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Presidential Ambition

Since his return to Rutgers seven years ago, President Richard L. McCormick has presided over the transformation of undergraduate education, a heightened awareness of Rutgers as the public research university of New Jersey, and the creation of enterprising schools and programs. He is now undertaking his biggest challenge of all: securing the university’s financial future in an era of economic uncertainty affecting all of higher education.  By David W. Major

It’s 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 23, just 48 hours before President Richard L. McCormick will give his annual address to the Rutgers community from the multipurpose room of the Rutgers Student Center in New Brunswick. He is standing behind a lectern that has been ferried into the stately greeting room of his presidential suite in Old Queens. Before him, sitting on couches and upholstered chairs, are seven of his closest advisers, each of whom is perusing a prepared draft of his address. They have been invited to listen to the president give a reading of his speech and to offer their opinions about it. Since the middle of August, McCormick’s thoughts have been increasingly occupied with the content of the address, which he considers one of the most important events of this, and every, year. Even as early as January, the president has been mindful of the sorts of things he might want to include in it, taking stock of the university in order to develop and express his vision for Rutgers. It’s a vision that will have to appeal to myriad audiences: faculty and staff, administrators and members of governing organizations, students, alumni, and New Jersey lawmakers and taxpayers. Now, in the days leading up to this date, he has been working feverishly with his speechwriter to get it right. Like the six annual addresses that he has given before, beginning with his first one delivered on September 19, 2003, as the new, and 19th, president of Rutgers, the speech is an opportunity for McCormick to relive the successes as well as the challenges of the preceding school year and a chance for him to chart a course for the university’s near and long-term future.

This year’s address has a particular urgency. The economy’s free fall, which began late in 2008, has hit higher education hard, especially public universities such as Rutgers that rely on state appropriations. Were it not for the federal stimulus money that President Barack Obama earmarked for higher education, painful belt-tightening at the university, and Rutgers’ growing revenues from government and corporate research grants, the situation could be far worse. The president fully realizes that Rutgers merely bought time this year. The recession has set into vivid relief an inescapable reality that McCormick and his advisers have known for some time: that, in an era of waning public support for higher education, the first signs of which began 20 years ago, the university has to rely more heavily on generating its own revenue and less so on state funding, which is still a vital source of revenue. In 2008, it accounted for roughly 28 percent of the university’s $1.9 billion annual operating budget.

Seeing that he has his advisers’ attention, McCormick, dressed in a red tie and shirtsleeves, begins. “Thank you, Professor Rabinowitz, and thanks to all the members of the university community for your presence this afternoon.” The president quickly turns to the heart of the matter: the plight of higher education in an increasingly inhospitable economic environment. He begins to present the evidence. State universities in Washington will hike tuition 28 percent over the next two years. The University of Florida has eliminated 200 positions. The University of California has furloughed employees up to a month and capped enrollment, and it is considering a midyear hike of student fees. In New Jersey, state support of educational costs for a Rutgers student has dropped from 70 to 40 percent in two decades, contributing to rising tuition, which amounted to $472 million of the university’s budget in 2008.

As he speaks, McCormick gazes over the table lamps and the heads of his advisers to the middle distance, where, in two days, his eyes will meet those of a standing-room-only audience in the student center. He jabs the lectern with his forefinger. “At Rutgers, the questions we face are very serious.” The president then unveils how the university should proceed in the years to come. It will have to rely on an “entrepreneurial spirit,” as he calls it—one that enlists deans, directors, faculty, and other officials to find new revenue sources. One way is to expand academic programs that generate revenue, such as professional master’s degrees, continuing education, certificate programs, executive education, hybrid and online courses, and off-campus degree-completion programs. Enrollment, he says, should continue to rise in academic fields where demand is particularly high—in business, engineering, and nursing, to name a few. Moreover, Rutgers should vary tuition rates for certain fields of study while ensuring that the university remains affordable for those with financial need: a hallmark of Rutgers. The university must redouble its efforts in private fundraising through a capital campaign, which will be launched in the fall of 2010; continue to seek grants for research, which last year generated a record $392 million for the university; and enter research and business partnerships with government and industry as other sources of revenue. The president is particularly optimistic about the revenue-generating potential of the Livingston Campus, which, upon its development, will be the centerpiece of business and professional education and host a hotel and conference center, new academic facilities, apartment-style housing, and schools of business, education, social work, and management and labor relations.

After reciting highlights of the school year, McCormick begins to wind down his address. “Today I have spent more time than usual on the subjects of revenues and business plans, and if that has made some of you uncomfortable, I am sorry. But, truthfully, attaining our goals depends not only on our conviction that they are right, but also on our success in obtaining the resources to fund them … Remember, this year, amidst recession, we got a reprieve, but not a pass.” The president concludes his rehearsal speech, retrieves his Diet Pepsi, and takes a seat. “Well,” he asks, “what do you think?” His advisers speak with an easy candor, which reveals a comfort with the president, who today, as well as on countless occasions when the world of Rutgers weighs heavily on his shoulders, lightens the load with amusing asides. They like the thrust of the speech, though they agree that certain passages that address finances could be even more forceful. It’s also agreed that he should add the announcement of a “listening tour” during which he will visit every school at Rutgers to hear suggestions for how the university can achieve its financial goals. McCormick listens intently and agrees with the lion’s share of changes. As the group adjourns, the president realizes he will have a busy two days in front of him as he and his speechwriter, Michael Meagher, hone his address. Over the next two days, up to the very moment that he begins his speech for real, the president will be preoccupied with the successful composition and delivery of his annual address. When the moment does finally come, McCormick, a gifted orator who enjoys making public appearances, will do so with aplomb.

Shaping His Legacy
As he enters the eighth year of his presidency, Richard L. McCormick understands that the issue of successfully securing the university’s financial future may play a role in shaping his legacy. It already bears the imprint of his successful three-year orchestration of the transformation of undergraduate education on the New Brunswick Campus, which led to the formation of the School of Arts and Sciences. He has also presided over the ongoing effort to present a coherent image of Rutgers as The State University of New Jersey and to establish stronger ties with the state by communicating the university’s expanding mission of education, research, and service through campaigns such as Rutgers Against Hunger, which aids New Jersey residents most in need, and Rutgers Day, an annual invitation for the public to visit Rutgers and learn about its educational and research offerings.

Another recent initiative—the Rutgers Future Scholars program—epitomizes McCormick’s lifelong commitment to promoting diversity, the lifeblood, in his view, of higher education. Each year, the program identifies 200 seventh graders from disadvantaged backgrounds in Rutgers’ host communities and prepares them for the possibility of tuition-free educations at Rutgers. The president pounced on the proposal for the program, with the words of M. William Howard Jr. ringing in his ears. Howard, the chair of Rutgers Board of Governors, had earlier told McCormick that if something wasn’t done, African-American and Latino students from the state’s cities may soon not be academically prepared to attend college. Another undertaking, the President’s Council on Institutional Diversity and Equity, actively promotes diversity among faculty and senior leadership.

McCormick has identified and promoted critical areas of research excellence at Rutgers, from transportation to nutrition, that capitalize on the university’s interdisciplinary strength and award-winning faculty. He has presided over the creation of new centers, schools, departments, and degree programs—such as the Center for Children and Childhood Studies at Rutgers–Camden, the first of its kind in the nation, and the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers–Newark. Rutgers has undergone physical improvements as well. The president has overseen the construction of new dormitories and state-of-the-art academic facilities on all three regional campuses; last year, McCormick allocated $500 million to create new student and academic facilities. And he has high hopes in Piscataway for the Livingston Campus as a hub of business and professional education and, in New Brunswick, for The Gateway, a retail-and-apartment complex, anchored by a Rutgers Barnes & Noble bookstore, that will be adjacent to the train station and the Old Queens Campus. As Rutgers’ reputation continues to grow, enrollment for the fall semester of 2009 set a record, with 54,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university’s name recognition has grown in part because of the recent success of Rutgers’ athletic teams, epitomized by football under coach Greg Schiano and women’s basketball under coach C. Vivian Stringer. The president has been an active and vocal supporter of athletics, and he is particularly proud of the large number of student-athletes who have distinguished themselves in the classroom—achievements for which the university is regularly cited by collegiate athletic associations.

Rutgers Total Revenue and Fundraising Bar GraphsOn McCormick’s watch, total revenues for the university, according to the Office of Budget and Resource Studies, have grown from $1.5 billion in 2005 to just under $1.9 billion in 2009. Fundraising, undertaken by the Rutgers University Foundation, has jumped 63 percent, from just under $80 million in 2005 to $128 million in 2009, a record for the third straight year. Total funding for research has climbed from $258.5 million during his first full year as president to $392 million in 2009, a gain of more than 50 percent. The university still depends on state appropriations and tuition for more than half of its annual operating budget, but the trends in additional funding sources are encouraging.

A Lifetime of Commitment
If anyone has Rutgers’ interest at heart, it’s Richard L. McCormick. The son of the late Richard P. McCormick RC’38, GSNB’40—an esteemed and beloved historian, dean of Rutgers College, and éminence grise of the university until his death in 2006—he has spent the better part of his life at the university. Growing up in Piscataway with his younger sister, Dorothy, he frequently tagged along while Dad made the rounds at the university and, at home, listened to his father and mother, Katheryne Levis McCormick GSE’73, discuss the big issues facing Rutgers over the dinner table. He went on to graduate from Amherst College in 1969 with a bachelor of arts in American studies and from Yale University in 1976 with a Ph.D. in history. McCormick was a professor of history at Rutgers for 16 years, the chair of the department, and later dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences before leaving Rutgers to become provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1992 and then president of the University of Washington in 1995. Even while he was away, he kept an eye on Rutgers, and as he painstakingly composed his inaugural address, delivered in April 2003, McCormick knew he had been preparing all his life to write it, a very personal statement about himself and the special meaning of Rutgers.

“We don’t have an oil well beneath the Rutgers campus, and we don’t have the ability to print money,” says McCormick, 62, sitting in an armchair in his second-floor office in Old Queens, one of four placed around a coffee table, surrounded by tall windows that reach to the high ceiling. “We are 100 percent dependent on our budget from the state, our students, and others who believe in what we do.” A fastidious man, he works in an office—at least when this peripatetic executive is in it—that is spotless. The president is gracious and courteous as he unfurls one grammatically perfect sentence after another, revealing a keen intellect and a highly organized mind. It’s an attribute on full display for the Rutgers community following his annual addresses when, for more than an hour, he answers the audience’s questions with remarkable fluency. McCormick has an extraordinary command of a broad range of issues that he has assimilated into a comprehensive understanding of what he wants for the university. For those who know or work for him, he is tireless and, at times, seemingly in two places at once.

“This notion of an entrepreneurial spirit may sound contrary to the spirit of the academy,” McCormick goes on. “But, it is essential to the growth and prosperity of the university—and all universities—in the 21st century. Universities have always been dependent upon external sources of support and have always shaped their activities in part as a response to the opportunity to obtain support for the core missions of teaching and research.” After becoming president in late 2002, McCormick took stock of research and teaching at the university and decided to identify and promote research disciplines that had demonstrable strength and visibility, could be further leveraged to serve the state and the world, and would generate revenue for Rutgers through research grants. The president singled out the research endeavors of those studying nutrition, transportation, alternative energy, climate change, advanced materials and devices, human genetics and proteomics, and urban entrepreneurship.

The exciting research under way was also reaching across traditional, often narrowly defined, academic boundaries of disciplines to discover new knowledge. For instance, in the areas of childhood literacy, available on the New Brunswick Campus, or childhood studies, based on the Camden Campus, many disciplines influence the research: education, anthropology, criminal justice, psychology, nursing, and the law, to name a few. Finding practical solutions to many problems and human challenges, McCormick could see, did not fit neatly within any one field, and thus an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research was the way of the future.

Another concern during his first years was the quality of undergraduate education. McCormick believed that students weren’t getting the maximum benefit of the faculty and the opportunity to participate in research at Rutgers, which had undergone rapid growth in the 1980s during the presidency of Edward J. Bloustein. In an age when the promotion of research lent academic prestige to universities, McCormick still believed that Rutgers had to emphasize undergraduate education. Undergraduates had to be exposed to the excitement of discovery, learning from researchers who were on the front lines of creating it. Their lack of access stemmed in part from the inefficient organization of Rutgers–New Brunswick, which for decades had amounted to, the president said, “the weirdest academic setup in America.” McCormick had inherited a university that was “a patchwork quilt” of undergraduate colleges: Cook, Douglass, Livingston, Rutgers, and University, each with its own academic disciplinary standards and honors requirements, and each with its own admissions, core educational, and graduation requirements. The arrangement left current and prospective students, their parents, and guidance counselors scratching their heads.

Transforming Undergraduate Education
In the spring of 2004, McCormick and his top deputy, Philip Furmanski, the executive vice president for academic affairs, sought to change undergraduate education at Rutgers–New Brunswick. They appointed the Task Force on Undergraduate Education, headed by Barry Qualls, who was then the dean of humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The task force, consisting of faculty and students, was instructed to take a long look under the hood of Rutgers and make recommendations for improving education on the New Brunswick Campus. (Less complicated efforts were initiated on the Newark and Camden campuses as well.) In July 2005, the task force issued dozens of recommendations, from having a single set of admissions standards to granting undergraduate students access to every academic program and service. Next, McCormick undertook an eight-month marathon of sitting in on an exhaustive series of forums and discussions on each campus, listening, with pen and pad in hand, to what members of the Rutgers community had to say about the task force’s recommendations. A major concern of his was to ensure that Douglass College, the all-women’s college, would retain the best of its traditions and educational mission under the proposed realignment of undergraduate education. The president encouraged schools and colleges to talk among themselves, and for student government associations, the New Brunswick Faculty Council, and the University Senate to take a look, too.

By December 2005, the New Brunswick Faculty Council and the Board of Trustees endorsed the task force’s recommendations; two months later, another important governing body, the University Senate, gave its thumbs-up as well. The president then made his own recommendations, based on the findings of the task force and views expressed in the public forums. On March 10, 2006, the Board of Governors formally adopted the president’s proposals. A jubilant president had done the seemingly impossible, transforming undergraduate education at Rutgers. McCormick’s only regret? His father—his lifelong confidant and de facto adviser, and a longtime advocate for reorganizing Rutgers—passed away on January 16, 2006, unable to share his son’s big moment with him.

The colleges of Douglass, Livingston, Rutgers, and University were now merged into the new School of Arts and Sciences. Cook College, which underwent a reorganization that opened all university resources to its students, was renamed the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. There would now be one set of standards for admission, the core curriculum, and graduation as well as the rededication of the faculty to instruct and mentor undergraduates, particularly in exposing them to the breadth of research at Rutgers and opportunities to study abroad. And student life would benefit from improved student services and the creation of distinct campus environments that would retain the best of the colleges, epitomized by Douglass Residential College to succeed Douglass College.

McCormick also believed, however, that the transformation of undergraduate education was only half the equation. Equally important was the transformation of Rutgers’ relationship with its alumni. In September 2006, the president again assembled a task force, which, after a year of fact-finding, recommended the merging of the 19 alumni associations into a single robust Rutgers University Alumni Association. The new structure now actively includes alumni in the life of the university, validates their importance to Rutgers, and recognizes all of them as an important constituency. To facilitate communication among its 380,000 living graduates, Rutgers no longer requires annual dues, and all graduates receive Rutgers Magazine, the publication for alumni and the Rutgers community. The Department of Alumni Relations has introduced fresh ways to communicate with alumni, from its interactive website,, to reimagined homecoming and reunion weekends as well as alumni events held off campus.

Navigating the Corridors of Power
As the president, McCormick knows how to get things done in large part because of his earlier experience at Rutgers. During those 16 years, he came to understand the vital importance of faculty support, without which a university president is doomed. For two years, McCormick was the chair of the department of history in New Brunswick and for three, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Even as a history professor, McCormick demonstrated an eager interest in the formulation of policy and curricula. The departments of English and history at a university are traditionally the pacesetters of the faculty culture, the president points out. They can be particularly independent, critical of the administration, and jealous of its prerogatives. Rutgers was no different. “When I was in my late 30s and a member of the history department, I was a good teacher and had been promoted to full professor,” he says. “But I was sort of in arrogance mode, and I thought I could run the department—which was already very good—better than the leadership could. I tortured them about this and that, and I was unhelpful in department meetings. At one point, they said some version of ‘OK, Dick, you run the damn place.’ And I did, and I was a good chair during the two years that I served.” McCormick played an integral part in finding a larger role for faculty voices within the administration, and he oversaw the committee that created the New Brunswick Faculty Council, which gathers and communicates the views of the faculty on matters of academic policy to the administration.

During his chairmanship, McCormick found himself getting drawn into the undertow of the larger university community. He began to witness firsthand what he had once heard his mother and father discuss between themselves: the ambitions of a burgeoning state university that was poorly organized and operating in a state that had a spotty record of supporting higher education. “So,” McCormick says, “I came to see that there were other things besides the history department to care about as well.” When a vacancy emerged in the position of the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1989, McCormick, to his great surprise, was appointed, at age 41, acting dean by provost Paul Leath. A year later, after navigating the shoals of a budget crisis to much praise, he was appointed dean. “I loved that job,” he says, even though his father had warned him that the position would be about as thankless as they get. But, his father also said, it would be good training if he wanted to be president of a university someday. And McCormick soon knew he did: “Serving as dean was the time I began to consider a career in the upper reaches of administration.” After he successfully withstood the withering interviews that preceded his appointments at the University of North Carolina and the University of Washington, McCormick knew he had the mettle. When, to much anticipation, McCormick returned to Rutgers late in 2002, he was more than ready.

Presidential Temperament 
In private, the president is, by temperament and philosophical disposition, a consensus-builder. Having learned as a historian that it is wise to always question one’s assumptions, he welcomes all points of view before making a decision, for which he accepts full responsibility. In July 2008, when allegations began appearing in the media that his administration had been lax in its oversight of financial procedures and conduct of the athletic department, McCormick assembled a commission to look into the charges. Its findings, issued in November, confirmed the spirit if not the letter of media claims: although no illegal or unethical activities had taken place, the rapid growth of the sports program had “placed additional stress on the system at Rutgers,” said the president. The findings ultimately provided his administration with “unassailable grounds for improving the way we do business at the university and for taking additional steps to manage effectively an increasingly successful and fiscally complex athletics program.”

The reaction was typical of McCormick: getting to the bottom of an issue, which, in this case, had developed into “the worst six months” of his presidency, and finding a thorough solution. Aides were not surprised, accustomed to knowing that when the president decides to do something, it gets done. And he will invariably find a role for himself: as lead cheerleader, executive troubleshooter, rainmaker, or combinations thereof. Equanimous by nature, McCormick possesses seemingly supernatural self-control. No one interviewed for this story could recall an incident during which he lost his temper, even when he had ample cause to. The height of his emotional response is to express frustration. His reaction to bad news is not what could have been, but what can be done. People close to him say that McCormick, in the name of advancing the mission of Rutgers, delights in sharing ideas—and he is a font of them, dating back to his days in the history department when he buried colleagues with suggestions. “I love representing Rutgers and celebrating its programs,” McCormick says. “But I also find a lot of satisfaction in things that occur privately: meeting with a small group of faculty or students in the university, determining that we are going to proceed in a certain area, and beginning to figure out how we are going to do it.”

Despite the clamor of activity whirling around him at all times, the president is also a gifted listener and a man of remarkable focus. During a meeting with leaders of the nascent Rutgers Future Scholars program, he sat at the head of a long table in the Scarlet Room of Winants Hall, thumbing through scheduling memos before him as the others were making presentations. When a person finished speaking, he looked up, eloquently summarized everything said, and asked three or four adroit follow-up questions. He repeated the performance with the seven people who followed. At another meeting, he felt compelled to apologize. “Please don’t be offended,” he said. “I am indeed listening. I am just multitasking.”

Using His Presidential Schedule to Good Effect
With a job description that requires, by his own choosing, a daunting daily itinerary of public appearances and private meetings, as well as encounters with numerous people and their concerns, McCormick learned long ago that he had to maintain ironclad control over his time. He is well aware that once he steps across the threshold of his office in Old Queens, greeted by the two aides chiefly responsible for his daily schedule, his executive assistant Carol J. Koncsol and her assistant, Gail Faber, his day is organized to the last minute, which usually comes late in the evening. But the bustle of activity, the president points out, isn’t the same as presidential productivity: McCormick knows that he would appear to be quite presidential if he were to return every phone call, reply to all letters, and otherwise promptly respond to every last thing being asked of him. And people might well gush that the president is so responsive. But he is acutely aware that he can address only a handful of issues at a time in order to be most effective. “There are things that will gain significantly from my presidential involvement,” he says. “If I succeed in those things that I can influence, they will make a better university.”

McCormick goes about his paces in good cheer and with a surplus of energy that made one member of the president’s administrative council wonder whether she should accept his job offer when he became president: she didn’t think she could keep up with him. She hasn’t been the only person to take pause, amazed by how he accomplishes as much as he does. When his schedule permits—and that’s a big “when”—the president begins his day at 7 o’clock, grabs a cup of tea and the morning papers, and works at his desk in the second-floor office of his home. With no one and nothing to interrupt him, McCormick is a whirl of activity, getting a jump on his email correspondence, making critical phone calls, updating his endless to-do lists of priorities and people to contact about university affairs. A light sleeper throughout his life, he often arises in the middle of the night and sits at his desk, forging ahead on his computer. One cabinet member remembers emailing McCormick a comprehensive proposal shortly after midnight; he sent back a detailed reply by 3:00 a.m. On the rare occasion that he doesn’t have an evening engagement, which are often held at the presidential residence overlooking Route 18 in Piscataway, he cherishes having dinner with his wife, Joan Barry McCormick RU’88, and, when they are in town, his two children, Betsy and Michael. (Betsy, 24, works for a nonprofit organization in San Francisco; Michael, 21, is a junior in college majoring in political science.) The president and his wife work closely together in addressing the needs of donors and other Rutgers constituencies. The former director of principal gifts at the Rutgers University Foundation, the primary fundraising entity at Rutgers, Joan McCormick is now the vice president of Special Initiatives at the Saint Peter’s Healthcare System. At home, McCormick also looks forward to exercising on his elliptical trainer, as well as working through a pile of novels and history books that help him relax.

“Handling the pressure is sometimes a struggle,” says McCormick. “And it’s not getting easier. One reason is because the university’s ambitions and goals are soaring. I think about Rutgers 24/7. I am more ambitious now for Rutgers than I was when I became president seven years ago. Counting my time at the University of Washington, I have been a university president for 14 years. I work just as hard and I worry just as much about things as when I started. I worry about the affordability of Rutgers.”

Although the president is concerned about securing better financial footing for the university as Rutgers navigates tough economic times amid a tepid reception for funding public higher education, he remains upbeat about finding solutions. And there is ample cause for optimism. Recognition of Rutgers is at an all-time high, student enrollment is setting records, the leadership he has appointed is innovative and committed, his initiatives are bearing fruit, and revenue generated by the university itself has made impressive gains in recent years. He knows, too, that other state universities are in the same boat of trying to find additional sources of funding. “It’s got to be done,” McCormick says. “Our ambitions are sufficiently high that they cannot be met simply through state appropriations and tuition from students. They are important sources for Rutgers, and will continue to be so, but they are not enough. The alternative—cutting back on faculty and educational programs—invites the permanent decline of a university. And I am just not going to let that happen.”