Athletic Center, saying, “I suppose we’re all familiar with the moment when a brand-new officer stands up to deliver his or her very first speech. If the speaker has only been on the job for a couple of weeks, the audience is usually undecided as to whether the person they are listening to is a mountain climber who is launching the organization toward new heights of accomplishment or an innocent lamb offering itself up for sacrifice. The new ‘leader’ may be quite uncertain on that score as well…

“I can tell you that I don’t feel at all like a lamb. Nor, if truth be told, do I feel like a mountain climber carrying The George Washington University in his backpack as he aims for the higher reaches of Annapurna or Everest. To find an adequate analogy for what I do feel, I’d have to switch from metaphors altogether and say that I am experiencing the sentiments, if not the actual physical size, of a jockey—one who knows in his bones that he has chosen the superb thoroughbred with whom victory is not a possibility but a likelihood…and best of all, who knows that when offered a paddockful of talented and ambitious jockeys the thoroughbred chose him.”

Lesson 2: The Paradox of Success

To GW’s Faculty Assembly in 2002, Trachtenberg discussed the motivating power of success: “What happens, of course, is we get used to success and want more of it. Why not? It feels good to be better, to strive to be better, to cook up the ideas that make us better. I can’t imagine getting out of bed every morning and beseeching God to make me truly second-rate —let alone getting the answer to my prayers.”

Similarly, when GW launched a Strategic Plan for Academic Excellence in 2002, Trachtenberg addressed the formulation of that plan in his 2003 President’s Report: “A camel, we often hear, is the only animal designed by a committee. Thus, the work of committees is dismissed as misshapen. But I hasten to remind anyone who will listen that the King James translation of the Bible and the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica were each produced by a committee. And so was the Prospectus on Academic Excellence, GW’s strategic plan….

“Why produce a plan now?… One reason is a paradox of success. As any institution improves, the opportunities for further amelioration and development become fewer and, usually, produce incremental rather than exponential change for the better. Thus, once a university has built the most up-to-date Media and Public Affairs Building anywhere, the opportunity to do so has vanished, at least for a generation. And just so, once the Law School has assembled the most eminent instructors in intellectual property law, we relish the accomplishment and profit from it, but accept that the accomplishment has displaced the opportunity. The better we become, the fewer dramatic opportunities for improvement we will have. However obvious this may seem from a theoretical distance, I confess it only becomes apparent once we begin to achieve real and measurable successes. And we have done that.”

Lesson 3: Pride in GW’s Faculty

President Trachtenberg is known for his witty speeches. Here, he addresses a crowd on Dec. 4, 2006, which was declared “Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Day” by the D.C. Council. Mayor Anthony Williams presented Trachtenberg with an official proclamation, and the D.C. Council created a resolution to pay tribute to his 19 years of leadership at GW and in the city.

Jessica McConnell

Trachtenberg considers GW’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni family, and as the patriarch, he often expresses pride in the family’s achievements. In a letter of recommendation to the chair of the Phi Beta Kappa Fellows Award Committee regarding GW Professor James O. Horton, Trachtenberg wrote, “Professor James O. Horton is an eminent scholar at an eminent university. His work in the still-emerging field of African American History has given an authenticity to that relatively new area of scholarship. He’s an academic, rooted in intellectual traditions, grounded in unimpeachable historiography.

“James Horton is not a celebrity academic. He’s an academic celebrity, known among learned people for the depth and breadth of his intellectual endeavors…

“One is sometimes obliged, in deciding on fellowships of this kind, to choose between the $100 bill and the $200 promissory note. Professor Horton has the virtue of being two $100 bills. He sets the gold standard…”

Lesson 4: The Cost of College

Writing to a GW parent, Trachtenberg discussed the cost of a college education. He said, “I know the sacrifices my parents made to have me at university. And they did it again and again and again… My mother used to keep my diplomas hanging on the living room wall… [To visitors she would point to these and say] ‘This is my fur coat. This is my trip to Europe. This is my diamond ring…’” Later in that same letter he added, “I know what you mean when you talk about the tuition checks taking your breath away. But I figure it’s give it to them now or leave it to them in my will. On balance, I think this is a more sound investment…”

Parents aren’t alone in their concerns about college costs. A 2005 GW Hatchet student newspaper editorial, “Confession of a Trachtenberg Apologist,” claimed that the president had a reputation of being more interested in making money than in education. In response to this editorial, Trachtenberg wrote, “This is not true. Unlike Scrooge McDuck, I do not look forward to wallowing in cash. I do not care about making money; however, I do worry about money. And if I am not worrying about money, who should be? A professor of chemistry or anthropology? They have other fish to fry. And when I am worrying about money, which is most of the time, what am I really worrying about? The answer is simple: the things that money can buy—or, more explicitly, the things that money can buy to make GW a better institution and a GW education even more valuable.”

Lesson 5: Facing a World of Terror

As president of the largest university in our nation’s capital and a leader active with international organizations, Trachtenberg is in tune with, and sensitive to, world events. In a letter to a friend from California concerned about traveling post-9/11, he tells her, “Take your three grandchildren to Williamsburg. Planes crash. Trains crash. Cars crash. Boats sink. Tigers bite you in the neck. Horses kick you in the ass. Life is a bitch. But there’s no point in living it unless you’re living it. The world has always been full of bad people. I don’t see anything new except that the bad people have access to more firepower than they did in the old days.

“You say you feel sorry for your children and grandchildren because they had their childhood destroyed. And World War II didn’t offend our generation? And World War I our parents’ generation? And the Depression? And Vietnam? And Korea? 9/11 was terrible… but not enough to bring down the world. But enough to make us all reconsider. Pray for peace.”

In addition to offering up prayers for peace, Trachtenberg charged the members of the Class of 2004 at their Commencement to foster peace in world. He told the new graduates, “The great Israeli statesman, Abba Eban, said, ‘There won’t be peace in the world until we love our children more than we hate our enemies.’ We have not yet learned to do that—it has proved too challenging. But maybe not for you and your generation.

“You see, I have unbounded faith in you. I know you will understand the new, and often frightening, terms of the world. I know you will be encouraged, not dismayed or overcome, by the demands of peace. And I know you will do all this while going about the business of life—working, raising families, making your gardens grow.”

Lesson 6: Being a Long-Serving University President

In an essay titled “No Magic, Little Sleep, and Lots of Luck: Reflections from a Long-Serving University President,” appearing in Fall 2006 The Presidency magazine, Trachtenberg muses on what enables someone to hold the office of university president for many years. He wraps up the article saying, “…It’s nice to leave as a winner. But that should be only after the president has had enough time to articulate goals, craft the road map to achieve them, and proceed toward them. A president should serve as long as he or she can do this and maintain certain essential traits and characteristics. Competence and joy in the work are everything. And you do have to really love students and professors, with all their unique qualities—at least when they are not gathering in large groups bearing copies of Roberts Rules of Order.”