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Tap Night for Yale’s singing groups has always been a volatile affair. Pranksters routinely padlock gates, lob water balloons, and kidnap promising candidates in their quest to impede the progress of singing groups in pursuit of choice freshmen. But last year, things went unusually smoothly, perhaps because of the presence of a slight, well-coiffed grandmother walking the quad with an enormous Super Soaker water gun (confiscated from a student) and a “make-my-day” expression. She was Betty Trachtenberg, the Yale College Dean of Student Affairs.
This year, though, things didn’t go so well for Trachtenberg. First, she had to threaten to abort Tap Night before it began when singers gathered at the High Street gate were pelted with eggs. Then, when a flag was lowered, signaling the start of the ritual, she was knocked to the ground in the resulting stampede.
Not every administrator would put herself in a position to be upended by a horde of adrenaline-crazed undergraduates, but Betty Trachtenberg has a reputation for going beyond job descriptions. As head of an office that includes five assistant deans who work with undergraduate organizations and ethnic students, Trachtenberg is in the thick of Yale’s efforts to look after its students. She has developed a campus-wide reputation as a tough but caring arbiter of student concerns; students refer to her as “Betty” or “Betty T"-though not in her presence-a telling sign of undergraduate esteem.Trachtenberg’s duties reach far and wide: She runs the week-long training program for freshman counselors, helps advise the undergraduate peer counseling groups, keep an eye on campus alcohol use and abuse, and sits on the Executive Committee, which is responsible for meting out discipline to those who flout the Undergraduate Regulations. She is also, in her words “the landlady of the Old Campus,” looking after the condition of the freshman dormitories as masters do in the colleges.
But Trachtenberg regularly goes beyond even the loosely defined duties in her job, helping individual students with problems brought to her attention by freshman counselors or through her daily contact with students. Some are personal crises; others are simply a matter of cutting through the thickets of the Yale bureaucracy. She recalls, for example, a student on whose behalf she interceded recently with the financial aid office. Ari Edelson '98, who became acquainted with Trachtenberg when he became president of the Yale Dramat, is another beneficiary. “I went in to see her right before school started, ostensibly to talk about the Dramat, but we ended up talking about her vacation and my housing problem,” says Edelson. (His intended roommate had moved away, and he was unhappy with the alternative arrangements that had been offered.) “After I told her all about it, she said ‘E-mail this all to me; there will be absolutely no problem with this.’”
“Some students see me as their advocate, and I am,” Trachtenberg says. “I’ve been here a long time, and I know how this place works. I can point people in the right direction and help them find someone to talk to.”
But like the college deans, masters, freshman counselors, mental-health officials and others concerned with students' health and well-being, Trachtenberg’s most important job is to provide a structure that allows students to act as fledgling adults, but in the knowledge that there is a system of support if they should veer off-course. It is a system that may well be unique to Yale, and one of which the University is frankly proud. “Parents find it hard to believe that a university as large as this is so caring, but we have the mechanism built in,” says Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, who is Trachtenberg’s boss. “It begins with the freshman counselors, who work closely with the residential college deans, and then there are the ethnic counselors and the writing tutors. We don’t want to bust in on students, but we want to know when they’re in trouble.”
Trachtenberg agrees. “The residential college system makes this all possible,” she says. Several colleges and universities have come to us to see how our residential system works because they want to try to emulate it. It works because masters and deans quickly get to know the students in their colleges, so it’s very hard for a student to slip through the cracks here. If a student is absent for the dining hall or not participating in other aspects of college life, they ask around and try to discover the cause.”
Trachtenberg arrived at her current job by a circuitous route. A native of Philadelphia, she studied music and founded a music school of her own before coming to New Haven with her husband, Alan Trachtenberg, who is now the Neil Grey Jr. Professor of English and American Studies. She worked locally teaching music to emotionally disturbed children before taking her first job at Yale, in 1974, as an admissions officer for the now-defunct Summer Term. She later moved to the Undergraduate Admissions Office as assistant director, then spent three years as associate director of Yale Summer Programs before joining the Yale College Dean’s Office in 1984 as director of freshman affairs, a job she brought with her when she became dean of student affairs in 1987.
This year, as she does every year, Trachtenberg found herself a week before the opening of school standing before the new crop of freshman counselors, who had assembled for a kind of sensitivity boot camp. She presided over the meeting in an offhand, unscripted, but highly engaging manner. “I used to say to the counselors that they are the eyes and ears of the Old Campus,” she told them. “Some of the counselors didn’t like my saying that-they didn’t want to be seen as spies-so I don’t say it anymore. But you are.”
The counselors go through a week of lectures and panel discussions about the academic, social, and emotional problems they may encounter among the freshmen. Most important, they participate in role-playing sessions under the direction of mental-health workers who help them simulate the kinds of conversations they may have with their students. “The training is run incredibly well,” says Jeffrey Wang '98, a counselor in Ezra Stiles. “It’s taken very seriously, and Betty conveys to us that she is entrusting us with the freshman class. She has immense pride in all of us, and she treats us like colleagues.”
Counselors learn how to spot signs of depression and problems with alcohol or drugs. They are also charged with reviewing freshman schedules and giving advice about courses, and are frequently called in to arbitrate disputes among roommates.
When the problems are academic, or when the freshmen simply need help from someone more experienced, there is always the residential college dean. “I expect my counselors to be asking students about their work and getting feedback,” says Silliman dean Hugh Flick Jr. “When I hear that they’re not going to class or that they’re sleeping all day, I’ll find an excuse to sit down for a meal with them and talk about it. I try not to call them into the office.”
Another of Trachtenberg’s colleagues, Ezra Stiles dean Susan Rieger, says that counselors are especially important, since some students find it hard to talk to adults about personal matters. Still, she hopes they’ll feel comfortable approaching her. “I’m not the vice-principal,” she says. “My purpose is to see you get through this place and fulfill your promise. Many freshmen come here ready to be independent and are afraid that if they talk to anyone in authority all of the adults will descend on them.”
But after freshman year, when students no longer have a counselor watching over them, the role of the college is especially critical. “That’s why I’m really glad sophomores now have to live on campus,” says Flick. “It has allowed the deans and masters to keep an eye on sophomores, who traditionally have a lot of problems.” (For another perspective on the issue, see page 11.)
Among the most common problems, of course, is alcohol. Because the Connecticut drinking age was raised in the early 1980s to 21, much of the student body is too young to be served alcohol legally. Since the statute does not forbid the possession or consumption of alcohol, however, the University does not customarily discipline students for drinking (although students who are believed to have drinking problems are referred to a substance-abuse counselor).
While Trachtenberg is not formally responsible for enforcing Yale’s alcohol policy-except in her role as a member of the Executive Committee, which often deals with students who break rules while intoxicated-she has made it her business to educate the campus about the legal and health consequences of drinking. This quest has earned her a certain notoriety. With characteristic undergraduate hyperbole, the Yale Daily News has caricatured her as a cigar-chomping general (in reality, she recently quit smoking cigarettes but says she has a Dunhill “occasionally”), and her office has been compared to the Kremlin.
But Trachtenberg regularly confounds her critics. “Students are always surprised when I tell them that I think the drinking age ought to be 18,” says Trachtenberg. “But I do. Then we could by example promote responsible drinking. But we’ve got to abide by the laws.”
Among her initiatives is a program of alcohol education that includes working with alumni who are recovering alcoholics; they volunteer their services, meeting with students in the colleges and in the athletic department. To reduce the risks in drinking-related emergencies, she helped arrange for the Yale minibus service to transport intoxicated but ambulatory students to University Health Services on request. (Previously, students had to call for an ambulance and were taken to Yale–New Haven Hospital regardless of their condition; many students were unwilling to call for fear their parents would find out.)
But the Office of Student Affairs doesn’t deal only with students' problems. The major function of the job when Trachtenberg took it on was the oversight of Yale’s many undergraduate organizations, and that job has gotten bigger as the number of registered organizations has swelled to more than 250. While Trachtenberg frequently consults with organization leaders, the major responsibility for this portion of the job rests with her close collaborator Philip Greene, an assistant dean who is coordinator of undergraduate organizations.
Greene offers advice to the organizations-which are legally non-profit groups separate from Yale-on raising and keeping track of money and how to stay on the right side of the Internal Revenue Service. He and Trachtenberg also allocate campus office or activity space to organizations and make sure that they comply with the appropriate regulations.
Now and then, there is also a mess or two to mop up. Greene recalls an episode just after he and Trachtenberg came on board in 1987, when one of Yale’s seven film societies came to him mired in debt. “That blew the lid off a decade of shoddy arrangements in almost all the film societies. Together, the societies owed $20,000 to 19 distributors.” Greene negotiated a deal with the distributors according to which the University would pay them 30 cents on the dollar. Most of the film societies eventually folded, but the ones that were left were subject to new rules and new scrutiny.
Such scrutiny has strengthened many student organizations. Ari Edelson, the Dramat president, credits Greene and Trachtenberg with helping maintain the always tricky relationship between the Dramat and the Drama School over use of the University Theater. “They help us see the big picture, beyond the short time that any of us students are here,” he says. “The Dean’s office has been everybody’s best friend.”
Trachtenberg also oversees the work of four assistant deans who direct Yale’s ethnic cultural centers. These centers sponsor events and provide meeting and recreation space for ethnically based cultural groups. The oldest such organization, the Afro-American Cultural Center, was founded in 1969 and occupies the former Chi Psi house on the old Fraternity Row. Three others of more recent vintage-the Asian-American, Chicano, and Puerto Rican centers-are in Yale-owned houses on Crown Street. These last three were the focus of controversy last year when the University discussed moving them from their Crown Street quarters, which had been condemned by the city, to smaller houses on York Square Place. The move sparked heated protests from the minority student groups affiliated with the centers, including a Beinecke Plaza sit-in in April. As a result, the University has decided-"for the time being,” in Trachtenberg’s words-to repair the Crown Street buildings and leave the centers where they are.
The proposed move left many of the undergraduates who were involved with the cultural centers feeling that the College was trying to diminish their importance on campus. On the other side of the issue are those who feel that the centers promote what former Yale College Dean Donald Kagan called the “Balkanization” of Yale: the division of the College into separate ethnic and racial groups that have little interaction with each other.
Like Trachtenberg, Rick Chevolla, a new assistant dean in charge of the Chicano and Native American Student Center, disagrees. “At Arizona State, I was involved in research that indicated otherwise,” he says. “The students who were involved in their cultural centers were more involved with other organizations as well. The centers are an entry point for involvement in campus activities.”
The controversy had the positive side effect of calling attention to the centers, which have often gone little noticed by students outside the cultural groups they represent. “I’m encouraged to see more students of all cultural and racial backgrounds beginning to attend events in the centers,” says Trachtenberg.
The high profile that such involvements have conferred on Trachtenberg has not deterred her from poking fun at it. She regularly has a role in the Yale Symphony’s annual Halloween concert. (She was, not surprisingly, once cast as Darth Vader.) She has even come to terms with the infringements on her personal life that come with the decanal territory. The Daily News calls her almost nightly for quotes on matters ranging from fraternity drinking to illegal hibachis at the officially meatless Spring Fling. The News is assured of a pithy quote. The nightly intrusions sometimes annoy her husband, but Trachtenberg says it’s a two-way street. “I end up learning a lot from the reporter’s questions. It’s just another way to stay in touch with what’s going on.”
The difference between the campus caricature of Trachtenberg-the stern-faced authoritarian-and the impressions of those who work with her is striking. “No one who hasn’t worked with Betty would be able to guess how remarkable she is at her job,” says Dean Brodhead. “She has a reputation for toughness, but that toughness is only one by-product of her deep concern for students and the welfare of this place. She only gets tough when she sees students endangering themselves or mistreating others.”
Or as freshman counselor Jeffrey Wang said after seeing her in action for the first time at freshman counselor training: “You hear that she’s someone to be feared, then you meet her and wonder why.”
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