'Blood-sport' survivor takes aim at wannabes and too many degrees

Former George Washington head gives Paul Jump a piece of his mind on the state of the US academy

October 28, 2010

There is no limit on the need for new knowledge, but the number of Harvard universities that the world requires is finite, according to Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the straight-talking former president of George Washington University.

"Presidents all say they are going to make their university the 'Harvard of their state', do research and get into the top 10," he said. "Some of the reason is money and some is snobbery. But there is no disgrace in turning out nurses."

After 19 years at the helm of George Washington, preceded by 11 years in a similar capacity at the University of Hartford, Professor Trachtenberg stepped down to become university professor of public service at the former institution in 2007. He is clearly enjoying the opportunity to let his intelligence roam.

Speaking to Times Higher Education at the Education Project, an international conference held in Bahrain earlier this month, he noted that the Harvard aspiration was rife among US higher education institutions. Even community colleges, which traditionally specialised in preparing students for university, are now clamouring to offer bachelor's degrees of their own.

"Maybe it is just human nature," he mused.

But he is a firm believer in a variety of higher education provision - including for-profit institutions, which are currently under scrutiny in the US thanks to a congressional investigation into their practices.

"It is like the start of the motor industry: some companies will be sanctioned and die, but those that survive will have a role," he said.

But the research elite will remain, too, and Professor Trachtenberg foresees a day when they are handed a monopoly on public research funding. He said such a move might be prompted by the University of California's financial distress, because it is "too important to California and the world" to be allowed to fail.

Another aspect of modern universities that puzzles him is their obsession with establishing overseas campuses. When George Washington thought about it, he said, it concluded that it "had enough knitting" to do on its own campus in Washington DC.

"Universities only have a certain amount of psychic energy and an overseas campus is not their primary mission."

"I do not think we have imperialist visions; I could imagine partnering local universities and bringing some value, but ultimately they have to respond to their own constituencies."

Doctor why?

Professor Trachtenberg is also ambivalent about the expansion of the academy and the consequent inflation in entry requirements for relatively simple jobs. He cited as an example his father's career as an insurance salesman, a job he landed with just a secondary education: now such roles often require master's degrees. "Is there no end to this? Will we say at some point that you need a doctorate?" he asked. "We have a finite number of years to our working lives. The question is: what is the cost-benefit calculation? Degrees fill you full of theory, but are they job-relevant and should you be getting into debt to do them?

"I don't want to go under the knife of a surgeon who took his degree by mail, but it is crazy to induce people to spend eight years doing a doctorate for which there is no job at the end."

He said the cost and volume of modern degrees meant that reform of the US' four-year degree standard was imperative. Doctors could be trained in three years and lawyers in two, with teaching continuing throughout the summer, he added.

"Is there any other profession that would allow its physical plant to lie fallow for so many days of the year?" he asked.

Professor Trachtenberg is also worried about a lack of obvious heirs apparent in many institutions and fears that as the baby boomers retire, there will be a dearth of people with the necessary "imagination, courage and knowledge of the moves" to take over. He also noted that senior managers were increasingly turning down the top job.

He admitted that presidency was a "blood sport", but said there was a big difference between those who "flounced around in a big car" and those who did "the Lord's work". For the latter, all the hard work and sacrifice involved did not stop it from being a "nice career".

Professor Trachtenberg is currently writing a book - provisionally titled Why They Fail - about a growing trend he has noticed among new university presidents. The "bank account of goodwill" that got them to the top is quickly overdrawn by their actions, he said.

The reasons were often old-fashioned sins such as alcoholism and adultery, he added. But there was also a lack of judgement among some: he cited the president who was forced to resign after following up deeply unpopular attempts to replace a 100-year-old cross outside the campus chapel with a sex workers' art show.

"The board said to him: 'You are a great guy, but maybe you are in the wrong line of work.'"


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