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Taking His Leave

Nearly a decade after returning to Rutgers to assume the presidency, Richard L. McCormick is preparing to step down. He leaves with many accomplishments to his credit at a time when Rutgers, which may be acquiring a medical school, is poised to ascend to the upper echelon of public research universities.

By David W. Major

Taking His Leave
Richard L. McCormick
Richard L. McCormick, the 19th president of Rutgers, acknowledges the applause from the audience following his September 2011 annual address to the university community, entitled “A Great State Must Have a Great State University.” His speech outlined the criteria for a topflight public research university, pointing out the strides that Rutgers has made to achieve that status during his tenure and some of the steps that remain to be taken. Photography by Nick Romanenko

(This story was published in January 2012)

It’s been eight months since Richard L. McCormick announced his decision to step down as the 19th president of Rutgers. Yet for those who work with him, there is little sign that he is taking his foot off the gas as he continues to discharge his duties, from fundraising to making public appearances. The peripatetic pace that has marked his tenure as the university’s top executive is animated these days by his optimism about a handful of key developments for Rutgers that will dovetail nicely with the accomplishments that took place under his leadership, which have included heightening the awareness of Rutgers within the state, invigorating its education, research, and service missions, and putting the university on firmer financial footing.

McCormick is most excited about the likelihood that the elements of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey that are based in New Brunswick and Piscataway—the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the School of Public Health, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey—may be integrated with Rutgers. It will bring enormous benefits to the university, the state, and its residents. “To gain an outstanding medical school would raise the academic profile and expand the reach of Rutgers more swiftly and permanently than any other single change we could make,” McCormick says. “It would enable Rutgers to serve New Jersey’s core industries better than ever and become among the best in the world in fields such as bioengineering, structural biology, medical nanotechnology, drug development, and much more. The combined research strengths … will mean many millions more dollars in federal research support every year.”

Adding to Rutgers’ prospects was the earlier publication of a comprehensive analysis of higher education in New Jersey, commissioned in 2010 by governor Chris Christie. Conceived and largely written by former governor Tom Kean, whose own governorship in the 1980s facilitated much of Rutgers’ growth during that decade, The Report of the New Jersey Task Force on Higher Education “calls on the state,” McCormick points out, “to reverse decades of underfunding and neglect of higher education, and challenges the institutions to be accountable for fulfilling their distinctive missions.” The president—who has also been working with his colleagues on the New Jersey Presidents’ Council and with leaders in Trenton to get a higher education facilities bond issue before New Jersey voters on this fall’s ballot—is gratified that Christie is committed to supporting higher education in the state. It’s an endorsement that should help improve relationships between state policymakers and the university—a tough one for Rutgers presidents to forge over the years in part because of stubborn historical headwinds. As the president points out, the states of the Northeast, and their residents, have never given the kind of full-throated support to their state universities that states, say, in the Midwest have.

President Richard L. McCormick highlights
President Richard L. McCormick may well be most remembered for his pivotal role in the transformation of undergraduate education in New Brunswick, which opened new vistas of educational opportunities for students. He also hosted many prominent personalities, such as Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who addressed a large audience at Rutgers Stadium during his visit in September of 2006. The president oversaw many capital improvements on all three regional campuses, among them the current campaign to redevelop the Livingston Campus in Piscataway into a center of business and professional studies. Photography by (top left) Don Hamerman, (top right) Nick Romanenko

What stood out to McCormick in the report was a succinct summary of Rutgers’ role in the state, appearing in the opening sentence of the section on Rutgers: “For a state to be great, it must have a great state university.”

McCormick has understood this premise for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Piscataway, he listened over dinner to his father, the late Richard P. McCormick RC’38, GSNB’40, a respected historian, former dean of Rutgers College, and revered authority on campus, discuss with his mother, the late Katheryne Levis McCormick GSE’73, also a university employee, what Rutgers needed to be an exceptional state university. Later, serving 16 years as a professor in the Department of History, chair of the department, and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the younger McCormick developed a nuanced understanding of the challenges—and the solutions—to achieving this status. More evidence was laid before him when he was an executive at two of the nation’s top state universities: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was provost for three years in the early 1990s, and the University of Washington, where he was president for seven years.

“A great university has three core characteristics,” the president says. “The discovery and dissemination of knowledge that addresses the most important challenges, both material and moral, that humankind is facing; influence and impact that reach far beyond our campuses and shores and, with them, a corresponding reputation for making a difference in the state and the world; and sufficient resources—above all, the people but also the dollars and the facilities—to achieve these things.”

Since returning home to Rutgers in 2002, assuming the job for which he had been preparing all his life, McCormick has striven to present a coherent image of Rutgers as New Jersey’s public research university. It started with gestures like reinforcing the university’s identity as “Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey” and hosting weeklong faculty bus tours of New Jersey for new professors, introducing them to politicians, civic and business leaders, and the people of the state. McCormick has presided over improved relationships between Rutgers and its host communities of New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark, and Camden, exemplified by the Rutgers Future Scholars program, which mentors promising middle school students from these communities throughout high school for the possibility of attending Rutgers for free. And there have been events like Rutgers Day, the yearly invitation for the public to visit the campus to learn about the university, and the communications campaign “Jersey Roots, Global Reach,” which trumpets the impact of university research and scholarship on the state and world. The new Visitor Center, on the Busch Campus, is also an informative introduction to the Rutgers story, inviting prospective students, their families, alumni, and the public to learn about the latest initiatives at the university.

Richard and Joan McCormick with 2-year-old daughter Katie.
Richard L. McCormick married Joan Barry in 2006, and she has been indispensable in helping him discharge his duties, among them teaming up to approach donors and hosting countless events for the Rutgers community at the presidential residence, which has also been the home for their 2-year-old daughter, Katie, a constant source of delight for him when he returns home after a long day of serving as the president of Rutgers. Photography by Nick Romanenko

In confronting a more arduous challenge, the president hitched the education, research, and service imperatives of Rutgers to the needs of the state and beyond. Drawing on the advice of deans and faculty, McCormick identified research disciplines that were already strong suits at the university, singling them out as areas to fund and promote, among them transportation, bioengineering, nutrition, and renewable energy. Their research findings, he knew, have practical and commercial application and could bring material benefit to people (see “The New Frontier of Medicine”) and funding support to Rutgers.

Returning to Rutgers, McCormick had been well aware, like his father, that the university was a composite of academic fiefdoms. For faculty and students alike, it had led to a daunting administrative labyrinth. Education—in particular undergraduate education on the New Brunswick Campus—epitomized the condition. “It was the weirdest academic setup in America,” McCormick pointed out in his 2005 annual address—hardly the stuff of a topflight state research university. Rutgers–New Brunswick was a “patchwork quilt” of undergraduate colleges—Cook, Douglass, Livingston, Rutgers, and University—each with its own admission, core curriculum, and graduation standards, and each with its own administrative proclivities.

Performing the seemingly impossible, McCormick engineered the unification of four of the former colleges into the School of Arts and Sciences (Cook College, which also underwent a reorganization that opened all university resources to its students, was renamed the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences). The School of Arts and Sciences established one set of standards for all 21,000 of its students, including a new core curriculum, introduced last fall and designed to prepare students for the complex world of the 21st century. And, members of the faculty rededicated themselves to the educational experience of undergraduates by participating in the Byrne Family First-Year Seminars, which introduce first-year students to the broad scope of scholarship at Rutgers, and expanding opportunities for undergraduate research and honors programs. McCormick also championed the reorganization of alumni relations, with the Rutgers University Alumni Association emerging as the single entity representing all graduates. Alumni have now been reengaged by their alma mater, in part by sending them Rutgers Magazine and by eliminating membership fees.

“I feel a lot of pride in what Rutgers has achieved on my watch,” McCormick says, speaking from his office in Old Queens in New Brunswick. “The state of the university is excellent. The academic quality of a Rutgers education, the potential expansion of the university to include a medical school, the quality of the student body, and the funding from grants, private donations, and other sources is very good.”

Indeed, growing revenue sources have allowed the university’s operating budget to climb, from $1.3 billion in 2003 to $2.1 billion in 2011—“probably the most rapid budgetary growth in the history of the university,” he says. With the additional revenue that will come with the reunification of Rutgers with a medical school, the president anticipates that the budget for 2012 will approach $3 billion. Throughout his presidency, McCormick was vigilant about developing revenue sources beyond state funding and tuition. Upon taking office in 2002, he took an active role in fundraising, understanding that cultivating private giving, including individual donors, was necessary for the university to expand its mission. The fruits of his labors, and those of fundraising officials with whom he works at the Rutgers University Foundation, allowed him to announce during his final an­nual address to the university community, in September, that an individual had given $27 million to Rutgers, clearly the largest gift ever, a donation that will help establish 18 endowed chairs in a range of academic disciplines. It was more good news for the university, which is ahead of schedule in its goal to raise $1 billion during its capital campaign, Our Rutgers, Our Future: A Campaign for Excellence.

The added revenue, among other things, has allowed McCormick to envision and preside over significant capital improvements on the university’s three regional campuses. From the new facilities at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden and the Rutgers Business School on the Newark Campus to the BEST (Busch Engineering, Science, and Technology) dormitory and the Center for Integrative Proteomics Research at Rutgers–New Brunswick, there is a physical vitality to the university. The president is particularly proud of the initiative to redevelop the Livingston Campus in Piscataway. “It’s going to be a transformed campus,” the president says, “the closest thing we have to the model 21st-century campus.” Construction of an $85 million facility for the Rutgers Business School is under way; a new student center and dining facilities have been built; new student housing will open in the fall; and an improved Louis Brown Athletic Center (RAC) and a conference center and hotel are planned. Expanded offerings for professional, continuing, and executive education will be offered at the schools of business, management and labor relations, social work, and education—adding up to a campus serving as a center for business and professional education.

Despite his achievements as a leader and administrator and despite a lifelong relationship with Rutgers, one that perhaps no future president will be able to match, McCormick began thinking two years ago that the time was right to step down. He realized that he had been an executive in the upper ranks of higher education for a quarter century—more than half his working life. Other priorities in his life, both personal and professional, began leaching into his thoughts. He wanted to spend more time with his wife, Joan, whom he married in 2006 (see “Presidential Confidante”). Getting away recently for a weekend in Hyde Park, New York, to visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, gave them a glimpse of a new life together that awaits them. They also wanted to spend more time, together, with their 2-year-old daughter, Katie (named after the president’s late mother, Katheryne), who has been an enormous source of joy, and with McCormick’s other children, Betsy, 26, and Michael, 23.

There were professional considerations, too. “I wanted to move back to the faculty while I was still capable of being a good teacher and still capable of producing scholarship,” says McCormick, who will be teaching history as well as a course in higher education offered through the Graduate School of Education. He also intends to write two books. “I anticipate doing these things for a number of years to come. And with the prospect of the medical school coming in and the Kean task force report on higher education, it’s a good time for Rutgers to be seeking a new president. Rutgers has a good platform for going forward.”

There is still work to be done, in his view, if Rutgers wants to assume the mantle of an esteemed public research university. He cites the need for further improving student academic achievement, increasing research funding, extending international reach in strategically selected countries, endowing more chairs to bolster the faculty, expanding and improving campus facilities, and increasing private giving. It will require vision, perseverance, and money—and a strong, dedicated new leader.

“I will miss the responsibilities, and the privileges, of being the president. But I have chosen to make this decision,” McCormick says. “I plan on completing my career here—where it all began for me.” •