Take Five with Stephen Joel Trachtenberg ’59

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg ’59 is President and University Professor of Public Service Emeritus at The George Washington University. He was GW’s 15th president, from 1988 to 2007. Trachtenberg went to GW from the University of Hartford, where he had been president for 11 years. He also held positions as VP and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, and served as the special assistant to the U.S. Education Commissioner, Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Trachtenberg is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Phi Beta Kappa and the Bankinter Foundation in Madrid. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences the American Bar Foundation and the National Academy of Public Administration.

Trachtenberg has published seven books and sat on numerous boards. He earned a J.D. from Yale and an M.P.A. from Harvard. In addition, he holds 20-plus honorary doctoral degrees, including a 2007 Doctor of Laws from Columbia. Trachtenberg and his wife, Francine Zorn Trachtenberg, have two sons and four grandchildren.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was an outer-borough kid, trying to study his way across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, and succeeded by a hair when I got into Columbia off the waitlist, only a couple of weeks before classes began. I was delighted to be on Morningside Heights, but because of the tentative way I arrived, I was nervous about whether I would be able to pull my weight. Between the preppies and the hoard of Bronx Science alumni, I felt academically outclassed. I’m pleased to say I did well enough to go on to Yale Law!

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

Improbably, I was placed in a triple — a room with two seniors. They were friendly enough but inappropriate for a green freshman. After a couple of months, some housing crisis resulted in another freshman being added to our mix. He and I hit it off, and despite the room became more crowded, the environment was better for me. The seniors got me into a whale of trouble by inducing me to join them in dropping water balloons from our fifth-floor window onto people walking on Amsterdam Avenue. Unhappily, we once hit the secretary of the dean of students. She walked across the street, counted the windows vertically and horizontally and figured out our room. The following day we were summoned to the dean’s office and put on probation.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

I had Bernard Wishy ’48, GSAS’58 for CC and began a friendship with him that lasted until his death. He was a remarkable teacher and defined the Core experience for me. Alas, he was denied tenure — a wound that never healed despite a successful and productive career with extensive scholarship.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

My girlfriend discovered it was possible to go to the top of the tower at Riverside Church. I recall a small room; immediately above was a 20-ton bourdon bell. The room was generally empty and had a comfortable couch on which we would occasionally have some private time. Once, the bell began tolling, and it practically deafened us for life.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I’d do the whole thing over from start to finish. This time, aided by experience, I would know to read more broadly, more deeply, more extensively. I would recognize the unique opportunity provided and be sure to use the resources to enrich and inform the balance of my years.

[Editor’s note: Trachtenberg was unable to deliver his planned address to his class at his 60th reunion this past June; his speech can now be read online.]