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2014 Summer Reading

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Summer Reading: New Jersey's Books and Authors -- Raised at Rutgers

When Richard L. McCormick became president of Rutgers in 2002, it was almost like coming home

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While we’re on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That’s why we’ll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We’ll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .

Richard L. McCormick first came to know Rutgers University as the child of longtime Rutgers administrator Katheryne Levis McCormick and celebrated Rutgers historian Richard P. McCormick. In 2002, after serving as provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and president of the University of Washington, the younger McCormick became the state university of New Jersey’s 19th president.

In October, Rutgers University Press will release McCormick’s memoir, “Raised at Rutgers: A President’s Story.” The insider account brings insight to the politics and storylines of higher education, and a fresh perspective to news accounts familiar to many New Jerseyans. Here is a glimpse from the book’s first chapter, entitled “Six Scenes from a University Presidency.”

A HELICOPTER CONVERSATION WITH GOVERNOR McGREEVEY

On a late October afternoon in 2002, Governor Jim McGreevey was yelling at me on the telephone -- he in a helicopter somewhere over New Jersey and I at my home in Seattle. He knew that the Rutgers Board of Governors was intending to appoint me as the University’s nineteenth president within the next several days, and he was not happy about that. The leaders of the state legislature, he said, specifically naming the copresidents of the senate and the speaker of the assembly, shared his opposition to my appointment. The governor wanted me to withdraw as a candidate for the position because I could not, he shouted, succeed as the leader of Rutgers without political support. Our conversation became even more ragged when his cell phone dropped the call from the helicopter several times, and eventually our connection was irretrievably lost. The governor’s angry words left me shaken, but I had no intention of walking away from the opportunity to become president of Rutgers.

The phone conversation differed greatly from my first encounter with Governor McGreevey. A month earlier, when I was the leading candidate for the job at Rutgers but had not yet decided whether to accept it, he and I met for an hour or more, seated on a sun porch at the back of Drumthwacket, the governor’s official residence in Princeton. But the presidency of Rutgers was not the only subject on his mind that day. First-term United States Senator Robert Torricelli, running for reelection that fall but beset by ethics allegations, was being hounded by political opponents and by the press to drop out of the race. So while the governor was talking with me, he was also thrashing out with his political advisors how to deal with the Torricelli problem and specifically whom to select as a senate candidate in his place. To my amazement, the governor carried on both conversations -- his interview of me and his brainstorming about the election of a senator -- at the same time, on the sun porch, and with complete control of both topics. He had a Bill Clinton–like ability to keep you in his gaze, and he proved to be remarkably well informed about Rutgers in particular and higher education in general. Simultaneously, he was having his urgent political powwow, and he was thoroughly wrapped up in that, too. I was flattered to be allowed to overhear such a thing and was dazzled by the governor’s ability to focus, at the same moment, on two such different subjects.

I don’t really know what kind of an impression I made on Governor McGreevey during the Drumthwacket conversation, nor do I know what caused the feelings he later expressed from the helicopter. Almost certainly his views were shaped, in part, by a looming battle over a controversial plan to reorganize the public research universities of New Jersey, a plan authored by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, the retired CEO of Merck, and strongly supported by the governor. That controversy will receive the attention it deserves at the appropriate points in the chapters that follow. But of this much I am sure: my encounters with the governor marked an alarming introduction to the hard-edged world of New Jersey politics and the beginning of an exceedingly difficult first year as president of Rutgers. A big chunk of that early trouble was of my own making, and that, too, will be explained later.

Not just in New Jersey but throughout America, the politics of public higher education has been extremely challenging since the late 1980s. State funding for colleges and universities has steadily declined, and, more generally, higher education has lost the golden aura of support it had enjoyed at every level of government in the decades just after World War II. When the GIs came home from the war, the federal government was there to help them go to college, and in the years that followed the nation adopted successive and ever more generous programs of student support. That investment in higher educational opportunities for young American men and women transformed the United States into a more egalitarian, more democratic, and, of course, better-educated society than it had ever been before. These were the same years when the federal government began spending billions of dollars annually in support of university-based scientific research -- with historic results for the nation’s prosperity, the health of its people, and the alleviation of social and economic problems of practically every kind. Not to be outdone by the federal government, the states made dramatically farsighted, and expensive, investments in their existing public colleges and universities and, in partnership with local governments everywhere, invented and supported a whole new kind of educational enterprise: community colleges. Together, these governmental choices, which were truly popular American choices, greatly improved life in the United States and bolstered our nation’s leadership of the world.

Then the tide turned, not on a dime, but it turned nonetheless, most visibly at the level of state politics and government. By the 1990s, state funding for the colleges and universities was stagnating, fewer new institutions were being established, and the enrollment growth of the preceding decades was leveling off. A new generation of higher education leaders, of whom I was one, began to encounter far more difficulty than our predecessors in making the case for public investments in our institutions. We told the story, each in our own state, of the economic and social benefits that had flowed from the post–World War II growth of the colleges and universities, but now the politicians seemed far more interested in K–12 schools, services for senior citizens, and transportation, to name just three worthy public purposes with which the colleges were competing for funding. According to one argument that was commonly used against us, higher education was now a mature industry that no longer needed the same level of subsidization it had required before. Even more commonly, we heard that those who directly benefited from a college education, namely the individuals who graduated with the degrees our institutions conferred, should bear most of the costs themselves. Now withering as a political force was the belief held by my parents’ generation that the whole society prospered when more men and women received a college education and that it was in the best interest of the whole society to pay for that education. Perhaps the newer leaders like me were simply less able and less inspiring than those who came before us, but the pervasiveness of these trends across the country argues against that explanation. In every state, college and university presidents struggled to find convincing words, to identify the examples of economic growth, and to tell heartwarming stories of their students’ personal triumphs that would rekindle the golden glow around our enterprise -- and almost everywhere we seemed to be failing.

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