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“We’re not going to fix the problem of elitism by doing away with standards.”

“We’re not going to fix the problem of elitism by doing away with standards.”

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, sits down with Peter Skerry and Suzanne Garment to reflect on his life, the education debates—and why he’s not woke. “I had hoped by now America would have fixed its Black problem or its White problem.”

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Peter Skerry, Suzanne Garment

Steve Trachtenberg: As I anticipated our conversation, I was reminded of a very funny story. I was working for the Korn Ferry consulting firm, helping them search for a new dean at Yeshiva University law school. One professor said she had a terrific idea: She suggested Stanley Fish. I pointed out that Stanley Fish, although he was a professor of law, was not admissible to the bar, since he had never gone to law school. “OK,” she said, “if Fish is no good, how about Alan Dershowitz?”

So I said, “Listen, I know Alan Dershowitz exceedingly well. He was not only a classmate of mine; he was best man at my wedding. Alan Dershowitz is a very smart guy, but he’s as inappropriate to be a law dean as any human being that’s ever trod the planet.” So she said, “You think you know him well? I have his telephone number on speed dial.” And I said, “Listen, I don’t need speed dial. I talk to him so often that I have his number memorized. I edit things that he writes. And in any case, he won’t take the job.”

One of the many things I’ve learned over the course of my career is that faculty have no bloody idea about anything—and the last thing in the world they know about is how to pick their leaders. They pick the worst people to become deans, and they pick them for all kinds of symbolic reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to do the job.

Suzanne Garment: So why do you think faculty are so dumb about such things?

ST: They have mixed agendas. Frequently, they want the weakest team they can get. It’s dumb. If the school needs leadership, or it needs certain skills, they ignore the skills—and their agendas don’t necessarily include the welfare of the school.

SG: How long did you practice law before you got into education?

ST: Even when I was practicing law, I wasn’t practicing law. I was in the general counsel’s office in some kind of an honors program at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. They sent me to the University of Virginia for a course in government contracting at the Army JAG [Judge Advocate General] school. Then I came back to the office, which was doing contracting with universities all up and down the East Coast. We were reviewing the contracts, but it was pretty much boilerplate.

SG: Those would have been what years, roughly?

ST: I got out of law school in ’62. So that would have been ’62, ’63, ’64. I was talking on the phone one afternoon to a friend who was working for a Congressman by the name of John Brademas from South Bend, Indiana. This guy told me he was going away for six months and the Congressman was looking for a new assistant. I said, “Great, I’m happy to move anywhere.” So, I took the job. Brademas was on the House Education and Labor Committee. And suddenly there was a whole new universe I had to learn about, which was higher ed issues. This was 1966. The date is important, because in 1965 you had the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and then you got the Higher Education Act.

I got the job and had the opportunity to work with all this higher education legislation. After that, my career got a little crazy. I became the assistant to the U.S. commissioner of education. And I was like a tattoo on him for two years. We went everywhere together. Meetings with the President. I was writing speeches. I even testified a few times when he couldn’t go. Anyhow, it was a fascinating and wonderful experience.

SG: How long did you stay there?

ST: I stayed for the entire Johnson Administration. Then Nixon got elected and I got a letter saying I was a Schedule C appointee and they were letting me go. So, I get into the elevator to go to lunch and there’s a guy standing next to me and he’s got the same letter. He says, “Yeah, I just got a job. I’m going to be the new dean at Boston University.” So I said, “Well, that sounds like a lot of fun. I was briefly the assistant dean at the Harvard Ed School.”

He says, “I’m Calvin Lee.” It turns out he was the associate dean of students at Columbia College when I was an undergraduate. He says to me, “Listen, I’m going to need an assistant dean.” I said, “Nah, I’ve already been an assistant.” He said, “All right. We’ll make you an associate dean.” I said, “Well, does it come with a professorship?” He said, “Well, I couldn’t possibly give you tenure.” I said, “Who needs tenure? I’m not even married.” So he said, “Well, I could make you an associate professor.” I said, “Okay, of what?” And he says, “I’ve got politics available.” I said, “Great!” So I became associate dean and associate professor of politics, and I went to Boston University (BU). And I launched my career in university administration.

SG: Is that how you met [former BU president] John Silber?

ST: The president of the university was having a nervous breakdown, because there were constantly demonstrations against the war and one thing or another. And he leaves to become head of the College Board. Then Marx Wartofsky chairs a search committee and thinks that Silber is a left winger, which Marx is. So, they recruit Silber, and it turns out that in Texas, Silber was a left winger. But when you moved him to Boston, his politics made him a right winger. It’s like the Trump Administration: one Vice President goes, another Vice President goes, and I’m the only guy hanging on there. I’m having a good time. And I was single. These other guys had families and mortgages and orthodontist appointments, and I didn’t have any of that stuff.

When Silber would say something that I disagreed with, I told him I disagreed. I watched him eviscerate people in public. On one occasion, I took him aside when we were alone and said, “You can call me anything you want. But if you ever do that to me in public, I’m going to quit. I want to lay that card down right now, so I never have to lay it down in reality.” And he respected that. So, even when he was really pissed at me, which was frequent, I became the guy who would tell him “no.”

SG: How do you see things at universities these days, Steve? What do you make of the situation?

ST: I am very concerned, and I think we’re going to go through some very hard times—some of which we would have had to go through in any event, because demography is destiny. While we have expanded our universe, so that we educate people of all ages and races and colors and genders, basically it’s a business that serves eighteen year olds. And everybody who’s going to be eighteen for the next eighteen years is already born. So, we know precisely, demographically, how many of them there are and where they are. And we know there are fewer of them every year for the next eighteen years. So there’s going to be a shrinkage in the basic constituency.

This has been accelerated by the coronavirus. The combination of the trends, along with an increasing disillusionment with higher education by the American public—and not only the people but the people who represent them, which is to say, state legislators—has resulted in inhibited financing. So I think universities and colleges are going to be increasingly challenged. You see the beginning of that in small colleges. Becker College closed the other day. It’s a small liberal arts college. It’s been around for 130 years or so. And they just snapped their door shut. Six students showed up. We’re going to see more and more of that.

Part of the problem is that the faculty are not willing participants in the sacrifice that is going to be called for to transform the institutions so they can deal with some of the problems and become more efficient. I’m as sympathetic as any faculty member about the corporatization of the universities. I have an agenda of how universities could respond. If I were a sitting president, I know what I would do, or I’d try to do.

But most presidents will not do it. It calls for a certain amount of courage. It’s going to call for change. What faculty like is progress. Trustees like progress. But nobody likes change. People don’t like change. The reason the B.A. degree is four years is not because of some academic scholarly judgment that was made. It has to do with a guy named Henry Dunster who leaves Cambridge, England, around 1640. He moves to the United States. He becomes the first president of Harvard and institutes what he knew from Cambridge, England, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And we get a four-year B.A. degree. Shortly after he departed, Cambridge—the old Cambridge—switched to a three-year B.A. degree, as did Oxford.

I think the United States ought to take a look at a three-year B.A. degree. I, frankly, think it’s sufficient for most people. Many people who need more are going on these days to professional degrees. So, we would immediately force a rethinking of the B.A. curriculum.

We might also take a look at the calendar. I get this calendar every Christmas from the guy that does my car, and it’s got twelve months. I get this calendar every year from the university. It’s got eight months. Somebody has stolen four months. If we could restore the four months to the academic calendar, we would use our physical plant better. We would use our personnel better. It’s an opportunity to really think through how we do what we do, what our products are, what our services are, how we serve. There’s this whole mantra of research, much of which I think is an illusion and of no particular application. We have people who don’t really like writing things, forcing themselves to do it because it’s the only way they can get promoted or get raises.

We need to take a look at higher education more honestly. I think a lot of campuses are going to close—small, unendowed institutions, many of which were founded when the wagon trains went from the East to the West. Every time the wagon stopped, they opened a post office, a church, a little college. It’s a great tragedy—a lot of blood and a lot of life and a lot of devotion and money. But the world has changed.

SG: How does that development interact with the current disputes about wokeness?

ST: I think the disputes about wokeness are overstated. I think we’re going through a nonsense period that will burn itself out. Now, you’re dealing with an old-fashioned liberal. And so, you can imagine, I don’t think of myself as a contemporary spokesman for some of those issues. I’m still a devotee of Martin Luther King. When I read about all-Black dormitories at colleges these days, which I do from time to time, I’m always tempted to send a note to the president saying, “Today the dormitories, tomorrow the water fountains.” But I restrain myself most of the time, because I’m no longer a personal participant in these struggles. I think, frankly, that these are issues that elderly spectators like myself ought to allow the people who are in the field to work their way through. You can imagine, I’m not a devotee of wokeness, although I have devoted my career, if it was at all possible, to fighting racism. And I’m no less committed to that today than I was when I was thirteen. (One of my bar mitzvah gifts was a lifetime membership in the NAACP.)

Peter Skerry: I agree with much of that, except that I detect in it a certain hopefulness that this is just temporary. That’s what you said, what we’re going through. I’m not sure I share that. I’m fortunate or unfortunate enough to be at a university these days, and I’m not so hopeful that this intellectual style and substance are passing things.

ST: I think your observation needs to be taken very seriously, and to some extent you’re quite right. My comments are based on aspiration that the needle will go back. I’m on the board of an organization called ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni). I think of myself as their balance wheel. I’m probably the most left on the board, and then there are some people who are really right. I’m always having to try to reassure them that it’s not the end of the world.

If they take a look at the history of higher education, the truth of the matter is that students will be disruptive for one reason or another. Oxford put walls around the colleges to keep the townies out and to keep the students in. When I was a young administrator at BU, it was the Vietnam period. And I remember all sorts of sit-ins and demonstrations; I practically came to fisticuffs with Howard Zinn on several occasions. And, of course, John Silber was such a ramrod and so inflexible. There was a student at BU, president of the student government or something, who was opposed to Silber. And in order to demonstrate his sentiments, he went on a hunger strike. The Boston Globe asked Silber what he thought of this kid going on hunger strike. Silber said he thought it would actually be good; he thought it would help the kid’s complexion clear up. I was the only one in the room who laughed.

PS: I think I get your drift. A different way of going at this would be to shorten the four years to three years. I know I sound like an old fart, but my wife is not an old fart, and she also teaches at Boston College, and we’re both overwhelmed by how poorly educated our students are. They really are. So, I can see an argument for three years of undergraduate education—but I can also see an argument for five years.

ST: I could buy into five. I think we need to have choices. Look, I am concerned that we’re compromising degrees all over the place. I’m very concerned about the great debate going on in New York about admissions to the Bronx High School of Science.

I’m genuinely torn about it, because there is something deeply disturbing about the fact that they have this niche, city-wide competition. And they admit, I don’t know, a thousand kids and five Black kids get in. There’s something really wrong there.

So OK, you’re the mayor of New York. What do you do about this? What the mayor says is, “We’re going to chill the thermometer and cure the fever.” Well, that’s absolutely bloody crazy. You take out the exam and it’s no longer the Bronx High School of Science. You’ve got your admissions problem solved—and you’ve turned all the Asians into Republicans, because they feel they’ve been screwed. The next thing you have is a fight about racism, because persons of color are flunking the courses. So then you adapt the courses, and what you have is woke mathematics. Down that road lies madness.

So, what would I do? I think open another high school. You open it in Harlem, or you open it in Bedford-Stuyvesant. You develop a program that recruits minority youngsters to those high schools, and you make them walking distance from the kids’ homes. I’d be as proactive as could be, because I think it’s imperative that the country have African-American doctors and lawyers and engineers. But I don’t think you do it by putting water in the whiskey.

PS: But if you did that, you’d have charges once again. You’d have a segregated high school, or a lot of Black nationalist or woke scholarship suffusing it. You’d have another big problem, wouldn’t you?

ST: Perhaps, but I think having a high school located near a constituency that you’re trying to recruit is a step in the right direction. And I think it’s a positive step—as opposed to a negative step, which is to say that the way we’re going to fix the problem of elitism is by doing away with standards. I don’t know how you have a high school of science unless you have calculus and other courses that the youngsters are prepared in. Listen, I don’t know if it works, but I’m doing the best I can here.

PS: I understand, and it’s interesting that you make the point about the neighborhood. I’m intrigued that you emphasize that at the high school level. What’s behind that?

ST: I went to James Madison High School, a neighborhood high school. I gave some thought to the Bronx High School of Science—but I lived in Brighton Beach. I thought nope. I didn’t want to spend half my day going to and coming from school. I had other things I wanted to do. I was a delivery boy for Rabinowitz Pharmacy, so I was making a few dollars. I was involved with student politics. I was editor of the newspaper. I didn’t want to spend time sitting on the subway. I had a perfectly good neighborhood high school. Twelve Nobel Prize winners graduated from that high school. Ruthie Ginsburg graduated from that high school; Bernie Sanders graduated from that high school. Chuck Schumer graduated from that high school. Norm Coleman graduated from that high school.

SG: So, maybe there’s a sense in which these problems are self-limiting: Society will find ways to produce people of talent that will bypass Stuyvesant High School altogether.

ST: Well, that’s right. They could ultimately come out of conventional neighborhood high schools. But I think you need to do something dramatic and symbolic because I think the Black community feels, quite rightly, that they’ve been screwed. So I think somebody needs to stand up and respond to that. I don’t think you do it by burning down institutions that are important and of high quality because Blacks had been denied. You continue to find ways to admit talented, prepared students of color to a conventional Bronx High School of Science, but … look, I understand I’m going down a road of “separate but equal.” So I don’t think you make it separate. I think you would build a new high school in a neighborhood in which Black people reside, to make access more accommodating, and I think people from all over the city ought to be able to go to that high school. But if you build a high school in Harlem, you’re going to get a significant representation of African Americans, particularly if you not only build a school but you deal with programs in elementary schools to prepare kids to go to the high school.

Look, what we can do is get up and wave the bat at the ball. You can’t get a hit every time.

PS: There’s been a revolution in some states in vocational-technical education. When I went to high school, these programs were for “dummies.” That’s how my cousins who went to “the voc” described themselves. But I just visited one of the new schools, and the kinds of programs they have and the way the students comport themselves are extremely impressive. Is that a possible alternative avenue that we ought to explore?

ST: I actually do agree. I think it’s a good thing. I’m also a great believer in community colleges. I think that it is actually possible to press some people to do more “learning” than they actually want. I think an awful lot of kids of all socioeconomics and races and genders and one thing or another don’t in fact want to do B.A. degrees. But they do so because they think it’s culturally appropriate and their parents and society have pushed them.

Also, we have gotten a little confused about the purpose of the B.A. degree and liberal arts and learning. I was always put off by the slogan, “Stay in school, you’ll earn more.” It’s true you’ll earn more if you get a degree, but it’s a complicated business. I don’t think the high school diploma as we presently do it is sufficient for most people who have some professional ambitions. So I think the community college—a two year program, some craftsmanship, some artisanship, and some liberal arts so that people are assisted in making a living and in making a life, developing some appreciation for art and music and other life enhancements—is appropriate. I think it’s a good idea that people should have something to think about when they walk behind the plow, but it’s not a terrible thing for somebody to have a skill that can’t be exported.

PS: Would you support what Biden has suggested doing, fully funding community colleges from Washington?

ST: I do. I might do that. Surely for people of a certain socioeconomic group. I think you might say people who made above a certain amount should have some skin in the game. But it doesn’t seem to me that America has been hurt by having free, so to speak, taxpayer-paid elementary and secondary education. Some people who want different send their kids to private schools. My kids went to Sidwell Friends, and I paid for that. It’s clear that you can have excellent public schools if you put your mind into it—though not all of them are. That’s a great problem, which you pointed out earlier, and I want to underscore it. But yes, I think you could make a case for making the first two years of community college free. Now, some community colleges don’t give B.A. degrees. It might be that when the students get to the third year, you would expect them to have a greater financial participation.

We want to be careful. I already talked about how imperiled many liberal arts colleges are under the current circumstances. If you drain off a very consequential percentage of the population who might otherwise enroll in these schools and have them go for free, that will even further erode these colleges. So it has to be done with some subtlety and care, because there are great capital and social investments here, and we want to be sure that we don’t thoughtlessly or inadvertently injure them.

But I think there’s no greater investment that our government can make than in enhancing the quality of its people. I’m also very pleased with what Biden is doing as well on infrastructure. For twenty years I’ve been driving in Washington and wondering about why somebody isn’t doing something about the potholes. We’re still the beneficiaries of buildings and facilities that Franklin Roosevelt put up.

PS: But when Biden says infrastructure, he means childcare centers and other things that aren’t bridges and the tangible kinds of things. We’ll be spending money in ways that I’m not sure we really know how to do it very well, but we want to spend the money. What do you say to that?

ST: I share that concern. I believe in teachers’ unions and things like that, but I think the teachers’ unions, like the police unions, have over-focused. Clearly their purpose in life is to protect their members, but not so much that they disadvantage the constituencies that are assembled to serve. The nation needs to step back. Working with the teachers and the police, and presumably the firemen and others, we have to rethink the expectations we have of these people. We need the teachers to be as concerned about—and they claim they are—the outcome of the schools as the parents who send their kids to the schools.

You make the criticism that the quality of the kids coming up at most colleges is not what it once was. That may be a little romanticized. It may not have been so terrific back in the day, but what’s happened is that it’s become more democratic. Inevitably, if you take a service and you spread it among a larger constituency, it’s going to be somewhat less “elite” than if you have it for a smaller constituency. So democracy has a price. We may be better served by having more people who have some college education than having just a small group who have this very articulated “excellent” education.

SG: But the role of the unions has also become more adversarial, hasn’t it?

ST: Well, to some extent, that’s their business, right? Nobody who gets fired at a university was ever wrong. Of course, they immediately get a lawyer, and it turns out that these people are either men or women, young or old, White or Black or whatever. They all are something, and whatever it is, you’re discriminating against them. I’ve been a defendant a long time. My mother used to call me her son, the defendant. You want people’s legal rights protected, you don’t want people being discriminated against, and you pay the price for that in society.

SG: How would you describe yourself? If we’re going to put in a headline on this interview with you, is it, “Steve Trachtenberg, old-fashioned liberal?” Or “liberal still hanging on?” Or something else?

ST: Old-fashioned liberal will do for me. Basically, I’m a very happy man.

I was saying to [my wife] Fran earlier today that I couldn’t think of what I would change if I were going back. People had ailments, people have accidents, people had just troublesome children, one problem or another. I think I’ve had a blessed life. I think I devoted my life to useful purposes.

There are issues that I thought I was going to be able to change and I don’t understand what happened. I had hoped by the time I got to this age, America would have fixed its Black problem or its White problem. In any case, it’s a race problem and it hasn’t been resolved. I don’t know if we’re now going through the storm, which has to come before we get to the other side, but we do seem to be in a troubled position.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that, because here I am about to move to Minneapolis, of all places. I hope I last long enough to actually get to know my grandchildren a little bit, and give them a sufficient experience so that they have something to remember other than a Zoom character, which is what this last year has been. I want to get close enough so I can actually hug them and have them remember me just as I remember my grandparents.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus of George Washington University and former University Professor of Public Service. Among his many academic degrees and awards is an “A” in Economics 101 at Brooklyn College’s 1958 summer session.

Peter Skerry is professor of political science at Boston College, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and a contributing editor of American Purpose.

Suzanne Garment is senior editor of American Purpose.

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