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Julie Woodford

How President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg transformed the University one brick—and one person—at a time.

By Leslie Milk

Under Trachtenberg’s leadership, GW opened or renovated nearly a dozen buildings. Among them: The Media and Public Affairs Building opened on the corner of 21st and H Streets in 2001.

Julie Woodford

According to the District of Columbia, Dec. 4, 2006, was Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Day in Washington. The mayor’s proclamation praised Trachtenberg as “one who exemplified the spirit, vitality, and deeds that enhanced the quality of life in the District of Columbia.”

But for The George Washington University students, faculty, neighbors, and many in the city of Washington, every day for the past 19 plus years has been Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Day. Trachtenberg has excited, exhorted, encouraged—and occasionally infuriated—some or all of them. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

When he came to Washington in 1987 to meet with the search committee seeking a University president to follow Lloyd Elliott, “They asked me if I wanted to challenge myself at a university whose faculty wanted to go to the next level, “ Trachtenberg recalls. “They wanted a president to work with them to make that happen.”

What he found was “an established university that had room to grow and was uniquely positioned to add to its academic reputation,” Trachtenberg says. He also found a campus that didn’t look like a campus and a faculty and a student body who felt that they couldn’t compare to the other “George” in town. In addition, GW wasn’t taking full advantage of one of its greatest assets—its location at the heart of the nation’s capital. For a Brooklyn-born city boy like Trachtenberg, that was an opportunity to be relished. Capitalizing on the capital would be a win-win for both the city and the university, he believed.

Nearly 20 years later, Trachtenberg has surpassed many of his original aspirations and, in the words of The Washington Post, “helped transform the school from a sleepy institution to one of national stature.” In the process, he became the longest-serving university president in Washington in an era where university presidents who last more than a decade are as rare as spotted owls.

Many of his accomplishments are visible and quantifiable. For example, Trachtenberg raised the University’s endowment from $200 million to $1 billion.

But the full impact Trachtenberg has had requires a long-range view. “It’s not the stones, it’s the mosaic,” he says. “There are lots of bits and pieces. Take for example our school of public health: These things, once you develop them, take on a life of their own that carries them forward. That school is going to make a contribution to the city, to the country, and to the world.”

The state-of-the-art Duquès Hall, home to the School of Business, opened in 2006.

Julie Woodford

If You Build It ....

Bricks and mortar do not make a university, but they do make a university more attractive to both the faculty and students, Trachtenberg believes. “It’s not an edifice complex. You are building buildings because they are tools for academic work and for scholarship,” he says.

Under Trachtenberg’s leadership, GW opened or renovated nearly a dozen buildings, including the Media and Public Affairs Building and the establishment within of the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, the Annette and Theodore Lerner Family Health and Wellness Center, and 1957 E Street, home to GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs and the Department of Geography. The Marc C. Abrams Great Hall was dedicated in 2002, J Street Dining in the Marvin Center was completed in 2004, and Duquès Hall, home to the School of Business, opened in 2006. There also are five new residence halls on the Foggy Bottom Campus.

The University substantially upgraded its library system—there are more than two million books in its libraries now and GW was accepted for membership in the prestigious Association of Research Libraries.

At the same time, GW added two new campuses. The 95-acre Virginia Campus in Ashburn, Va., opened in 1991 with graduate programs in transportation safety and security, public health and homeland security, professional and executive education, and information technology and telecommunications. The Virginia Campus has more than a dozen laboratories and research centers—fueled by partnerships with Northern Virginia’s high-tech companies.

In 1997, the University acquired Mount Vernon College on Foxhall Road in Northwest D.C. Just three miles west of the Foggy Bottom Campus, the Mount Vernon Campus is home to classrooms, laboratories, interior design studios, various athletic and recreation facilities, and residence halls.

During the Trachtenberg era, GW created the School of Public Health and Health Services, the School of Public Policy and Public Administration, the College of Professional Studies, the Graduate School of Political Management, and the School of Media and Public Affairs.

“Buildings alone don’t teach,” Trachtenberg said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Duquès Hall, a new facility for GW’s School of Business. “But... buildings like Duquès and Funger Halls provide us with the space, technology, and the modalities that are absolutely necessary for the contemporary study of business.”

Trachtenberg also oversaw the opening of the new GW Hospital, the first hospital to open in the District of Columbia in more than 25 years. “We have world-class doctors who deserve a world-class facility,” he says.

A major enhancement to GW’s aesthetics during Trachtenberg’s presidency is the addition of the Mid-Campus Quad and Kogan Plaza, which have become gathering places for students. Trachtenberg led many improvements to the campus, including the addition of banners, statues, and archways.

Julie Woodford

The location and reputation of GW’s medical school and medical center have attracted some very prominent patients and they, in turn, have enabled the University to increase its treatment and research capabilities. The Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine was established in 1991 to honor GW doctors for saving President Reagan’s life. Just last year, Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been treated by GW cardiac surgeons, and his wife, Lynne, donated $2.7 million to create the Richard B. and Lynne V. Cheney Cardiovascular Institute at GW.

When he arrived at GW, Trachtenberg inherited a campus that had expanded without rhyme or reason. As the University grew, it had often acquired buildings that had been designed for other purposes. The Foggy Bottom Campus was undistinguished and undefined. “There is no there there,” observers quipped.

“He had a sense from the first day that the campus had the potential for physical and aesthetic cohesion,” says Trachtenberg’s wife Francine Zorn Trachtenberg. “He began to envision ways to give it form and shape.”

“We put a little lipstick on, we put a little kohl under the eyes,” Trachtenberg says of his campus beautification initiative.

Four large busts of George Washington now grace the Foggy Bottom Campus. There are iron and stone gates to delineate the campus, banners in GW colors on light posts, new brick walkways, outdoor sculptures, vest-pocket parks, and teak benches. The Mid-Campus Quad with its Kogan Plaza, fountain, and tempietto has become a gathering place for students—the University’s outdoor living room.

Time to Teach, Time to Research

GW has had a 25 percent increase in full-time faculty members since 1988, including a 90 percent increase in the number of women faculty members and a 175 percent increase in the number of minority faculty members. “Over time, we’ve recruited new, young, scholarly faculty who are committed to teaching,” Trachtenberg says. “We’ve provided them with the facilities they need to do their research—laboratories, computers, and time. Time can never be underestimated as a resource for professors.”

Improving faculty salaries was another Trachtenberg goal achieved. Competitive salaries are a powerful recruiting tool—GW salaries for full professors, associate professors, and assistant professors now rank in the 80th percentile or higher, according to the American Association of University professors.

The number of endowed chairs has more than doubled. GW also has seven University Professors on campus—a designation created to attract renowned scholars. As of Aug. 1, Trachtenberg will join their ranks as he becomes the University Professor of Public Service. Upon his departure from GW, this professorship will forever become the Stephen Joel Trachtenberg University Professor of Public Service.

During his presidency, Trachtenberg has taken advantage of GW’s closeness to the seats of power to lure professionals from the federal government, medical and research centers, businesses, and international organizations to teach at the University on a part-time basis. Then there are the teachers who never see the inside of a classroom—the world and national leaders who come to speak on campus. Because of the quality of its students and faculty, as well as its location, GW has become such a popular venue that a U.S. senator recently called Trachtenberg to ask if he could speak on campus. He had a new book coming out, the senator said, and he wanted to talk about it at GW.

In addition, students have had opportunities to learn from topflight broadcast journalists. Since April 2002, CNN has aired 775 programs including Crossfire, On The Story, and Reliable Sources from GW’s Media and Public Affairs Building, with 260 students serving as production interns and 123,000 students, faculty members, staff members, area residents, and visitors to the nation’s capital participating as audience members.

Scholarly research also has flourished during the Trachtenberg years. Total research funding has nearly quadrupled from $33 million in 1988 to nearly $132 million in 2006. GW now houses 80 chartered research centers and institutes—up from 58 in the late 1990s.

The work of these research centers has advanced scholarship and yielded important real-world benefits. For example, the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine had been working for a decade on international emergency medicine, and disaster response and prevention when disaster struck on 9/11. The institute was able to assist FEMA and the World Trade Center, and was involved in search-and-rescue at the Pentagon.

A $1.5-million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation helped to create the Institute for Proteomics Technology and Applications. The institute benefits from the combined efforts of three GW schools and is already developing a protein microscope to allow researchers to see proteins interacting in living tissue. The hope is that scientists will be able to use this information to develop new treatments for diseases that cause nerve degeneration, such as ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Research at GW runs the gamut from discovering dinosaurs in China to digging for evidence of King Solomon in the Israeli desert, to developing on its Virginia Campus a Drowsy Driver Detection System, which warns sleepy drivers to pull off the road.

In addition to the investigative work of GW’s faculty researchers and graduate students, the George Gamow Undergraduate Research Fellowship was inaugurated in 2002 to encourage talented undergraduates by getting them involved in faculty research projects. The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Luther Rice Undergraduate Research Fellowships, started in 2003, support projects generated by more advanced students. These kinds of academic opportunities have helped GW to attract the best and brightest students in its history.

“Quality Students Bring Joy to a Professor’s Heart”

GW added two new campuses during Trachtenberg’s presidency. The 95-acre Virginia Campus in Ashburn, Va., opened in 1991. In 1997, the University acquired Mount Vernon College on Foxhall Road in Northwest D.C. GW’s athletics fields are now located at the Mount Vernon Campus, pictured here.

Claire Duggan

The George Washington University is now a first choice school for many high school students. When Trachtenberg arrived, there were 6,389 applicants for the freshman class, and 78 percent were admitted. In 2006, the applicant pool jumped to 19,500, and the acceptance rate for incoming freshmen fell to 37 percent.

“We’ve got a buzz going on now,” Trachtenberg says.

The ability of GW to attract a bigger and better applicant pool is no accident. Trachtenberg has made a conscious and concerted effort to make GW more visible and more prestigious to a wider group of students. “I’m going to use words that most university presidents are embarrassed by,” he says. “At some level, you have to think of potential students as customers.” To attract these customers, the University stepped up its efforts in strengthening and expanding academic programs, facilities, student services, and athletic programs, among others.

Creating new academic programs geared to high achievers was one way to demonstrate GW’s capacity to challenge top-ranked students and show that a big school could think small. The University Honors Program began in the mid 1990s with classes of no more than 20, special seminars, and provocative topics like “The Politics, Philosophy, and Economics of Poverty.” In 2003, the University Writing Program was created, offering another opportunity for students to study in small groups. The expectation of the program is that students will become better writers and more engaged in their education.

GW also launched select undergraduate programs that encourage dialogue between students and professors—the Dean’s Seminar Series in Columbian College, the Dean’s Scholars in Globalization Program, and the Women’s Leadership Program on the Mount Vernon Campus.

Trachtenberg also recognized the importance of athletics in building a university’s visibility and school spirit. “The very best students like to come to a school where there is good athletic opportunity for them and good athletic performance by the school’s teams,” he says. He points to Duke and Stanford as universities that boast both academic excellence and outstanding athletic programs.

GW’s basketball program flourished during Trachtenberg’s tenure. Here, President Bill Clinton, daughter Chelsea, and Chelsea’s friend join President Trachtenberg, his wife, Francine, and their son, Ben, in the Charles E. Smith Athletic Center for the GW v. U. Mass game on Feb. 4, 1995. GW defeated U. Mass., 78–75.

Enter men’s basketball coach Mike Jarvis. Hired to coach the Colonials in 1990, he led GW to three NCAA tournament appearances, including the “Sweet Sixteen” in 1993. In the 2005-06 season, the men’s team went undefeated in regular season A-10 play under leadership of current coach Karl Hobbs. This season, longtime women’s coach Joe McKeown, who has coached his GW team to 13 NCAA appearances, was named A-10 coach of the year for the fifth time after leading his team to an undefeated A-10 regular season. Once somewhat empty during home games, GW’s Charles E. Smith Athletic Center now vibrates during home games, with cheering fans raising the roof.

At the same time, Trachtenberg helped to break down financial barriers that might keep excellent students out of GW. Since 1987, student financial aid expenditures have risen from $14 million to $118 million. To take the mystery out of tuition planning, he created the Fixed-Tuition and Guaranteed Institutional Financial Assistance Program in 2004. Incoming freshmen are guaranteed that their tuition costs will remain the same for their full-time undergraduate studies for up to five years. Likewise, their minimum financial assistance is guaranteed for up to 10 semesters. Their aid amount can increase but not drop below the minimum they are granted when they come to GW.

Everything that Makes Washington Better Makes GW Better

The first year he was president of GW, Steve Trachtenberg, who is Jewish, spent every other Sunday at one of the city’s many churches. It was a way to say that the University wasn’t just in Washington, it was inexorably linked to the city. GW is the largest private employer in the District and many of its employees and alums live in D.C. Trachtenberg has chaired the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and served on the boards of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the Federal City Council, and the Greater Washington Urban League.

But Trachtenberg wanted to do more.

“I want people to know us as the University that contributes more to Washington than any other institution,” he has said.

For 18 years, the University has offered the “Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholars” program, which has provided more than 84 academically talented D.C. Public High School seniors with full, four-year scholarships covering tuition, room and board, books, and fees. GW’s total commitment since the inception of the program is more than $12 million. The scholarships, along with other grants and work-study programs, make GW the largest single post-secondary contributor of aid to D.C. Public Schools for the last 13 years.

Julie Woodford

The Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholars program, started in 1989, has awarded more than $13.5 million to 93 of D.C. Public Schools’ best and brightest graduates. They receive free tuition, books, fees, and room and board. Originally called the 21st Century Scholars Program, GW’s Board of Trustees renamed the program in 1998 to honor Trachtenberg and to celebrate his first decade in office. The scholarships, along with other grants and work-study programs, make GW the largest single provider of post-high school aid to students from the D.C. public schools. It’s a way to keep potential community leaders close to home, Trachtenberg believes.

Many of GW’s schools and colleges are involved directly in supporting D.C. schools. The medical center is involved in several health outreach programs to District residents. Teams of undergraduates and MBA candidates have assisted businesses in D.C.’s economic development zones. In 2005-06, more than 2,000 GW students and faculty and staff members volunteered for more than 54,000 hours with 66 community partners. GW also works with more than 300 FRIENDS, a group of Foggy Bottom/West End residents, to collaborate on neighborhood issues.

Working to make Washington better is enlightened self-interest, Trachtenberg believes. “It’s the only way to enhance the institution and have a chance at greatness. And it’s fun.” He applauds the arrival of every new restaurant or new museum. “It’s the multiplier effect,” he says. Everything that makes Washington better makes GW better.

He’s particularly pleased about Washington’s new baseball team and city stadium. Trachtenberg never forgave Walter O’Malley for moving the Dodgers from his native Brooklyn to Los Angeles.

The Trachtenberg Touch

Trachtenberg credits his wife for making his career possible. “I’m Francine’s husband. I don’t mind being introduced that way,” he says. In fact, the decision to come to GW was a joint one. When it looked like Trachtenberg was a serious candidate for the GW presidency, Francine came with him to Washington to see the school and the city. Her only other visit to Washington had been a childhood tour of the monuments.

Francine remembers her tour of the campus with Ron Howard, a longtime GW administrator, who was designated as her guide. Howard had been instructed that Trachtenberg’s visit was confidential. As they walked around GW, Howard was greeted by many faculty members and students. He’d stop to chat but never introduced his companion. After several of these encounters, Francine told Howard that she was uncomfortable being treated like the woman who wasn’t there. They compromised—he introduced her but told no one why she was there.

Francine Zorn Trachtenberg has served the University in many areas. President Trachtenberg credits her for making his career possible. A scholar in her own right, she has taught courses in the Department of Fine Arts and Art History. In addition to opening her home for countless events for students, the faculty and staff, alumni, and others, she has vigorously supported the University’s art galleries and artistic efforts, volunteered her time for many GW and D.C. causes, and shared her experiences by participating in the University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference.

Although her field of study was art history, Francine takes no credit or blame for the bronze hippopotamus that now graces the center of the GW campus at H and 21st Streets. The family had been on vacation and Francine left early to go back to work. Trachtenberg announced that he had sent her a gift. Then a delivery truck arrived with two stone planters and the hippo. She instructed the driver to unload the planters at the house and told her husband to find another home for the hippo.

Trachtenberg presented the bronze beast to the University’s graduating class of 2000. Why a hippopotamus? GW legend has it that hippos once frolicked in the Potomac River to the delight of George and Martha Washington, who watched them from the porch at Mount Vernon. Hippos were credited with bringing fertility to the plantation and luck to anyone who could get close enough to touch one of the beast’s noses.

While there are, in fact, no confirmed reports of hippo sightings in the annals of American history, the GW hippo often is pictured in the commemorative photos families take of students on campus. It has become an unofficial mascot with its own Web site. Trachtenberg has received hippos as gifts ever since.

It comes as no surprise to anyone who knows him that Trachtenberg has decided to reinvent himself as a University Professor of Public Service after he leaves the GW presidency. He had already had four professional lives—as an energy lawyer, a Congressional aide cum education-policy wonk, a doctoral candidate, and an assistant to the U.S. Commissioner of Education—before he arrived at Boston University as associate dean in 1969.

He’ll teach an introductory course on public policy. He also plans to write a book or two. His first will be an “irreverent memoir” of a university president, being published by Simon & Schuster in the fall. Trachtenberg has often said that university presidents give up their first amendment rights. He is ready to reclaim his. “Maybe I’m just beginning,” he says.

What has now become a popular, though unofficial, mascot of GW, the bronze hippo statue arrived on campus as a gift to the graduating class of 2000 from President Trachtenberg. Legend has it that hippos once frolicked in the Potomac River to the delight of George and Martha Washington, who watched them from the porch at Mount Vernon. Hippos were credited with bringing fertility to the plantation and luck to anyone who could get close enough to touch one of the animal’s noses.

Jessica McConnell

An ardent writer of letters, as evidenced in Write Me a Letter! The Wit and Wisdom of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, published last year by The New Yorker Co. and its Cartoon Bank, Trachtenberg often can be found composing correspondence to associates and friends. Five years ago, Trachtenberg wrote to Julius Edelstein, senior chancellor emeritus of the City University of New York on the occasion of Edelstein’s 90th birthday:

“I have taken you as my role model and recently told the chairman of my board that if GW will have me... at 70, I plan to do what you have done, namely, become a professor... do some teaching and writing, and pretend that I am thinking.

“Francine claims it would be good for us to take up dancing. Having made it all these years without dancing, I’m not certain I agree. ...Also, I’d like to have a dog. I always wanted a dog, but my mother would not permit a dog when I was a boy since we lived in an apartment in Brooklyn, and she alleged it would not be fair to keep a dog cooped up. I remonstrated that the apartment was good enough for me—to no avail. I can report with authority that hamsters are not a satisfactory alternative. Hamsters I had. On reflection I could have done without them.”

Leslie Milk is the lifestyle editor of The Washingtonian magazine.