Skip to main content

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Pokes at the Foundations of the Ivory Tower

How about a three-year degree? Or a school year without summer vacation? Should we pay professors less? Are these heresy, or common sense ways to reform the university system in the United States?
The George Washington University. (PHOTO: KEN LUND/FLICKR)

The George Washington University. (PHOTO: KEN LUND/FLICKR)

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of Washington, D.C.’s The George Washington University, has spent most of his life thinking about higher education, either as a student—he has an undergraduate degree from Columbia, a law degree from Yale, and a master’s in public administration from Harvard—or as an administrator. He retired in 2007 as president of George Washington after 19 years on the job, and has written The Art of Hiring In America’s Colleges & Universities, Thinking Out Loud, and Reflections on Higher Education.

Would you reprise what you said about retirement in the academic world when you were interviewed on The News Hour?
I said 65 was an obsolete retirement age, given the health and other improvements over the years. But the notion that we are the same at 75 [Trachtenberg’s current age] as we are at 65 and 55 is foolish, and there is a need in society to recognize that we have to make room for a younger generation to follow us. We need to move the conventional retirement age from 65 to 70, and we need to find devices for using the talents of the people who we are retiring. Indeed, in some individual cases people might want to negotiate with their university to continue on a year-by-year basis, some people being more productive, others not wanting to work full-time but willing to work part-time.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.


What about the problem of younger professors not getting to teach the courses they want to teach?
Not getting to find jobs!

Any improvement there?
No. In fact, it’s gotten worse. If you’re an adjunct [professor] you can’t make a living. You teach a little here, a little there, and a little at a third place, and if you’re lucky you eke out $50,000 to $55,000 a year. But you have no time for yourself and no time for publishing, and you can never get off that treadmill. And if you don’t publish, then nobody wants to hire you, and five years pass and you’re not as up-to-date in your field as you used to be–and there’s younger people coming up behind you! And so on and so on.

You make a distinction, when talking about a university education, between cost and price. Would you please elaborate on that?
There are several costs. There’s the difference between what it actually costs to deliver the undergraduate degree—or, for that matter, the medical degree or the law degree—and the price, which is the tuition. And in many institutions that cost is far greater than the price. If we charged people what it costs to go to medical school it would be a $100,000 a year and nobody could afford to go, and so there’s a great deal of subsidy in the posted tuition. That is further discounted by scholarships of one sort or another. If you have 50 people in a seminar, each of them is paying a slightly different tuition because they come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. And so a rich kid may get no help, a poor kid may get full tuition off—100 percent—and everybody else is somewhere in between.

The point of all that is high school seniors should avoid sticker shock. When they look at universities they should look at where they want to get their education, and leave, to some extent, the challenge of paying for it to the university. Now, obviously, the more attractive they are, the more the university will try to attract them and try to find a way to make it possible for them to go. If you have a set of skills that the university wants, they will come after you.

Like what?
The most conspicuous is still sports. If you have a great jump shot ... well, everybody knows great athletes get full-tuition scholarships. But it’s true also for, say, tuba players—if they need a tuba player for the band, the director of the band says to the admissions guy, “I need a tuba player. Find me a tuba player this year”—and for kids who have particularly acute academic skills. These days we are keen on attracting students with STEM abilities—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. So essentially what I’m saying is that parents and young people should not say they can’t afford it until they find out.

And then, obviously, there are other ways you can put your campaign together, like going to a community college for the first two years before transferring to a four-year institution. Because guidance counselors at the high school level are often overwhelmed by the number of people they have to advise, the message doesn’t always get out, but the important thing to remember is that it is possible for people with limited financial resources to get a college degree.

"I think that generally professors are underpaid—but I also think that in many institutions they are under-worked. In many institutions, high status faculty are rewarded by reductions in their teaching load."

Has the value of a college education diminished, increased, stayed the same?
We tend to measure value very simplistically. It is popular these days to measure value by the ability of somebody to get a job immediately after graduation, not only to support themselves but also to pay back whatever debt they may have incurred getting their degree in the first place. And there’s a heavy emphasis therefore these days on job skills and technology to the disadvantage of the humanities, literature, religion, music, art, history, and so on. The truth of the matter is that’s crazy. The colleges are not responsible for the state of the economy. When the economy is good, graduates of universities get jobs; when the economy is bad, graduates of universities do better than people who are not graduates of universities, but they suffer as well.

It’s true of the law schools. Law schools these days have become unpopular. Well, they were excessively popular before—to some extent, I like to think, because of all those TV shows in which lawyers are good-looking and seem to be leading very elegant lives in very expensive suits. But the truth is it was like a gold rush. People were going to law schools because they weren’t sure what they were going to do.

One of the problems is we don’t have enough counselors to counsel students on all the remarkable careers they could be pursuing but for not knowing about them. I have kids who come in to see me all the time, and I say “Have you ever thought about becoming a hospital manger, or a hotelier?” But these kids have never heard of these careers, these professions. So in part it has to do with counseling.

Have you any pet peeves, things you’d really like to see changed in higher education?
I think universities have never had efficiency as one of their messages. We need  to take a look at how we do business. There’s no reason why universities have to close down for May, June, July, and August.  The youngsters are not needed back on the family farm to help bring in the crop. And we have great deal of money invested in the physical plant. We should be driving these institutions 12 months a year, flat out. You want to close the place down for two weeks to paint and repair things? Fine, everybody needs a vacation. But there’s no case to be made for closing down for four months.

Secondly, look at colleges’ conventional week. There’s an awful lot of academic institutions where the week begins on Monday and ends on Thursday. Thursday night is party night. The professors don’t teach and the kids don’t have classes on Fridays and Saturdays. We should run the classes five days, Monday through Friday, and a half day on Saturday. Use the physical plant and teach—and be as efficient as we can be.

I’m a child of this culture and I feel a little bit like I’m turning on my own family, but I think we have to take a look at some of the things we’ve indulged  in over the years and ask if they’re giving us what we are paying for. Sabbaticals, for example. I don’t know of very many businesses where people get a half a year off every six years to go read and do other things. Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s not, but I wouldn’t mind having a look at it. Maybe you should have to justify a sabbatical rather than have it as a matter of right. I think it’s a question fairly asked without prejudging the answer.

There are other aspects of this society that bear looking into. I think that generally professors are underpaid—but I also think that in many institutions they are under-worked. Over the last half-century, teaching loads have come down. There was a point where they were overloaded before, and they may be under-loaded now. In many institutions, high status faculty are rewarded by reductions in their teaching load. They may teach two courses a year or two courses and one course. But that’s not true at community colleges where they frequently teach four courses each semester, and I’ve even heard of five. It’s fair to ask, is five too many? And it’s fair to ask, is two too little?

All of these are issues for which I have noanswers and which vary from school to school. But I think it’s reasonable in these times for all of us to come together and take a look at how we do business and whether we ought to keep doing it the way we’re doing it. Is it fair to the taxpayers, is it fair to the parents, is it fair to the children? And so on.

What do you want to see in a college graduate?
What we don’t want are graduates who can do jobs but are ignorant of other things. We want participating citizens—people who are going to be able to play an educated civic role, serve on school boards, participate on juries, and be part of the society. We want people who are capable of having full lives. We always talk about Cincinnatus—he needed something to think about as he walked behind the plow. We want people who come out of the universities and have some judgment and some wisdom and read. I’d hate to think that we’re going to turn out generations of people who are good engineers but have never heard of Shakespeare and never read Scripture and have never been to a play or a concert in their lives. What we’re trying to do is make people enhanced as individuals as well as give them an education which goes beyond the vocational.

If you had a magic wand, what would you wave it over?
The four-year degree. I’d change it to three, as Oxford and Cambridge—the source of the accident of history known as the four-year degree when Henry Dunster brought it from Cambridge in 1640—did some years ago. I wouldn’t do it for all students. Just as a size 10 and half shoe doesn’t work for everybody, neither does the three- or the four-year degree. But more schools could give the three-year degree and should look into it. Secondly, the time-to-degree question is imperative, and there’s no reason these days why the medical degree, the law degree, or the Ph.D. degree should take as long as it does. Fifteen, no, 20 years ago, I helped institute a seven-year medical degree at George Washington, and the graduates are indistinguishable from those who took eight years. If you can eliminate a year, that’s not trivial. That’s a whole year of earning, a whole year of spending. So we ought to be taking a look at these things. We ought not be putting water in the whiskey and watering it down, but it is possible to have a high-quality product and do it in less time.