McCormick Qua Miracle Man

By Robert McGarvey

 

Call Rutgers President Dick McCormick the Miracle Man.

That is because he has done the impossible. He has made us mourn for the days of Fran Lawrence, his predecessor as Rutgers president (term of office 1990-2002). Impossible? You'd think, but Dick McCormick is showing he is the miracle man.

The sordid history is simple. Lawrence, in his day, was widely ridiculed as a Peter Principled martinet and, worse, his power was neutered early in his presidency when he unfortunately suggested that "genetic, hereditary background" of disadvantaged students was linked to poor performance on admissions tests. Why didn't the Board of Governors simply fire him? As we shall see, the Rutgers BoG has its uses for ineffectual presidents and, in that slip of the tongue, Lawrence moved himself into virtual redundancy, meaning he retained the title but ceased to have any powers. That left the BoG in charge and, hold the arm rests, the Rutgers BoG is and has long been composed of political hangers-on, lackeys, and the self-interested. A vocal, intelligent president — Mason Gross or Ed Bloustein, for instance — might ignore the BoG but a neutered figure-head such as Lawrence has no choice but to dance to the tune the BoG plays. Thus the stagnation that characterized the Lawrence presidency. Stagnant except for a drift into ever bigger time sports, with the hiring of an energetic athletic director and a charismatic football coach. There you’ve summed up Fran Lawrence’s dozen years on the banks of the Raritan. Sports supplanted academics and that was exactly as the BoG — a cluster of thick-browed mumblers — wanted it.

It puts us in mind of US Senator Roman Hruska's remark about a possible Supreme Court nominee: "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they? And a little chance?" Hruska would have felt right at home sharing the Presidential football box with the Rutgers Board of Governors.

Onward to Richard McCormick and 2002. There was jubilation when McCormick -- the sitting president at the University of Washington -- agreed to take the Rutgers presidency. On its face that is a curious and lateral move, because Washington is by most measures a much better university than Rutgers. But Rutgers fans struck this up to personal ties. McCormick's father (also named Richard McCormick) had long reigned as a kind of iconic Professor Rutgers. A specialist in New Jersey history, this McCormick also wrote the definitive bicentennial history of the school. Young Dick, although he went to college at Amherst, literally grew up on the Rutgers campus and so for him to take the presidency was seen as a jubilant homecoming and, indeed, an occasion for toasting.

Well, perhaps too much toasting because not long after he landed on the banks of the Raritan there was the mugging as he walked out of a liquor store, the car accident where drink apparently played a part, the divorce from his wife of many years, and the show stopper revelation that — because he had been having an affair with an underling while serving as president of the University of Washington — the Washington regents actively encouraged him to take the Rutgers job.

Call it déjà vu all over again. In 2006 McCormick meekly accepted a $66 million budget cut handed down by Trenton politicians. Hundreds of jobs were lost, hundreds of classes canceled, but there was no peep from McCormick because, frankly, he had lost any power along with the disclosure that he was about to get booted by Washington when Rutgers emerged as the (dim-witted) savior of a career about to go very bad.

Now, in 2008, McCormick is presiding over a perfect duality — a new round of budget cuts that will nudge Rutgers further down the rankings of public universities — while at the very same time McCormick is spending like the proverbial drunken sailor to create a winning football team. $1.8 million in paychecks to a coach who has a lifetime losing record — done! $100+ million to add seats to Rutgers stadium — done!

As for the cuts in academics, they are triggered by Gov. Corzine's austerity budget which will slice around $38 million in funding for Rutgers and that will mean more lay-offs, more canceled classes, more deferred maintenance. What does McCormick do? In a prepared statement he said, "Although it promises to be painful, the governor's budget begins to lay the foundation for the state's long-term financial stability. The governor's plan for addressing New Jersey's financial problems calls for significant sacrifice across the state."

Where is the outrage about Rutgers' impossibly high tuition that is barring this door to some deserving students? Where is the pain that any friend of this once proud colonial school would feel as Rutgers takes yet another step away from the elite public universities and nearer the academic status of such Big East athletic brethren as Louisville and the Univ. of South Florida, where it often seems the classrooms are a Potemkin village required by the NCAA to maintain the sports teams? There are no such sounds from Dick McCormick and, surrender hope, there will never be. Not now, not ever as Rutgers plummets further down the academic rankings.

See what I mean about McCormick being the miracle man? Admit it: you have nostalgia for Fran Lawrence.

And that is why I believe in miracles.

Copyright (c) 2008 Robert McGarvey