Just around the corner from the College Avenue Gymnasium—where as a boy he took Saturday morning swimming lessons in the pool while his venerated father taught a graduate seminar in American political history at Bishop House—Richard L. McCormick is sitting in his office on Richardson Street, reflecting on a history class that he’s just taught. It’s been a little more than two years since he stepped down as the 19th president of Rutgers, and a year now since he returned to the classroom to teach American history, and McCormick is thrilled to be back at the vocation that brought him to Rutgers in 1976, after having grown up in Piscataway. He half jokes that he wondered whether a 65-year-old man could keep the interest of 19-year-old students. But, as he was gratified to discover last fall, his passion for his subject, the history of corruption in American politics, was contagious among his students, not unlike his experience with other students almost 40 years ago.

Back then, McCormick quickly distinguished himself and, five years after arriving at Rutgers, he earned tenure in 1981 as an associate professor in the history department, working alongside celebrated scholars such as Lloyd Gardner and Warren Susman. At a time when the department was receiving national accolades as one of the nation’s best, he figured that he would be setting his sail for a long career as a history professor, following the example of his father, Richard P. McCormick RC’38, GSNB’40, the revered historian and former dean of Rutgers College.

Richard L. McCormick teaching class


Richard L. McCormick, today a Board of Governors Professor of History and Education at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, teaches an undergraduate class entitled “Political Corruption in America.” He also teaches “The Research University in Modern America,” part of a new master’s degree program available through the Graduate School of Education.

Nick Romanenko

But, McCormick became increasingly interested in events outside the lecture hall, namely the administration of the department, and, in 1987, he was named its chair, promising his colleagues, in addition to his serious endeavors, “more parties.” Two years later, just as Rutgers, under the leadership of president Edward J. Bloustein, was invited to join the Association of American Universities, McCormick was named the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a thankless, but very important, position that for three years he actually enjoyed. It was an eye-opening baptism for an administrator who had aspirations of running a major university, and McCormick did. By 1992, he arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he was provost for three years. Then it was off to serve as president of the University of Washington for seven years. In 2002, he became the president of Rutgers where for close to 10 years he presided over the continued growth of the university. In the span of 25 years as an administrator, McCormick had seen it all in higher education, and his recollections of Rutgers, particularly his presidency, are contained in his highly readable new memoir, Raised at Rutgers: A President’s Story (Rutgers University Press, 2014).

“The book is my story, of course, but it is really a Rutgers story and a New Jersey story,” says McCormick, sitting behind his desk, on which rests a memento that has been on every desk he’s worked behind: a miniature cast-iron replica of the Liberty Bell, a gift from William H.S. Demarest RC1883, a former Rutgers president, who gave it to McCormick when he was a boy visiting with his father. “I have a long perspective and went through a lot in my several roles here—faculty member, department chair, dean, and president. So, I wanted to tell that story.”

Readers with a working knowledge of the signature achievements of his presidency—transforming undergraduate education at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and initiating the creation of the Rutgers University Alumni Association; championing the return of a medical school to the university; raising public awareness of Rutgers as The State University of New Jersey; finding new funding sources for the university as state support continued to wane; promoting diversity among students and faculty; overseeing the expansion of athletics and making the case for Rutgers’ entry into the Big Ten—will be rewarded with an honest look into the thinking of McCormick and the reasons for his decisions. Raised at Rutgers is also an engaging primer for understanding the daunting challenge of running a huge public university—and the political and human forces acting on it.

“I wanted to place Rutgers’ experiences in the context of the national issues affecting higher education, such as advancing the value of undergraduate education in an environment where most of the kudos go to research and graduate education,” McCormick says.

Six months after leaving office, McCormick began writing his memoir in January 2013 and, not surprising for those who know him, completed a draft of the book in just eight months. He maintained a daily diet of research and writing, calling on former colleagues to help him recall some events and going to nearby Alexander Library for more facts. He also sifted through a trove of documents and correspondence accumulated during his presidency that he had shipped to his office (they now can be found in the Rutgers University Archives). When it came to the writing task, McCormick remembered Ernest Hemingway’s admonishment that a writer should not end a writing session having drained the well but by knowing his or her direction for the next day. Meanwhile, until this summer when they moved to Metuchen, New Jersey, he and his wife, Joan Barry McCormick RU’88, who had taken a position at New York University, and their 4-year-old daughter, Katie, were living in a New Brunswick condominium (McCormick has two grown children, Betsy and Michael, from his previous marriage).

With his presidency behind him, McCormick had to adjust to his new life, one in which he was no longer the public face of Rutgers, the place that had been embossed on his psyche from a very young age, trailing his father to campus and listening to constant dinner table conversations between his father and mother, Katheryne, who was a longtime administrator at the university. Up until the moment he stepped down, McCormick was too busy, though, to contemplate life after Rutgers.

“My final year was challenging,” McCormick says. “It involved a huge political fight over the terms on which the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey would come into Rutgers.” From the time he became president in the fall of 2002, McCormick had advocated for the university’s reacquiring Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (formerly the Rutgers Medical School), which would be a boon to the research enterprise of Rutgers; it’s a subject that figures prominently in the book. He was also collaborating in the effort to get a higher education facilities bond issue onto the November 2012 ballot, the first such bond referendum since 1988, and he was overseeing the purchase of a large tract of land from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary on the College Avenue Campus, which today is under development to become the site of the new Honors College. All three initiatives came to successful resolutions just as his presidency was ending.

“Psychologically, I was really devoted to my job; I did it mentally, 24/7,” says McCormick, famous among colleagues for replying to emails in the dead of night. “But, all of a sudden my identity, which had been so wrapped up in being the president of Rutgers, was up for grabs. I knew I was going to write and get back to teaching and try to be a valuable member of the faculty, but there was no clear pathway to any of these things on June 30, 2012, nor had I given much thought to who I would be. And I had to learn to do a lot of things that I hadn’t done in 17 years. It was a transition for me.”

The act of writing Raised at Rutgers provided a bridge to his new life, an enjoyable exercise of reliving the high points of his Rutgers career and celebrating the achievements of the university, from events such as the Scarlet Knights’ exhilarating 2006 football victory over Louisville to the launch of the Rutgers Future Scholars program to the hallmark of his administration, the reorganization of undergraduate education, which merged the former liberal arts colleges of Rutgers University–New Brunswick into the School of Arts and Sciences and codified entrance, core curriculum, and graduation requirements while reinvigorating the undergraduate learning experience.

“There is plenty of self-criticism in the book, and there are plenty of observations about Rutgers,” McCormick says. “The book also points with pride to some major achievements. Reinventing the organization of the New Brunswick Campus for the benefit of undergraduates was just essential to moving the university forward.”

A major source of frustration, and regret, for McCormick during his presidency was his limited success in persuading members of the New Jersey Legislature to increase state funding for Rutgers. As he addressed legislators in Trenton to plead his case for increasing support for Rutgers—namely that it was the state’s research university that provided countless services to the state and its people while also acting as an economic engine—his arguments fell largely on deaf ears. But McCormick wasn’t surprised. Since the beginning of the 1990s, state legislatures nationwide had pulled back on supporting higher education. Politicians cited the need to support K–12 education or services for the elderly or other pressing issues that had risen to the top of legislative agendas.

The tepid support, and the subsequent rising tide in student tuition, McCormick points out in his memoir, were a far cry from the halcyon days of higher education that followed World War II, when states enthusiastically supported their public universities as war veterans benefited from an education provided through the G.I. Bill. It was accepted wisdom that making college affordable was good for the nation, which benefited from an educated populace. It was no surprise that Rutgers saw steady growth in the decades following World War II, culminating in major advances for the university in the 1980s under President Bloustein, who had an ally in governor Thomas Kean, an ardent supporter of higher education. By the time that McCormick assumed the presidency in 2002, the landscape of support had changed irrevocably.

“Certainly it was naïve to think that serving New Jersey better would bring Rutgers money,” McCormick writes. “That moment had passed. All the trends were going in the opposite direction, and the state’s powerful people didn’t seem interested anyway. Except a few of them did. One of them was Tom Kean and another was a guy he brought into politics named Chris Christie.”

Rutgers was also at a disadvantage, at least in comparison, say, to the great state research universities of the Midwest, McCormick notes, because Rutgers and New Jersey didn’t grow up together and form the historical symbiotic relationship that exists between a school such as the University of Michigan and the state of Michigan, which were established only 20 years apart, in the early 1800s. Rutgers, founded as Queen’s College in 1766 as a small private college, wasn’t ultimately recognized as the state’s university until 1956—190 years later. In the intervening decades, Rutgers grew and changed, accreting elements that were not originally part of it. That process has been successful, but it has made for a tumultuous history, McCormick points out.

“Practically every Rutgers president, in his time,” he writes, “has faced the task of integrating, within one university, disparate elements that had wholly separate origins, many of which resisted true inclusion in a single institution. My successor at Rutgers, Dr. Robert L. Barchi, is dealing with a challenge, but far greater in magnitude than the one I faced—bringing into Rutgers most of the schools and colleges of UMDNJ.”

Looking ahead, McCormick, who is a Board of Governors Professor of History and Education, has plans to write another book, this one about the history of American political corruption, the subject of his undergraduate course. He also teaches “The Research University in Modern America,” part of a new master’s degree program called College Student Affairs that is available through the Graduate School of Education.

In the meantime, he has enjoyed himself during the days surrounding the publication of Raised at Rutgers. On a mid-September evening, before a full house of colleagues and well-wishers at Barnes & Noble at Rutgers in New Brunswick, McCormick, gracious and self-effacing, read from Raised at Rutgers as he stood in the second-floor alcove with the enormous Rutgers clock that affords a grand view down College Avenue behind him. As he read passages, he paused to point out the people in the crowd who had been so instrumental in the success of various undertakings he was now reliving, just as he was grateful in acknowledging all those who helped him complete his memoir. Later, McCormick, accompanied by his family, led his entourage across Somerset Street to Winants Hall for a well-attended reception. Many of the guests took their turn and made their way up to McCormick to congratulate him. No one would doubt that he was, once again, in his element. •