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

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.”


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.

New Jersey illustrated all these trends, and, just as in practically everything else, New Jersey was also a special case. State funding for higher education peaked in the late 1980s during the governorship of Thomas H. Kean (of whom more will be told later), and thereafter it began a slow but steady decline, in real dollars and in funding per student. Despite the voters resounding passage of a bond issue for college and university facilities construction in 1988, state support for that purpose all but disappeared in the years that followed. Even prior to the 1990s loss of funding, the government of New Jersey had never been particularly supportive of the state’s public colleges and universities. In its relative stinginess toward higher education, New Jersey had much in common with other northeastern states whose private colleges and universities are so numerous and so outstanding. There just wasn’t the same level of demand for public higher education as in the Midwest or the South. In this arena, as in so many others, New Jersey’s experiences and political choices were also shaped by the state’s small size and by its proximity to the great cities of New York and Philadelphia. Very large numbers of New Jersey young men and women traditionally wanted to attend college out of state, which meant crossing the Hudson River or the Delaware River to find places in the classrooms of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, or Maryland. Many attended schools still farther away, and, indeed, New Jersey has led the nation for decades in the number of high school graduates who choose to continue their education beyond the boundaries of their home state and, in many cases, never return. The pressures faced by politicians in other states to provide ever more opportunity within their public colleges and universities were thus always much reduced in New Jersey. When the national tide turned against funding for higher education in the 1990s, New Jersey’s leaders had really been there all along. They readily took up the new arguments justifying their decisions not to fund the state’s colleges very well.

So that was, and to a great extent still is, the political environment in which I became president of Rutgers in 2002: a national trend that was running against support for public higher education, some special New Jersey circumstances that worsened the trend, and, ever present, the harsh political behavior that is characteristic of our state, behavior that sometimes serves useful purposes but that also brings a lot of pain to many of the participants and widens differences of opinion that might otherwise be narrowed.

Thanks, however, to good fortune and, even more, to the hard work of many people, the story that follows has two remarkable outcomes that could not have been predicted on the basis of the political situation I have described. First, like the very best public universities across the country, Rutgers developed and expanded sources of monetary support that did not depend upon the government of New Jersey. Every year the percentage of the University’s budget that came from the state went down — not only because the state was insufficiently generous but also because other revenue streams went up. Rutgers probably would not have chosen to pursue this business plan, which is not without its drawbacks, if state funding had been nearly adequate to the attainment of the University’s goals for itself, for its students, and for the wider communities of which it is a part. But state funding was not adequate, and there was no choice. It’s a good story, not unique to Rutgers, and it suggests that the argument about a “mature industry” requiring less subsidization than it formerly did may have some merit.

The second remarkable outcome, unlike the first, owes a great deal to the political leaders of New Jersey, perhaps above all to Tom Kean and Chris Christie: the fulfillment of Rutgers’s long quest to regain Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (originally the Rutgers Medical School), while, as it turned out, also absorbing most of the rest of New Jersey’s health sciences university, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). Returning the medical school to Rutgers was a central goal of my presidency. It succeeded in 2012 through an almost unbelievable sequence of “only in New Jersey” twists and turns, but at the end of the day it would not have happened without the politicians.


It was September 16, 2005. Carrying banners and singing and chanting, they marched from their beloved Douglass College campus down George Street, the main thoroughfare of New Brunswick, to the College Avenue campus. There were a hundred or more of them, mainly students but also some alumnae of Rutgers’s historic women’s college, all of them determined to protect and defend it. Their destination was the hall in which I would deliver my annual address to the university community. I knew they were coming and knew they represented values and traditions that mattered deeply at Rutgers. I also knew the University had to face up to some serious problems that were imperiling the quality of education that they and all Rutgers–New Brunswick undergraduates were receiving.

Just as I did every September, I had taken seriously my presidential obligation to provide a compelling, even inspiring, account of the University’s most pressing issues and to summon the community to meet its challenges and seize its opportunities. As always, too, the event was attended by six or seven hundred faculty, staff, students, and board members, all crowded into the multipurpose room in the College Avenue student center. I would speak for perhaps forty minutes and then take questions until there were no more. On this particular day, the inflamed and articulate contingent from Douglass stood with their banners, many rows deep at the back of the hall throughout the afternoon. They interrupted my speech a bit at the beginning, but when I said “I’ll listen to you if you’ll listen to me,” the audience applauded and the Douglass students grew quiet and waited their turn. When it came, they had three hours of questions for me. Some were angry, some merely anguished. Why did I want to hurt their college? Didn’t I know that only Douglass College offered Rutgers women opportunities for leadership in student organizations? Why did I want to damage the institution that historically had been New Jersey’s avenue for women in higher education? The questions were worthy, and I did my best to give thoughtful, respectful replies to each. It was the beginning of a momentous campus conversation that lasted throughout the academic year.

The media, of course, widely reported the Douglass protest, and the students and especially the alumnae of Douglass succeeded in keeping their point of view in the headlines for many months. A casual observer of New Jersey news that year might easily have concluded that the state university was bent on destroying its venerable women’s college. Founded in 1918 as the New Jersey College for Women and later renamed for its founding dean, Mabel Smith Douglass, it had provided opportunities for women to get a college education in the state at a time when there were virtually none. Even when those opportunities became more plentiful, Douglass had remained in the vanguard of educating women, preparing women for leadership, and, in more recent years, advancing feminist teaching and scholarship. Douglass had been and still was a vitally important part of Rutgers and New Jersey. If there was any doubt about the devotion that students and alumnae had for Douglass, the events of that day and the subsequent months dispelled it.

But Douglass was not the cause of the problem to which I devoted my annual address and which I exhorted the university community to join me in solving. Douglass was a special case of the problem, and Douglass gained most of the headlines throughout the year because its supporters wanted it to. There was a Rutgersa problem, far bigger than Douglass, and, upon the advice of a task force composed of faculty and students, which had made its report two months earlier, I was determined to see it fixed. The University’s New Brunswick campus included four liberal arts colleges — Rutgers, Livingston, Douglass, and University College, none with its own faculty, but each with its own admissions process, core educational requirements, honors programs, academic advising, graduation standards, and much more. Each college also provided nonacademic services like psychological counseling and recreational opportunities for its students alone. The colleges competed with each other for students, established divergent educational requirements that constrained students from transferring among the colleges, and promulgated regulations that were difficult to understand or explain. “If you live here you can’t study that; if you are enrolled in that college you can’t do this.” Meanwhile the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, whose eight hundred members taught students in all the colleges, had no obligation or authority as a body in regard to admissions standards, the general education curriculum, or graduation requirements. “So we have,” I said in my address, “degree-granting colleges without faculties and an arts and sciences faculty without students. This has got to be the weirdest academic setup in America.” It denied students the full range of educational opportunities offered by the University’s outstanding departments and faculty, and it absolved faculty of comprehensive responsibility for their students’ education.


The setup was also excruciatingly difficult to explain to prospective students and their parents, high school guidance counselors, or the citizens of New Jersey. A state senator once said to me, “Dick, my son has been admitted to Livingston College but not to Rutgers College. Can you tell me what that means?” I did my best to answer his question — but the system had to be repaired, above all for the benefit of our students. That was the most important single challenge for Rutgers for the year ahead and, indeed, for the next several years.

The confusing and constraining character of undergraduate education on the New Brunswick campus illustrated an even larger Rutgers problem: the University was disorganized and difficult to understand. It was unwieldy and confounding to practically every observer and, as a result, was achieving far less than it could have in many areas. To be sure, criticisms like these apply in some measure to most large organizations, including many universities, but those who knew Rutgers well agreed that our institution had a bigger than average case of disorganization and confusion. These conditions owed a great deal, as most conditions do, to history. Rutgers had grown over the centuries and decades by accreting, one might even say cobbling together, disparate elements whose origins lay in a multitude of places and purposes. Its Newark and Camden campuses, which were joined to Rutgers in the middle of the twentieth century, had beginnings that were entirely separate from the rest of the University. The School of Pharmacy, born in Newark, was something else altogether before it became part of Rutgers and relocated to Piscataway. These characteristics of accreting and cobbling were especially pronounced on the largest Rutgers campus, in New Brunswick, where each of the undergraduate colleges had come into existence at a particular historical moment in response to the educational and social challenges of the time. Despite decades of efforts, the colleges had never really been integrated into a single university. There had been previous attempts to transform undergraduate education in New Brunswick, but they had failed, in part because of opposition from entrenched interests like those at Douglass and in part because historic-structural problems are intrinsically so difficult to understand or explain, not to mention boring. The defenders of Douglass had a story that was easy to grasp — Rutgers was out to destroy New Jersey’s main instrument of educational opportunity for women — while the university administration had a more difficult public relations challenge. Little wonder Douglass dominated the headlines.

In the months that followed, the New Brunswick campus community set to discussing the problems of undergraduate education and evaluating the recommendations of the task force: establishment of a single set of admissions standards for all arts and sciences undergraduates; creation of a school of arts and sciences with faculty and students whose faculty would take responsibility for the educational curriculum; and equal access to every academic program for all undergraduates. These were not wild-eyed, radical proposals; practically every university in America, as well as Rutgers’s campuses in Newark and Camden, already had them. But they were new to Rutgers-New Brunswick, and it took a monumental effort, indeed, a model process of shared governance involving students, faculty, staff, alumni, and board members to get it done. I was fond of saying that year that practically every university president in America had a report on his or her desk about how to improve undergraduate education at a time when the greatest prestige and the highest kudos went to graduate education and research. But while most of those reports gathered dust, we at Rutgers actually enacted the recommendations of ours. We also saved and improved Douglass — a subject to which I will return at a later point.

As a coda to this scene, I should observe that practically every Rutgers president, in his time, 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 as Rutgers president, Dr. Robert L. Barchi, is dealing with such a challenge, but far greater in magnitude than the one I faced — bringing within Rutgers most of the schools and colleges of UMDNJ. The challenge of integrating divergent elements, and thus expanding educational opportunities for everyone, is ever-present at Rutgers. It was, and is, well worth unceasing efforts to achieve.