Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President Emeritus of George Washington University, discusses higher education and his recent book “Big Man on Campus”
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is President Emeritus of George Washington
University after nearly two decades at the helm of that school. He is
the author of “Big Men on Campus, A University President Speaks out on
Higher Education,” and the co-editor of “Letters to the Next President,
Strengthening America’s Foundation in Higher Education.” I am very
pleased to have him join me today to talk about this important topic.
Thanks for joining me.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg:
Not at all, Chip; great to be here.
So, if you were say the secretary of education today and you had to
deliver a speech on the state of higher education, what would it say?
I think it’s in terrific shape. I wish it was less expensive.
I’m concerned that our agenda to keep universities as the world’s
leading and to make access to the available to people from all walks of
life is challenged by the fact that we live in the world of finite
fellows and infinite demand.
and Iraq are sucking up lots of our money and will continue to even
after those wars end and the young men and women come back–because
they’re going to need a lot of help. The new GI Bill, for example, is
going to take a lot of money but thank God it’s going to pass.
now we look at other things. We’ve got 50 million people in America who
don’t have healthcare. We’ve got an infrastructure where bridges are
falling down. In Minneapolis our roads, tunnels, our dams are in
trouble; our inner-city schools. We’ve got a Social Security System
that’s broken. We’ve got a baby-boomer generation that’s going to need
All of these things suggest that there’s going to be a
competition for limited taxpayer resources in the Twenty-first Century.
Higher education is going to have to get a ticket, stand on line, wait
for its share. It needs to be able to explain to a skeptical public why
higher education deserves the resources it gets. And in order to do
that it means not only deliver it, but has to deliver it more
I guess the question is, why is it so expensive? It seems to me that
it’s – since I got out of school 10, 12 years ago things have really
escalated quite a bit cost-wise. And maybe that’s incorrect assumption,
but it seems like it’s growing faster than other things are
expense-wise. And I’m just trying to get a handle on why that is.
It’s true to some extent; it’s growing faster because its sled is
attached to things which cost a lot of money; computers, fuel. And it
is a labor-intensive industry and so it cannot in some ways become more
efficient the way other industries have. For example, in the past many
things that were done manually are today done by technology and through
universities–well, think of a string quartet. If you said to a string
quartet, “Become more efficient.” What would they do; play faster, cut
down to three? It wouldn’t be a string quartet anymore.
too–I mean, classes, we want classes. We want 12 students to a class
for each professor, things of this sort. And we worry that if we have
large classes it won’t be as good. And we have lots of habits that
built like large lectures and things which date back to the medieval
period and which do not allow us to be as contemporary as we should be.
can, in fact, through the use of technology become more efficient. We
can take another look at our degrees. Do our curriculum have to be
exactly the way they are? Today’s paper, there’s an article about
Northwestern University moving its law school curriculum, giving an
option; three years as it presently is or two years.
can save a year of tuition, a year of room and board and get out into
the job market a year sooner if they’re going to be a lawyer. Does that
make sense? And should we be taking a look at whether medicine is
susceptible for that? I know that it is.
So, for example, it
presently takes eight years to become a physician after high
school–four years of college, four years of medical school. But in
fact Boston University for many years ran a six-year integrated BA/MD
degree program and George Washington University has for at least a
decade run a seven-year BA/MD degree program.
And so, what are
the results of those? Do we get inferior doctors? No, we don’t. We get
doctors who perform equally well with those who take an additional year
or two. So, why don’t we all do it quicker, cheaper? Well, because
that’s not the way we do it. We’ve been taking eight years; and maybe
there is some marginal benefit to eight years.
So, at what point
are we willing to say or willing to look at the way we do things and
re-invent them? In Europe more and more universities are going to
three-year baccalaureate degrees. Back in the day, here, when the
students basically mostly graduated from high school and a few went to
college, maybe four years made sense.
Today when so many of our
students go on to graduate degrees, Master’s degrees, Doctorates, Law
degrees, maybe a three-year baccalaureate degree followed by a Master’s
degree is sufficient.
How long do we want to intimanthorize our
students and are we willing to say that in a population which is
educated by technology which is getting so many more degrees, maybe,
maybe we need to take a look at how we do things.
And these are fairly radical ideas. At least in the realm of education
which as you noted is sort of a tradition-bound industry, if you will.
What’s the likelihood that we’re going to see these sorts of changes
happen anytime in the near future?
Nothing much is going to happen immediately.
I think that as the country becomes more aware of the economic
challenges ahead of us and to the extent that there is a candid dialog
between higher education leaders and the leadership of the country and
with parents and other stakeholders in the institution, there will be a
dawning recognition that we need to do what we do better and more
Now, we have to do it carefully. We have here
something which is wonderful. It has served the country well. It has
certain congealities. We need to protect academic freedom; we to act of
the tenure capacity of the universities to service centers of
scholarship as well as learning.
I don’t want to throw the baby
out with the bathwater. I just don’t think that we can go along
clinging to the status quo anti and pretend that the winds of change
which were passing over all of our society are going to leave us alone.
dramatic things are happening over which universities have no control.
Aside from the fact that fuel $4.00 a gallon and that it cost a fortune
to heat universities and to drive vehicles.
What we see for
example in the north-east is a demographic change of immense
proportion. Fewer and fewer people are graduating from high schools and
we know exactly how many people are going to be coming to our high
schools and colleges because they are born 18 years ago. So, all you
have to do is look at the census and it will inform your thinking.
we know today there are 15,000 graduates from high school each year in
main, and the next year there, will be year after, there were going to
be 10,000. The drop of one third, doesn’t that is to says to us, “what
does that mean?” and if that’s true in New Hampshire and Low Mountain
and Lona Island, and well don’t all of have to step back and say, “what
are the implications of demography?” and if demography is destiny, how
are we prepared for our future.
And it’s non-choose that the
numbers are changing, but if you disaggregate the numbers, you discover
that different people are coming, no Americans Spanish, Asians, African
Americans, recent immigrants. And surely, our mission to serve these
people is challenged, because we have to adapt how we address them in
ways that are distinguishable to the way we address students who came
to us with different backgrounds.
So, I just think, I just think
this is a wonderful challenging opportunity for higher education, to
take a minute and think, how can we do, what we are doing better, as we
move into a new time.
One of the things that struck about your book is, when you started out
in Big-ban on campus, you started out telling me a story about, sitting
next to a stranger on an airplane.
And you explained what your job was without saying that you were
university president, but instead you talked about, overseeing all of
the infrastructure and basically it sounded like you were the mayor of
a town or a city.
How much of the fact that universities these days have to do so much
more of that than they did 50 or 75 years ago. How much of that is a
driver of expense and how much is that distracts the university, if you
will, from the core educational mission?
Well we try to keep our eye on the academics at all times, I mean
that’s the reason we are in business at all. And that goes back a
thousand years, so we loose track of that and we might as well close
our doors, but there is no question that the world impacts on us.
9/11, I realized, that I would be expected to protect the campus in
ways that I had not been before. We always had campus security force
but I went out recruited to the university splendid men, who had been a
naval captain, had a PHD as well, so he understood the academy and he
had been the administrator of the Norfolk Naval Station, and I brought
him to the university as an Assistant Vice President, in-charge of
He has completely reorganized our security,
focused, has in conversation with local police and adjacent services,
because we are located as a university George Washington, down the
streets and the White House and the state department and obviously we
have now, I think, as good a security as is possible for us to have.
But I don’t say that in a challenging way, I say it in a way that’s a
concern with the interest of our students and our neighbors and our
So, we are spending money on equipment and plans that
we simply wouldn’t have, a decade or two ago. And that’s not all of it;
congress is constantly passing increasing regulatory obligations to the
university. We are living in a post-and-run, post-robbing, actually
environment in which the transparency of our transactions, our
governing systems is constantly being looked at.
There are just
all sorts of issues now, labor fairness, affirmative action and all of
these things costs money. You want to provide day-care for the infants
of faculty and staff’s children, you have to put some money on the
table. And so, there was constant expense, and the cost of running
first grade universities simply goes up, and it goes up a little faster
inevitably than the cost price index, because the basket of goods and
services which are in the university economy are distinguishable from
the basket of goods and services that are in the conventional cost
So, to really understand university economic, you
have to look at what’s called ‘The higher Education Price Index’ in
which they include computers, and the chemist, chemical laboratory
equipment and things that the conventional home owner doesn’t buy on a
How do and how should, collegian athletics factor into the university
experience? Obviously while you were President of GW, the basketball
team got some new positive attention. Is that something that, I mean, I
guess what you should take on that and how should universities look at
that going forward?
Well, I think it’s distinguishable from institution to institution. But
as a general rule, I think athletics clearly have to be subordinate to
the, we are not in the athletics business as the primary business of
the university, that ought to be subordinate to the.
and scholarships and the things that students and faculty do own. We
have to choose between having a great library or a great football team,
we ought to put the money on the books and on the computers and the
other equipments that students and scholars need.
That said, I
think, inter collegian athletics can be a very positive and very
constructive force, a very good co-campus spirit. Outstanding students
like to go to universities that have robust and vigorous and exciting
athletics programs. I stand with the Greeks, I’m in favor of a sound
mind and a sound body, I like the idea that students engage in
watching, inspecting the sports, but I am even more committed, the
sports programs in which the students themselves are engaged, and they
learn live sports, tennis, squash, racket ball, swimming.
that will allow them to stay physically sound, throughout their lives.
That will be stress reducing, even as they become more mature lawyers,
doctors, professors, professionals on their own. I think sports’ is a
normal and healthy point of life and we ought not turn our back on it,
but we ought to understand that is not our north star.
I’d like to circle back to something you had said earlier when you were
talking about the cost of higher education in particular and you had
talked about how labor intensive it is. From the perspective of labor,
are university faculties, the way they are currently structured,
typically with tenure tracks and that sort of thing and typical course
loads decreasing over time as you spend more time in the institution,
is that something that should stay the way it is because it fosters
academic freedom that you were talking about or is it something that
also needs to be looked at when you look at the overall higher
We have to look at how we use human resources. There is no question
about it. We have become too reliant on part time casualized faculty. I
think this is not a healthy thing. We have done that largely to reduce
the full time teaching responsibilities of our regular faculty to give
them time for research and scholarship.
think we need to step back and take a look at the entire way we run
ourselves. I talked about it before, the development of curriculum, the
development of degrees, teaching responsibilities of faculty full time
and adjunct faculty. I think we need to try to figure out ways to pay
appropriate salaries to people in all aspects of the university.
think they probably ought to be pure adjunct faculty, more full time
tenure track faculty. I think tenure itself and I have been a critic of
tenure for a long time. And I keep thinking about it again and again
and I have concluded that it is ultimately a useful instrument in the
university. We pay a price for it and thus provide academic freedom
sense on the part of faculty that they can be a little outspoken, that
they can propose radical ideas.
And yes, every once in a while
you get some crackpot or some crank faculty member and that is an
annoyance of public relations problems with president of university. So
what? Tell the president to suck it up, tell the board of trustees to
protect the president and understand the tradition of the university
and let the crazy professor be crazy if he wants to.
have that many in the larger scheme of things and if in a thousand
faculties there is one who is a little strange, so what? That said,
when the Federal Government did away with the mandatory retirement age
at 65, we forgot to take a look at the fact that tenured faculty fell
under it. Tenure, when I came into this world, consisted of a 30-year
contract. Most people got tenured around the age of 35 and they retired
around the age of 65. And so, tenure really was a 30-year arrangement.
the law changed, nobody looked at tenure and so tenure now is a
lifetime contract. What that ignores, the AARP notwithstanding, is the
fact that when people get to 65 or make it 70 or make it 72, they are
not the same energetic bunnies that they were at 40. So, I concluded
that we don’t want to take tenure away from the university, quite the
contrary. We want to strengthen it by adjusting it.
And I think
it ought to be a 30-year award. You get tenure, you get 30 years. At
age 65 or 67, tenure turns into one-year rolling contracts and every
year the university and the faculty member ought to take a look and
make a judgment, do they want to continue it. And maybe at those
points, the university can say to somebody who is now 70, 71, 72 years
old: Professor Trachtenberg, how about next year be your last year?
that can be done with courtesy and with an elegance that taking tenure
away from somebody can’t. It puts a different burden on the individual,
a different burden on the university. Anyway, I have gone from being a
critic of tenure to concluding that with its flaws, it actually serves
to make our university stronger.
What role should the Federal Government have in making some of the
changes to higher education that need to be made and how do you see
this year’s election affecting that?
Well, I have written that we haven’t had a President who really
conspicuously had an affection for the life of the mind and
universities and professors perhaps since Kennedy. There were hopeful
signs in the Clinton administration, but what we have more recently are
Presidents who take universities sort of for granted and one has a
sense that they view intellectuals as pointy headed irrelevance rather
than being at the absolute center of the future of our nation, that
they are training the young people who will in fact be our leaders and
our followers in the years to come.
is not any specific program that the administrations ought to be
looking at, although eventually they will have to do that, it is the
attitude, the posture of the Federal Government towards its centers of
learning that concern me. I would like a President who seems happy and
respectful in the company of scholars.
I would like to see a
President who is known to be a leader, a person of ideas, somebody who
reaches out comprehensively towards the values of learning and teaching
and of the quest in knowledge. And I think that is possible in both of
the candidates’ future if you look at the people who are around them. I
know people who advise them. And I am optimistic that we will see a
better attitude towards universities in the years to come.
And on that note of optimism, we have reached the end of this show. So,
our guest today has been Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President Emeritus
of George Washington University and author of “Big Man On Campus: A
University President Speaks Out on Higher Education.” Thanks for
Chip, thank you very much.