On Tap Night nine years ago, Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg stood guard at the High St. gate to Old Campus, determined to keep the typically chaotic annual event under control. Amid the swarms of scurrying a cappella group members, Trachtenberg — who, the year before, maintained order on Tap Night with a high-powered squirt gun — was pushed to the ground and trampled by the unruly crowd.
Moments earlier, Trachtenberg had threatened to end Tap Night due the rowdy actions of the participants. Her hard-nosed approach to the event is indicative of what students called her reputation for firm stances toward students and student affairs in general.
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Trachtenberg said Monday that she will step down at the end of the 2006-07 academic year. Some students and officials said they appreciate her direct, even stern, approach to settling disputes and handling disagreements between students and the administration. But others said her decisions can sometimes be arbitrary or harsh.
As the dean charged with overseeing undergraduate extracurricular life and managing violations of the Undergraduate Regulations, Trachtenberg — known among students as “Betty T” — is one of the University’s most visible administrators. The mention of Trachtenberg’s name seldom fails to elicit a reaction from students on campus.
Trachtenberg’s purview stretches across a range of student organizations, including a cappella groups, cultural houses, and fraternities and sororities. Her portfolio of responsibilities has given her wide-ranging impact on life at Yale, and for student leaders she often proved to be both an ally and a force to be reckoned with.
“Few people in the history of the Yale College Dean’s Office have had such a broad and profound effect on the life of the entire community as Dean Trachtenberg,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said. “Her departure from office marks the end of an era.”
Elliot Mogul ’05 LAW ’08, the Yale College Council president in the 2003-04 school year, said Trachtenberg’s decades of experience were an immeasurable asset in juggling the interests of competing student groups.
“She had a great way of sticking to her opinions, but at the same time being open to hearing what you had to say,” he said. “But anyone who worked with Dean Trachtenberg for long enough found out that she knew exactly what she was talking about, and she was usually right — even if at first you thought you knew better.”
Trachtenberg did not always acquiesce easily to the YCC’s demands, Mogul said, and Council members had to learn to be patient when trying to gain Trachtenberg’s approval. During his tenure as YCC president, Mogul and other YCC representatives fought for more funding and the introduction of the Student Activities Fee, which he said was difficult to sell to Trachtenberg — though she eventually changed her mind.
Trachtenberg’s tendency to hold her ground — even under intense pressure from students — contributed to her reputation among some students as a somewhat intimidating figure, and one who embraced the theory of tough love.
Bill Deitch ’07, the president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, said Trachtenberg had students’ best interests in mind when dealing with Yale’s fraternities and was always willing to engage them in dialogue. When SAE members met with Trachtenberg before last year’s Harvard-Yale Game to express concerns over planned tailgate restrictions, she took their concerns into account and relaxed some of the rules, he said.
“It’s a huge loss that she’s leaving,” Deitch said. “I think she carries an unfair stigma, and it’s undeserved.”
Alexandra Suich ’08, who serves on the Sexual Harassment Grievance Board with Trachtenberg, said the dean was always warm and accommodating, and was an active supporter of the new Women’s Leadership Initiative that Suich helped found.
“I found her very accessible and very into students,” Suich said. “Even narrowly, her contribution to the Grievance Board and her familiarity with this school more generally are very difficult, if not impossible, to replace.”
But in executing her responsibility for overseeing campus groups, Trachtenberg occasionally made decisions that upset many students. Mogul said it was no secret that Trachtenberg had strained relationships with some organizations.
From demanding that punch bowls be chemically tested for alcohol to cracking down on off-campus parties, Trachtenberg’s actions have won her a reputation for being strict with campus singing groups, said Adam Metzger ’08, the business manager for the Duke’s Men singing group.
“It’s been sort of contentious on several levels just because you have all these groups going absolutely crazy trying to get these freshmen into their groups, so I’m sure she’s had a frustration with that,” he said. “But what I’ve encountered is sort of like tough love.”
Andrew Chittenden ’09, a member of the Men of JE — a group that prides itself on acts of mischief — said Trachtenberg confiscated a non-alcoholic beverage and a pitcher of water from the group during this year’s Tap Night. Her decisions about what students were allowed to do that night were arbitrary, he said.
“She didn’t seem to really have reasons behind her decisions,” Chittenden said. “She just ruled as she pleased in the context of that night. … There is really no leeway. She is kind of intimidating in that respect.”
Trachtenberg said she has striven for fairness by insisting on dialogue — both among students and between students and the administration.
“It’s a matter of communication and give-and-take,” she said. “Talking, talking and more talking has been my approach.”
In the past, Trachtenberg has made light of her reputation as a hard-line administrator. In what was perhaps an admission that some students view her with trepidation, Trachtenberg once appeared in the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween concert as Darth Vader.
Council of Masters Chair Judith Krauss, who has worked with Trachtenberg on improving undergraduate residential life, said Trachtenberg’s reputation may be based on her gender.
“I actually think that students sometimes have difficulty with those of us women who are in … administrative positions and authority positions,” she said. “I don’t think the intimidation comes from her side at all.”
Krauss said she admires Trachtenberg’s willingness to tell students what they need to hear, even if it is not necessarily going to be well received.
Trachtenberg, a native of Philadelphia, came to Yale in 1974. Before taking a job at Yale, Trachtenberg studied music, founded a music school and gave lessons to emotionally disturbed youths in New Haven. Her husband, Alan Trachtenberg, is an emeritus professor of English and American studies at Yale.