Richard McCormick stepping down as Rutgers president

That's the story in the Ledger today, although interestingly enough the collective wisdom of the internet called this weeks ago. In retrospect, Phil Furmanski stepping down might have been an early hint of what was to come. Most university presidents only stay on for roughly a decade, so this move was likely an inevitability at some point or another. In many ways, the position is a thankless job. If you have to tell people "no," then feelings will be hurt and egos bruised somewhere along the way. As RUNYYFan said on Rivals, even Edward Bloustein faced faculty no-confidence votes, and he was a terrific president.

McCormick's tenure as Rutgers president was decisively mixed, and cannot be divorced from a difficult economic climate. Rutgers faced drastically decreasing state support over the past decade, and the resulting increases in tuition and enrollment have clearly had a large negative impact on Rutgers-New Brunswick. That context would have beguiled most administrators, and McCormick can only be judged fairly when evaluated relative to his tenure and the challenges he faced. He deserves a lot of credit for successfully merging the multiple colleges in New Brunswick, with should pay significant dividends in terms of efficiency and simplification over time. A shining accomplishment was the ongoing push to revitalize the Livingston campus in Piscataway, along with continued capital work on Busch.

Another vital push was to restore UMDNJ's campus in New Brunswick into its rightful status as Rutgers Medical School. A complicated merger between Rutgers, UMDNJ, and NJIT imploded spectacularly earlier in the decade, in part due to mixed feelings from New Brunswick. McCormick had recently taken initiative under a new Governor in Chris Christie to attempt a scaled-down merger that would be an unambiguous win if successful. That plan still has a great deal of pratfalls ahead, but McCormick certainly knows as a professional historian that his legacy as Rutgers president will be remembered more fondly if the UMDNJ merger goes through. Any prospective replacements will have to place a high emphasis on seeing this ambitious project through to completion.

As the Ledger article notes, Rutgers quickly identified McCormick as a frontrunner a decade ago due to his intimate familiarity with the school and New Jersey. His tenure was not as smooth as anticipated, owing in part due to the local economic climate, but that does go to highlight the inherent uncertainty that goes into any search process. Rutgers is somewhat difficult to administrate due to its complex organizational structure. Governing is difficult when one has to navigate countless factions, fiefdoms, and mandarins. As far as identifying a replacement goes, internally there might be some support in elevating Rutgers Undergraduate VP Barry Qualls, who is very well respected and admired.

Any search committee will undoubtedly look at candidates with ties to the region and Rutgers, as well as qualified people from across the spectrum. In that sense, it will not be much different from any job search. They will have to try to keep an open mind, and make the best possible hire. Admittedly, I am biased here, but looking at what Tim Pernetti has been able to do as athletic director, one cannot help but desire a telegenic president with strong fundraising skills. McCormick's downfall, more than anything, was that he was a nebbish academic with an eye for nuance. That is hardly a character flaw, but it may not have been what Rutgers needed in adapting to an unfavorable economic climate.

Overall, I think Pres. McCormick was mostly right on the ideas. Where he often stumbled was in implementation; whether owing to the afore-mentioned funding issues, or a general tendency towards sloppiness that led to a great deal of public relations miscues. The Ledger mentions the aborted College Avenue Greening initiative; its eventual cancellation succinctly symbolizes the general air of severe disappointment, the perpetual black cloud hanging over the campus during the past decade. Implementing radical change is no picnic. McCormick showed little resolve in quickly buckling to political pressure in decisions like canceling RutgersFest, and removing Robert Mulcahy as athletic director in 2008. Again, both were financially motivated more than anything (less so with the former, which was very complex overall), and his hands were tied in a no-win situation, but those two choices will create lingering resentment for years to come.

The latter in particular will come as a sore point to this site's readers. McCormick was largely supportive of athletics; seeing sports as an effective outlet for marketing and alumni engagement. It is also of fairly small importance to the overall university community, which he recognized. That was a positive in that he deftly disengaged the school's vocal anti-athletics minority, but for better or worse McCormick took a hands-off approach to athletics, infamously giving Mulcahy carte blanche, and not always staying involved in the athletic department's day-to-day operations. Mulcahy and his supporters can rightly howl in frustration over him being dismissed for operating exactly as promised. As there was little merit to the incoherent allegations from Josh Margolin and Ted Sherman, McCormick gave Mulcahy a vote of confidence, only to quickly rescind support following legislative pressure.

McCormick should have stayed more informed, but given the place of sports in the university budget, his level of interest probably was proportional for the most part. A university president has more important things to worry about than a relatively small subsidy. At the same time, athletics can be an asset for a large university if handled correctly, and every nickel counts when money is tight. The ideal university president in this respect would be someone like Pittsburgh's Chancellor Nordenberg, who is adept at making constructive suggestions without micromanaging. Speculating about the next president's approach to athletics is nigh impossible at this moment, but as an alumnus I want the best possible university president in place, and want to see the search committee use that sole criterion as their guiding principle over the next year.

Farewell from Old Queens Richard McCormick, and good luck as you transition away from administration. In many respects, his tenure perfectly epitomized all of the virtues and flaws that make Rutgers University such a complex, almost ungovernable institution. He sincerely tried his best. There were rough patches, but McCormick managed not to figuratively crash an Academy bus into a brick wall, and was an improvement over Francis Lawrence for the most part. He deserves the gratitude of Rutgers alumni if only for that. Goodbye, so long, and let's try to do better the next time around.

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