Betty Trachtenberg, dean and guiding force to a generation of Yale students
Betty Trachtenberg, who as dean of student affairs in Yale College from 1987 to 2007 was a guiding force to a generation of students through the tenures of five Yale College deans, died on March 14. She was 89.
In her role as dean of student affairs in a smaller Yale, she was involved in the oversight of all aspects of student life: welcoming first-year students and training student counselors; supervising issues pertaining to housing and dining; working with the deans of the cultural houses and collaborating on issues pertaining to health, welfare, and disciplinary matters; overseeing student organizations; working closely with the Yale College Council, and innumerable other designated and unanticipated responsibilities.
She knew Yale’s campus police, the athletic coaches, the heads of colleges, the deans and their administrative assistants, the faculty, and the facilities staff. And they all knew her. Walking across campus with her took time, as around every corner lurked someone with a query, complaint, or idea. She was known by all as the “Landlady of the Old Campus” for the attention she paid to every aspect of residential life for Yale’s first-year students, from protecting their safety to the condition of the plumbing.
Her oversight included the most serious issues pertaining to the health and welfare of students, including those involving alcohol and drugs, and any other manner of crisis big or small that might be treated as scandal in the media. Questions over the lack of liquid soap dispensers in college bathrooms, for instance, haunted her for years. At one point the Associated Press ran a story pointing out that while Yale students demanded and won a “financial aid overhaul and divestment from oppressive countries,” university administrators “wouldn’t budge on the soap issue” (they eventually did). She often took the heat for much of it.
At her retirement celebration in 2007, where a cocktail known as a “BettyTini” was served, and a police and fire marshal honor guard, dressed in uniform, carried in her gifts, the “Alphabet song” written by her fellow deans, made an effort to list the range of her work: “A is for Alcohol, B is for Bladderball, C’s for the Counselors she’s trained; D is for Dining, and E is for ExCom And F’s for the Freshmen she’s sustained. G is for Grievance Board, H is for Housing horde, I, she’s the Ideal we agree; J, she can Juggle lots, K, she can cut through Knots, L, she’s Old Campus Landlady.”
“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,” wrote Yale President Peter Salovey, who was dean of Yale College when she retired. Salovey noted that Trachtenberg, during her time on campus, had “worked with five deans of Yale College, dozens of other deans and heads of colleges, hundreds of student leaders, thousands of first-year counselors, and tens of thousands of Yale undergraduates.”
On learning of her death, he called her work “unparalleled” and “inspiring.”
Known by students as Betty T, or sometimes simply BT (though never to her face), she was also often referred to as the “Dean of Sex, Drugs, and Rock-and-Roll.” She ruled over a realm of Yale undergraduates well known for their high intelligence, cleverness and wit, illimitable extracurricular energy, propensity to push limits, frequent refusal to take “no” as an answer, and forward-looking willingness to push boundaries at every turn.
They met their match in her. She had a rock-solid value system and could be firm and unyielding in holding to principle. Joseph Gordon, for years dean of undergraduate education and the deputy dean of Yale College, noted that “Betty was seen — and saw herself — as an advocate for students, but that didn’t mean that she would hesitate to disagree with some of the proposals brought to her for consideration. No one else could say ‘No,’ with just the right emphasis, signaling mutual respect despite strong disagreement.”
Beyond that candid, no-nonsense exterior lay a warm person, as Richard Brodhead, dean of Yale College from 1993 to 2004 and later president of Duke university, recalled: “Betty Trachtenberg cultivated a bit of a tough-guy air in her character as Betty T, formidable dean of students, and she wasn’t afraid to be tough when a dean needs to be. But ill-concealed behind this mask was her warm heart and boundless appreciation of students of every sort. For the 11 years I had the office next to hers, I was the daily beneficiary of her wisdom, her even-handedness, and those eyes that lit up with humor and joy. Uncountable former Yalies are in her debt.”
Trachtenberg never condescended, was a champion of student governance, and created strong and affectionate ties and close relationships with students. Kimberly Goff-Crews, Yale’s secretary and vice president for university life, who was head of the Afro-American Cultural Center when Trachtenberg was dean, remembers Trachtenberg as “my first boss.”
“Her most important lesson to me,” Goff-Crews wrote this week, “was the value of listening to all student voices, a central tenet of my team today. Betty always went beyond the job description and gave her all to the students, for whom she had incredible love and respect.”
Trachtenberg’s pathway through Yale could not be replicated today, but demonstrated her talent, grit, and determination — and the respect she earned among some key Yale figures. She began at Yale by working for the Summer Term (now Yale Summer Session) in 1974, before moving to the Yale admissions office to work for Worth David (dean of admissions, 1972–1992), first an assistant and then an associate director.
Howard Lamar, dean of Yale College from 1979 to 1985 and later Yale’s president, appointed her director of freshman affairs, with a special mission to oversee the freshman counselor program and orientation programs for all new students. Sidney Altman, who was dean from 1985 to 1989 (before becoming a Nobel laureate), promoted her to the role of associate dean of Yale College and dean of student affairs, adding all of undergraduate student affairs to her portfolio.
Perhaps because her own career was circuitous, she was particularly devoted to the Eli Whitney Students Program, which supports students of non-traditional age or background, serving as its first director, and to her oversight of the early days of the Yale Women’s Center. She paid special tribute to the collegiality and guidance of women who had mentored her at Yale, such as Elga Wasserman, Etta Onat, Judith Brandenburg, Mary Arnstein, Carole Goldberg, and Lorraine Siggins. She also always paid tribute to the mentorship of Lloyd Suttle, now deputy provost, who was dean of student affairs before her, and to her close colleagues of many years, Joe Gordon, Judith Hackman, Penelope Laurans, John Meeske, Mark Schenker, and her longtime administrative assistant Teri Barbuto.
Mary Miller, Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and former dean of Yale College (2008–2014), remembered that Trachtenberg “was a quick teacher and guide to me when I took up the leadership of Saybrook College in 1999. Witty, wry, and capacious in her advice, she loved a crisp discussion that led to better outcomes than either she or I would have conceived independently.”
Among her many achievements as dean was the founding of the ethnic counseling program center and her oversight of the cultural centers for students of color. She was an early member of Yale’s Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, and was deeply involved in the creation of the Sexual Harassment and Assault Resource and Education Center (S.H.A.R.E).
“At a time before diversity and inclusion crystallized into the institutional norms we’ve come to expect, Dean Trachtenberg was a ferocious advocate for providing all Yale College students an equal opportunity, regardless of background or status,” remembered Brian Valencia ’05. “A stalwart patron of the campus arts and defender of its marginalized communities, she believed that we all deserved the same chance, and marshaled the tools at her disposal as Dean of Students to make sure that we got it.”
Penelope Laurans, now a senior adviser at the university, who worked closely with her for many years in admissions and the Dean’s Office, called her an “institutional worthy.” Donald Kagan, dean of Yale College from 1989 to 1992, called her, simply, the “Mother of us all.”
Betty Glassman Trachtenberg was born and brought up in Philadelphia. In 1952, at 19, she married Alan Trachtenberg, who later became the Neil Gray Jr. Professor of English and American Studies at Yale. A talented pianist, she studied following high school with the distinguished pianist and composer Leo Ornstein at his School of Music in Philadelphia. Music remained important throughout her life. As her family moved from Storrs, Connecticut to Minneapolis, and then to State College, Pennsylvania, before coming to Yale in 1969, Betty Trachtenberg taught piano, learned the harpsichord, and at one point helped establish a music academy. After her retirement she served on the board of New Haven’s Neighborhood Music (NMS).
Alan Trachtenberg, her husband of 68 years, died in 2020. Betty Trachtenberg is survived by her children Zev (Tina Kambour), Elissa (James Baker), and Julie; by her grandchildren Isaac, Anna, Naomi, and Benjamin (Rachel Kasab); and by her great grandson Alexander, born in February. Donations in her memory may be made to the Neighborhood Music School in care of the NMS Development Office, 100 Audubon St., New Haven, CT 06510-1206. A celebration of her life will take place at a later date.