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Julie Woodford

The president's leadership inspires others to new heights

by Jamie L. Freedman

Early in his career, GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was visiting the office of a fellow lawyer when his eyes were drawn to a chart on the wall depicting a ladder. Upon closer scrutiny, he was impressed to see that the ladder illustrated the attorney’s rise to admission before the U.S. Supreme Court—linking his ascent all the way back to Daniel Webster. “I thought, ‘What a great thing to be part of such a long and distinguished professional chain,’” Trachtenberg reflects.

As he prepares to “step up” to teaching after nearly 20 years at GW’s helm, Trachtenberg has built an impressive ladder of his own. Some 15 deans and vice presidents that he mentored over the years are now university presidents themselves, and the list continues to grow. All are quick to credit him with propelling their rise to the top. Never forgetting his own roots, Trachtenberg keeps in close touch with his two surviving mentors—John Silber, former president of Boston University, and John Brademas, former president of New York University—who remain integral rungs on Trachtenberg’s ladder.

Mentoring comes naturally to Trachtenberg, whose tenure in higher education, and life, is epitomized by close relationships. “Like teachers, one of the obligations of university presidents is to encourage others to fulfill their professional potential as thoroughly as possible,” Trachtenberg says. “I have been blessed over the years to work with a terrific assortment of people with extraordinary strengths, vision, and ambition, and have tried to create opportunities for them to serve the academy at the highest levels.”

Trachtenberg’s academic dynasty spans the nation, with his protégés going on to lead universities like Kent State, University of Utah, California State at Monterey Bay, and Yeshiva University. He stays in touch with them all, exchanging frequent e-mails and phone calls. “Keeping in touch with people is an obsession of mine,” says Trachtenberg, who still communicates with a dozen of his high school classmates.

“As a mentor, Steve Trachtenberg is really involved in your life as a person who truly cares and helps you just for the pleasure and altruistic value of doing so,” says Jonathan Rosenbaum, president of Gratz College in Philadelphia, who worked with him at the University of Hartford. “In a very rushed world, he’s always there, willing to share his time, advice, and brilliantly incisive mind. I still don’t know how he did it, but long before e-mail, I would write to him on a Monday and by Wednesday there would be a personal response.”

Former GW Law School Dean Mike Young says Trachtenberg consistently and generously took the time to talk with him about the challenges of running an institution of higher learning. Young has been the president of the University of Utah since 2004.

Abdul El-Tayef/

Trachtenberg’s many associates—both at GW and the University of Hartford, where he served as president for 11 years—widely regard him as a stand-out mentor. “He was absolutely a major influence on me becoming a university president,” says Walter M. Bortz III, who became president of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia in 2000 after serving as a vice president to Trachtenberg at both GW and Hartford. “He’s a patient man and, above all, a great teacher who is willing to take the time to explain his position on any issue to the people who work closely with him.”

That sentiment is echoed by Mike Young, president of the University of Utah since 2004, who served as dean of GW Law School for six years under Trachtenberg. “Steve Trachtenberg definitely planted the seed for me to become a university president,” Young says. “I didn’t come to GW with any ambition of becoming a president, but my interactions with Steve Trachtenberg gave me the sense that this is a job where one can really make a difference, and, if you enjoy what you are doing, the chance of painting on a slightly larger canvas is an exciting thought.”

Young says that Trachtenberg was “remarkably generous” with his time. “I would schedule brief meetings with him to discuss issues that needed resolution, and we’d routinely wind up talking for an hour and a half, using free association to address the problem from a variety of different perspectives,” he explains. “In the process, we touched upon many things—ranging from how to run a university to what’s at stake, and I learned an enormous amount. It was a very valuable time for me.”

Peggy Stock, past president of Colby Sawyer College in New Hampshire and Westminster College in Salt Lake City, spent 10 hours a day training with Trachtenberg as an American College on Education fellow at the University of Hartford in 1979. “Steve Trachtenberg certainly was career-wise the most important person in my life,” says Stock, who went on to serve as his senior vice president for administration at Hartford for seven years.

“He taught me how to be a good, successful college president. Steve is smart, creative, straightforward, and funny, and taught me how to take appropriate risks, how to turn a college around, how to hire and fire, how to work a room, and not to be afraid to tell people when you’ve made a mistake. I loved working with him. I used to say it was like being married. Eighty percent of the time it was great, but 20 percent of the time I wanted to kill him.” One thing’s for sure, Stock notes. “I grew tremendously during my tenure with him. He’s made a real difference in my life.”

Walter Roettger, president of Lyon College in Batesville, Ark..

Trachtenberg’s inimitable style sets him apart both as a university president and as a mentor, says Walter Roettger, president of Lyon College in Batesville, Ark., who worked with him at Hartford. “There’s no question about it. Stephen Trachtenberg is one of a kind,” he states. “He’s an inspirational guy with an extraordinary breadth of knowledge and wisdom, as well as an unusual ability to identify opportunities and pursue them in a way that I’ve rarely seen in people. He taught me to take opportunities as they come, to pay attention to and connect with people, to be my own person, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to bring all these things together in a meaningful way in the best profession there is. He may be the best advocate and best critic in higher education.”

While quick to admit that he’s a demanding boss and certainly not a saint, Trachtenberg’s protégés all speak enthusiastically about the president’s passion for his work, vision, boundless energy, and humor. “Many of us have tried to borrow that vitality, sense of humor, and that enormously positive attitude that he has,” says Roettger, who’s now in his ninth year as head of Lyon. “He taught me that this is an institution that stretches across time and space, and that anything is possible.”

Rosenbaum says that he’s never had a conversation with Trachtenberg when they didn’t laugh. “Steve always has things in perspective, thanks to that magnificent, witty humor he uses to such great effect,” he states. “He makes you realize that even the most seemingly impossible task is achievable. His invariably original and incisive analysis, capacity to presage the future, gift for dreaming and then transforming those dreams into reality, and unrivaled wit are the hallmarks of a great leader. He’s the model university president for many of us.”

Peggy Stock, past president of Colby Sawyer College and Westminster College.

Trachtenberg’s associates quickly learn that they can’t match his energy level. “I learned early in the game not to try to keep up with him, and I’m an extremely energetic person,” states Stock, who is known in some circles as the “female Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.”

“Steve taught me that a good university president works 24 hours a day and is the greatest cheerleader of the institution,” Bortz says. “You must have a tireless spirit and do whatever it takes to get things done. He’s a master at motivating people and has the ability to zero in on any issue, pare it down to its two or three most important kernels, and then move on those areas. He often said that one plus one equals three. That’s what we were always trying to accomplish.”

Young lauds Trachtenberg’s ability to “think outside the box,” as well as the fact that he does not micromanage. “I really appreciated the fact that Steve gave me a lot of room to do my job,” he says. “He let me take charge of the Law School, and that’s a terrific training ground for almost anything, because your successes are your own and your mistakes are your own.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum, president of Gratz College in Philadelphia, say Trachtenberg’s influence was integral in their careers.

It’s no surprise that many people who work closely with Trachtenberg develop a genuine affection for him, Rosenbaum says. “He’s a person who listens, which is extraordinarily important, and he’s a people person,” he states. “There’s nothing artificial about Steve Trachtenberg. He has the ability to be self-deprecating but at the same time fully aware of his dreams and how to realize them. I believe he’s the most visionary leader in American higher education today.”

Did Trachtenberg ever dream he’d leave such a far-reaching professional legacy? “Absolutely not,” he answers, attributing his successful track record to the talents and strengths of his colleagues. While he admits to investing some of himself in the many rising leaders who worked with him over the years, he says that their achievements are their own. “To be a good mentor, you have to be prepared to unselfishly celebrate the accomplishments of others and encourage them, even as you realize that they are smarter and more talented than you are, and also better looking and a better dancer.” On a more serious note, he adds, “They all have strong personalities and outstanding abilities of their own, and much of what I have accomplished is the result of their support.”

As Trachtenberg sees it, mentoring is an integral part of university life. “Universities are promise factories—they help people make the most of their promise,” he says. Selflessness often comes into play. “While many of my associates themselves had the ambition to become university presidents, I planted the seed in others, insisting that they go on and get a doctorate or apply for an opportunity that I’d heard about, even though it was against my best interests,” he states. “I didn’t want them to leave, but I knew if I didn’t help and encourage them in this way and point out the direction, I would never forgive myself.”

“Mentoring is sort of like midwifery,” Trachtenberg explains. “You’re helping somebody give birth to who they are going to become and your job as a trustee in a sense is to nurture them and encourage them and make them see how they can fully develop, and then you’re supposed to get out of their way and watch them fly!”

It can be quite a balancing act, Trachtenberg admits. “You need to be honest,” he says. “Some people have too much humility about what they can do and some people have too little—some underestimate what they can do and others overestimate. You don’t want your associates to miss their highest potential, but you don’t want them to fly too high, like Icarus, and then crash into the sea and drown when their wings melt from flying too near the sun.”

As humbled as he is that so many of his key administrators have gone on to lead universities of their own, Trachtenberg confides that the biggest surprise of all is that he spent three decades of his life as a university president. “The truth is I never thought I myself would get to be a university president, and I’m still astonished,” he remarks. “I think all sensible people have someplace in their psyche a seed of self-doubt, and they think that one day the door is going to come crashing open and somebody is going to say to them, ‘Get out from behind that big desk, you fraud.’ And I figure anybody who doesn’t have that fear or that concern, however fleeting, at some point in their lives, probably is in denial.”

Walter M. Bortz III, a vice president to Trachtenberg at both GW and Hartford, has been president of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia since 2000.

One thing’s for sure. It’s been the journey of a lifetime. “I’ve had a terrific time!” Trachtenberg enthuses. “In addition to being a privilege, it’s been a lot of fun. Universities are joyful places doing joyous things in which you’re surrounded by young, healthy, beautiful people at the most luminescent moments of their lives and by colleagues who, more than most people I think in society, like their work. I’m always puzzled by people who come away from university presidencies saying that they’re exhausted or tired or disillusioned, because I feel like whatever the struggle might be, ultimately the university recharges your battery all over again.”

His colleagues say it’s been an incredible ride for them as well. “Steve Trachtenberg has set a new standard for leaders of higher education,” Rosenbaum says.

“All of us need heroes, especially in a time where we tend to disparage the very concept. Steve is a person who, through his humility, is heroic and through his vision accomplished, is a hero. He has taken fine institutions and made them even greater by every standard. He has protégés and grand-protégés of exceptional quality and commitment at universities all over the country, and they all have great affection for him. He’s a phenomenal leader who will have an impact on generations to come.”

Recipe for a Successful University President

What does it take to make a great university president? Stephen Joel Trachtenberg shares his secrets—complete with optimal ingredients for success, proven “tricks of the trade,” and choice words of wisdom.

• You have to be reasonably bright and articulate, a little courageous, and a little visionary.

• You have to love higher education, universities, youngsters, reading, ideas, and scholarship.

• You have to think that education is one of the more important things in life and you have to be prepared to take a certain amount of abuse, albeit with encouragement and hugs and love, as well, in order to accomplish your goal.

• You have to be prepared to be a servant of the institution and its stakeholders without becoming slavish.

• You have to do for people what they need done, which is not always the same as what they think they want.

• You have to believe in yourself, but not so much that you don’t believe in others.

• You have to laugh a lot.

• You have to have a sense of humor and a sense of the ridiculous in life.

• You have to be childlike without being childish, taking delight in issues both big and small.

• It’s very helpful to have good friends, colleagues, and a spouse who, when you come home dejected, will mix you a good martini and tell you that you’re wonderful and not to pay any attention to your critics.

• Always strive to make your remarks prudent, sound, and positive.

• You have to make every effort to be presidential without becoming parve—neither meat nor dairy. It’s important that you do stand for things, that you retain a capacity to be offended, to be hurt. You have to stay in touch with your humanity and not allow yourself to become too insulated because criticism and the taking seriously of negative observations is what helps to sharpen your ability to serve and to get it right or better the next time.

• I’ve often thought that developing a thick skin is not necessarily a good thing; it’s good to have a thin skin, but not necessarily react every time somebody gives you a poke.

• After you’ve said, “Off with their head,” you can’t say, “On with their head!” It sounds like something straight out of Alice and Wonderland, but being temperate as much as you can obviously is a good thing.

• When people come to see you about things, whatever it is they think they’re talking about, they’re really talking about money. They might tell you that the gymnasium needs a new floor or that we need more student counselors in a school, but what they’re talking about is money, and there’s a great reluctance to recognize that because talking about money is considered commercial and vulgar. How much more preferable it is to talk about goals and visions and ambitions, but, in the end, all of those goals and ambitions and visions have to be paid for with money, and because the university president worries about the money, he liberates his colleagues to think higher thoughts.

• Being a university president is a calling. You don’t get offered a job; you get called to a campus.

• A university president is an artist as well as a teacher, because crafting a university is a work of art.

• It says in the book of Luke “to those who much is given, much will be expected.” University presidents are somewhat indulged. You get to live in the big house. But, there’s a reason for that and it doesn’t come free. It incurs personal and professional obligation.

• Learning to turn the other cheek is vital. It makes you stronger and it surprises your critics. Nietzsche once said, “Anything that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” If that’s true, I must be Atlas or Hercules or Sampson!