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I read Dick McCormick's memoir so you don't have to

The former Rutgers president reflects on his tenure

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(Note: athletics sections near the end.)

Former Rutgers president Richard McCormick has never been able to escape his status as the son of a prominent Rutgers professor. In spite of his decision to go away to a posh New England college, McCormick's subsequent multiple returns to campus, and the title of his new memoir speaks to his eventual coming to terms with his prodigal son status on the banks. Indeed, an early passage speaks of his career as a young academic, initially hoping for an appointment to the University of Minnesota, with his father disapproving of McCormick's first return to Rutgers as a tenured professor.

That is one of the biggest overarching themes of McCormick's memoir, a brief (approx. 250 pages) read that does show a willingness to face self-criticism and offers rare moments of candor. The work largely suffers however for its lack of depth, clearly indicating that this was a vanity project meant to argue for his legacy, as opposed to the serious, sober academic histories that more reflect his scholarship. That is one critical flaw here as a read, with the other significant one being a large unwillingness to land many punches. The sober tone, frustratingly bereft of detail at points, and in many cases glossing over areas of seemingly high interest, prevent this work from rising beyond being largely a curiosity, destined to be cited in assorted footnotes over the coming decades.

The work's central thesis is as follows: Rutgers has had a long and convoluted path in transforming from a private, colonial college into a world-class public research university. McCormick had an absolute commitment to his vision, and in attempting to implement it, largely got the big ideas right. However, in many respects his efforts were stymied by various foes: his self-admittedly poor interpersonal skills, starting off on the wrong foot with a series of public relations gaffes early in his tenure, and a constant ongoing struggle with budget crises (and as such, has to be considered in the proper context.) If this all sounds somewhat familiar, that may because it largely jibes with my assessment of McCormick (per many previous pieces at On the Banks) as well. Naturally then, I'm very sympathetic to his arguments in this respect, which make the memoir's other flaws that much more frustrating.

There is, on the whole, a large unwillingness to name names, likely due to a desire to avoid blowback and further recrimination. The otherwise understated prose feels most passionate when decrying the hypocrisy of grandstanding, self-serving state politicians, seeking to micromanage Rutgers on one hand, while siphoning away its meager funding in the other. Even avowed Rutgers foes like Stephen Sweeney and George Norcross largely escape scrutiny (beyond implying the obvious, that the former is the latter's lapdog), with McCormick even blaming himself for his poor relationship with Sweeney in an anecdote that perfectly illustrates his fundamental communication issues. (Sweeney asks McCormick how much it takes to educate a Rutgers student. Instead of providing a simple estimate on the spot, he instead assigns subordinates to spend weeks painstakingly assembling a concrete answer.)

McCormick similarly gets off on a poor foot with every elected New Jersey Governor during his tenure. McGreevey, another despicable person like Sweeney who pretty much acts like a complete sociopath (per McCormick's description, not his words), only to merit sympathetic treatment pages later. Jon Corzine was just completely out of it, uninterested in details in all respects. Chris Christie, meanwhile, was exactly the voracious bully that his public reputation largely suggests, holding unfair personal grudges, while his bullying style ultimately helps Rutgers in the end. (McCormick implies that Christie has more savvy than he lets on, in giving Sweeney and Norcross enough rope to hang themselves in their debacle of an attempt to steal Rutgers-Camden and give it to Rowan.)

The two exceptions in politicians who receive favorable treatment are state senator Dick Codey, a big-time athletics booster who shows minimal interest in the school's academic operations, but ultimately is far more generous in appropriations than any of the elected governors, and Tom Kean Sr., the dashing gentleman WASP of New Jersey politics who McCormick cannot even attempt to hide his personal and political admiration for. The love of Kean is all encompassing, and goes through many threads; from wistful nostalgia for Kean's strong funding of President Bloustein's agenda at Rutgers in the 80s, to present-day admiration for Kean's efforts with Christie to restore the stolen Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to its rightful place within Rutgers.

As far as the former goes, the best sections at the book, where McCormick is the most reflective, engaged, and willing to let his guard down concern his early academic career. A fractured, newly-public university in the 70s saw gigantic benefits by rolling down red tape (which ultimately culminated in Bloustein's 80s renaissance.) McCormick was the direct benefit of these changes, with his history department at Rutgers growing to national prominence, and McCormick's star quickly rising in turn. He went from a young professor, to department chair, to dean of SAS, to UNC provost and Washington president in a very short period of time, albeit with reservations about giving up teaching for administration.) With these sorts of anecdotes recounted, and the obvious exasperation with all the frustration inherent to academic administration, it's little wonder that McCormick decided to step down when he did. (Although, it was a decently long tenure, and he thinks Christie and the BoG wanted to install their own president, if only to see through the UMDNJ merger.

The 70s-era merger of the college faculties at Rutgers, and all of the immediate benefits clearly dominated McCormick's thinking as president, with a good portion of the chapters concerning these many efforts. Finally merging all of the colleges was big of course, but by far the most ink is spent on all of the ongoing attempts to secure the return of Rutgers's medical school. (As an aside, as a Rutgers partisan, I love that McCormick rightly characterizes the UMDNJ fight as an attempt to retrieve stolen property, as opposed to the self-serving gift that outsiders sometimes portrayed it as.) As far as his administrative career goes, the only other thing that stood with me was that while in some sense McCormick sympathized with campus radicals and protesters, practically he thought a lot of their requests were ridiculous and/or misguided. He seems to hold a special level of contempt for the NJ Solidarity group.

McCormick's early tenure was dominated by the Vagelos report (a McGreevey-era attempt to merge Rutgers, UMDNJ, and NJIT, and then split the campuses regionally. Corzine seemed receptive but ultimately not only dropped the ball, but sowed the seeds for future discord by approving Norcross's request for a medical school. (As has been reported elsewhere, Norcross's preference was for affiliation with Rutgers, but funding issues, and a sense that it would hurt the chances to regain RWJMS caused Rutgers to decline.) That of course, led Kean's commission on higher education and the Barer report, which Norcross and Sweeney used to unleash holy hell two years ago. (A decision that I still believe caused Sweeney to retaliate against Tim Pernetti out of spite.)

There's not a lot in those respects that wasn't already known publicly, but McCormick does imply that he would have been open to some sort of compromise trade of control over Camden to get the medical school back, in spite of the fundamental unfairness of that transaction. (As he should have been, as much as Camden alumni hate/hated the notion. If Rutgers is the United Kingdom, Newark is Scotland, and Camden is Wales. That's an analogy I thought of in the recent independence talk about how Scotland gets a parliament and England doesn't, while in theory Scots get to vote on England but not vice versa. The governance structure, balance of power, and frankly, relative importance is extremely similar at Rutgers.)

When it comes to athletics, McCormick (like his successor Barchi) seems largely indifferent and hands off on the subject, although discussing them does comprise about 20% of the book. McCormick concedes that early on in his tenure, he wanted to form a commission to study athletics at the university, but was ultimately dissuaded by the idea and became more supportive of athletics, and his relative lack of influence over the Board of Governors. (There is widespread misconception about the university's governing structure, which has continued under Barchi.) For McCormick (and frankly, most people), Rutgers athletics are largely synonymous with football, with minimal references to other sports (Gary Waters being stuck in a blizzard isn't referenced, although Don Imus and cutting sports briefly are.)

The athletics sections are by far the weakest part of the book however, with McCormick not only conceding a lack of knowledge (and interest, except on how it reflects on larger university governance), but displaying a seemingly vain, thin-skinned obsession with local media coverage and perception, especially when it comes to the Newark Star-Ledger. (This is reflected in the other chapters as well, but is far more pronounced in the athletics sections.) When it comes to the topic of stadium expansion, McCormick bemoans Corzine's mismanagement, and reveals alternate plans that were under consideration (like expanding bleachers for $86 million), but were ultimately deemed unfeasible.

He criticizes unfair and disproportionate coverage by Margolin and Sherman, while fatally failing to note that he erroneously confirmed a false report about a draft clause in Greg Schiano's contract that was never enacted, nor that the athletic department publicly disclosed their side arrangement with Nelligan Sports in press releases. When it comes to dismissing Bob Mulcahy in 2008, McCormick really glosses over the details, criticizing the athletic department for getting overtly defensive, and failing to note his private vote of confidence to Mulcahy that he quickly abandoned under threat from legislators like Sweeney and Patrick Diegnan to make a drastic cut to the university's funding.

As far as other bits with sports, while frustrated over a lack of transparency (which also comes up in other areas, and McCormick repeatedly says it was incompetency as opposed to malfeasance - another argument that I have repeatedly made), he does express pride in the athletic department's academic and compliance achievements, stating that the only rules violation that he was aware of was a case where a coach forged a player's signature, receiving a three game suspension as a result. The other bit of note was that Pernetti and Jim Delany started negotiations for Rutgers to join the Big Ten in 2010, which was already widely known in the Rutgers community.

(Other sources have stated that would have likely joined at that time had the Longhorn Network not blown up the Big XII, which made Nebraska surprisingly available.) Despite not joining then, interest remained strong and mutual, with the main roadblock being the Big Ten's desire to pair Rutgers (which was basically set in stone for a while as #13) with Notre Dame. Once that possibility collapsed with the Domers leaping to the ACC, focus quickly shifted to Maryland. That basically confirmed a lot of bits and pieces that were already out there, but it was nice to get a more public sourcing for some of those details. (Note: the above wording is absolutely a paraphrase, but I believe it is a very accurate reflection.)

All in all, this memoir was not a terrible read, but it's not especially recommended. The Secret History it ain't. People already know by large that athletics administration is a thankless job. All of the details about athletics are compiled much better in other places, and many other people could speak much better to them. McCormick's core argument, again, I believe is mostly correct and have already indicated as such, so the publication is useful in the sense that he can try to make the claim for posterity. It is a decent argument with strong factual backing, but McCormick is not blessed in rhetoric nor is he making a detailed historical survey. In glossing over the finer points with his reader's digest version of the past decade and a half, and his larger professional career, McCormick largely does his readers, and ultimately, himself a disservice. There is a better case to be made for his legacy at Rutgers, flawed as it may have been, and I think that better researchers will make it in time as people start to reflect on all of the coming changes on campus.

Final Bluebook Grade:

Raised at Rutgers: C-. See above.

McCormick's tenure as university president: B-. He was no Bloustein or Mason Gross, but certainly an immeasurable improvement over the disastrous Francis Lawrence.