Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg's Big Man on Campus: A University President Speaks Out on Higher Education (Touchstone Books, 2008).

Jul 27, 2008 6:05 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg's Big Man on Campus: A University President Speaks Out on Higher Education (Touchstone Books, 2008).

Surely, Stephen Trachtenberg was a successful university president. Under his stewardship—for 11 years at the University of Hartford, then nearly 20 years at George Washington University—endowments and enrollments, programs and prestige, all grew. A career administrator (with law and public administration degrees, but no Ph.D.) who unabashedly describes himself as “admittedly quirky,” he asserts that he has “not [been] completely socialized” by academe and now wants to share his “outsider-insider perspective” on it.

“I left university administration to step up to the faculty,” Trachtenberg says, “and enjoy the restoration of my First Amendment rights,” to “speak out” on American higher education and the “Sisyphean” job facing the university president. However, judging by the bluntness of his letters and speeches, quoted liberally and at length here, his executive status didn’t inhibit him any more than it did his friend and mentor, Boston University’s John Silber.

Trachtenberg touches upon his dealings with all university constituencies: “faculty engagements” (his life would have been easier if tenure didn’t exist and mandatory retirement did), “schmoozing for dollars” (“money is the biggest challenge facing the modern university president”), “virtues of college athletics,” and so on. Each chapter contains brief subchapters, rich in pointed anecdotes. He repeats favorite lines: his lament that faculty “want a lion dealing with the world and a lamb addressing them” appears more than once, perhaps a measure of how heartfelt it is.

Although his gruffly avuncular style is often engaging, sometimes he’s overbearing. When a student journalist describes the president’s office as “lavish,” Trachtenberg retorts, “I am curious at your strange text, which seems to have been crafted from whole cloth. Let me put it another way. What the heck are you talking about?”

Only somebody who must always prove himself the smartest boy in the room habitually talks that way to people less powerful and well-positioned than himself. And when that somebody’s compensation (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s database) is over $700,000 per year, his condescending explanations about how market forces determine wages for food workers or adjunct instructors make him sound more like a Gilded Age mogul than an educator.

Then again, that’s why his book usefully, but not always intentionally, reveals the way the grunion are running in contemporary higher education. Trachtenberg, despite his occasional murmurs about “liberal education,” isn’t an educator. Asked to describe his job, the first parallel that comes to his mind is being mayor of a city. Sometimes the inconsistencies of his own pronouncements escape him. He decries how the ever-increasing emphasis on research shortchanges undergraduates, then rejoices that his successor will be able to emphasize research at GW even more.

This is hardly a new trend—Thorstein Veblen sardonically labeled college presidents “Captains of Erudition” nearly a century ago. But it is accelerating. Despite his colorful persona, Trachtenberg is every bit a conventional creature of this zeitgeist, a Captain of Erudition, not a molder of minds.

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