Thursday, 6 August 2009

“Big Man on Campus”, by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster)

Trachtenberg-BigManOnCampusA former university professor speaks out on Higher Education in the United States

Currently the President Emeritus of George Washington University (after 19 years serving as its president), Trachtenberg takes a look back on his years at universities in the US: George Washington, the University of Hartford (president for 11 years), and also Boston University. Big Man on Campus is his memoir and a collection of his opinions on the big issues facing universities today. A rather unorthodox academic (he was very young when he started ascending the ranks), this is not the sort of book one might imagine. “I have not written a textbook. This is not my style and probably not what you’d enjoy reading anyway.”

One of the main reasons for writing this book, the author states, is that while Americans revere and support (often rabidly) university sports teams, they know very little about what goes on, especially at the administrative level, inside these “fascinating institutions, which contribute a great deal to society and also seek a great deal from it.”

To assess the current state of higher education, each chapter of the book focuses on a different subject. These include, among others: town-gown relations, fundraising, the rules of an effective university president, and the internal university politics (including the bizarre presidential selection battles at Gallaudet, the only deaf university in the US).

In a grounded, inviting tone, and embellished with a wealth of personal anecdotes, Big Man on Campus is a surprisingly interesting read. I was expecting something a lot drier and, perhaps stereotyping a little too much, stuffier from this career academic. Much of the work does concern the most important issues currently facing further education in the US – for example, how best to create comprehensive study options and curricula. An example the author gives is how “It makes little sense to learn about another culture while remaining ignorant about one’s own.”

Trachtenberg also addresses those issues that are more visible in the public eye – university politics and also the politics of universities and education. For example, the public (but also many students’) insistence on viewing the university presidents as the living embodiment of that institution, and therefore responsible for all that goes on within his or her demesne – which is, of course, ridiculous, as how can a president (or any single member of faculty) know about everything that happens all the time? (The author uses Larry Summers’s expulsion from Harvard and the Duke Lacrosse team incidents as exemplars of how not to do things.)

“Money is the biggest challenge facing the modern university president”, and a university’s funding and endowments are also of great interest to the public. This is especially true when, like Harvard, institutional endowments start to reach into the tens of billions ($35 billion, in Harvard’s case). With such high sums, Trachtenberg says, why does Harvard still raise tuition? (He answers this in the book, very well.)

“When is enough enough? When does a university have the resources it needs? Surely Harvard is aware that its endowment is larger than the Gross Domestic Product of some countries.”

The impact of 9/11 and government tightening of immigration effected universities considerably; university presidents spent a lot of time and effort trying to convince the authorities to not bar international students from studying there – if they didn’t bring their tuition money to the US, they would just take it elsewhere to Canada, the UK, and the rest of Europe, while also helping ferment bad feelings towards the United States.

“A campus is a place to embrace diversity, to witness passions, to delve into history. Alas, now and again, grown-ups intrude… We don’t want to keep international young people from meeting our young people and learning about us.”

As someone currently in higher education in the UK, but wishing to make the transition to the United States, this book was of particular interest to me. Trachtenberg writes in a refreshingly honest and conversational tone; whether he is tackling the changes he's seen in university students over the years, or the his own influences (his parents, other professors and colleagues).

I’m not sure this will have quite as wide appeal as some reviewers have suggested, but it’s certainly an enjoyable, interesting (and different) read to what many might be used to. The character of the author definitely comes through, and it’s easy to see why he was a popular president and personality around campus. His fondness for George Washington University, especially, comes through – the only slight negative result being at times he comes across as if he were writing a long-form prospectus for the university. A minor quibble, for sure, it has made me consider GW as a possible destination for my post-doctoral career (assuming they’ll ever take me…). Trachtenberg’s writing throughout is funny and engaging, while remaining eloquent and intelligent, and never flippant.

Essential reading for anyone studying in, or considering studying in the United States, Big Man on Campus will also probably be of interest to anyone involved in any university – be it on the students’ or teachers’ side of the fence. I really enjoyed reading this.

Review posted from Lima, Peru

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