BIG MAN ON CAMPUS: A University President Speaks out on Higher Education. By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (with Tansy Howard Blumer), Simon and Schuster. June, 2008. 266 pages. $26.

Believe me, being a college president is dauntingly difficult. Better yet, read Steve Trachtenberg’s perceptive and stimulating discussion of his 30 years on the hot seat. Eleven of those years were at the University of Hartford and nineteen at George Washington University. He was a great success at both institutions, which may account for his conclusion that, despite the frustrations, his career was rewarding. The reader of Big Man on Campus will come away not only with a more subtle understanding of the complexities of university leadership, but also with a sense of why Trachtenberg was good at it.

Trachtenberg writes that, “The course of a university president’s day is never the same twice in a row; no tired bureaucrats need apply.” Furthermore, the problems are so various that the president will use all of his accumulated knowledge and still need to seek advice from others. Universities are not quite participatory democracies, but there is a reigning ethos of consultation with faculty, staff and students. “Shared governance” is the phrase of choice. That makes it difficult for a president to move the university in the desired direction, or even to figure out what that direction should be, without developing widespread support on campus. Therefore, writes Trachtenberg, the president must be fully engaged with the campus constituencies, “physically present and visible whenever and wherever possible.”

“A university president has to be more of a politician than a corporate leader,” writes Trachtenberg. On the other hand, one gets some sense of Trachtenberg’s style when he also writes that the president must try hard to get support, but must go ahead anyway.

Stephen Trachtenberg
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg: next four years are best. — unspecified

One of the important threads that weaves its way through the book is the important question of the balance between teaching and research for the faculty. An easy out for an observer is to insist that a faculty member should do both and do them well. The reality is that teaching loads affect the amount of time available for research and writing, and innovative teaching requires time for preparation. It is also true that publications earn faculty members reputations in their disciplines nationally. That makes them more attractive on the job market, with a higher salary the result of every move to a new institution. These incentives make Trachtenberg lean toward teaching as the part of a faculty member’s tripartite job description (teaching, research and service) that the wise university should emphasize. This issue is particularly critical at GWU because during Trachtenberg’s tenure the university moved steadily toward a place among the leading research universities. For such institutions, the scholarly distinction of the faculty is the coin of the realm. An additional complication in this teaching-versus-research argument is the likelihood that remaining an active scholar or researcher protects the faculty member from “burnout” in the classroom as the years go by. Teaching and scholarship lean on each other as well as compete with each other.

That Trachtenberg was fully engaged on the campus is made clear by the many stories he tells, and by his quotations of his exchanges with various unnamed faculty and students. His accessibility is made evident in the fact that he held office hours, an unusual thing for a university president to do. He was very engaged in the issues of the day and of the institution. What is noteworthy also is that he could be combative with individual faculty and students. They had to be brave to confront their president. Nevertheless, he expected them to engage him about the problems confronting the university, and he made himself both visible and available.

While Trachtenberg was leading his intense life on his Washington campus, he was renewed each summer by spending two weeks on the Vineyard. His experiences here occasionally provided fodder for his welcoming address to the freshman class and their parents. College presidents are always working. Two weeks away from the stress and strain of his daily life, while thinking about what to say to the freshmen, led to one of the many bright aphorisms in this book: “The best four years of your life are the next four years, forever.”

Because of all of the yeasty and fascinating “politics” of campus life glimpsed here, one might conclude that Trachtenberg was some sort of radical who relished conflict. “I am not a revolutionary,” he assures us, “but I believe in constant gradual change, rethinking the college experience, and questioning how we invest our money.” This passage, if not the entire book, should be required reading for new presidents. It is kind of fun for old presidents too.


Sheldon Hackney is the former president of the University of Pennsylvania.