COLLEGE PRESIDENTS' SERIES
President Richard McCormick, Rutgers University
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
“This is not a rich kids’ school,” says Richard L. McCormick, President of Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey. He says it twice, proud of what it means to serve at the head of a major public research university, where enrollment is higher than ever, and also challenged to continue to provide excellence and access to a student body that has been identified by U.S. News and World Report as the most diversified in the country. The university comprises three main campuses—New Brunswick / Piscataway, Newark and Camden—a total of 29 degree-granting divisions, 12 undergraduate colleges, 11 graduate schools and three schools offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees, with a total enrollment of 51,480 undergraduates and 12,904 graduate students.
The president is mindful of the university’s unique history: a university “that grew by accretion,” as opposed to, say, The University of Michigan or North Carolina that were “always what they were.” A colonial chartered college in 1766, dedicated to educating ministers for the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, Rutgers then became a land-grant institution in 1864, merging various programs, and finally in 1945/56 a state university. In its various incarnations and through difficult times, the university has not only survived but also achieved. President McCormick points out that Rutgers is a member of A.A.U.—an association of 62 leading research universities in the U.S. and Canada, with international reputation. “We’re “unique on the planet” as an American research university.
The president, an Amherst B.A. and Yale Ph.D. does do something unusual for a college president: he teaches in the interdisciplinary First Year Freshman Seminar program. Of course, as president, he sees students all the time, but they are typically student leaders, the “politicians” on the campus. Teaching first-year undergraduates, he sees students as students, and he is exhilarated by the experience, especially when he comes off an hour that he earlier thought he couldn’t possibly make because of the day’s pile up of crises.
Although he went to top-tier private schools himself, his life as an administrator has always been at large public universities. He has been at Rutgers since 2002 and is its 19th president. Certainly private and public institutions share similar goals and missions and challenges, but the fact that Rutgers receives funding from the state means that there is an “obligation”—though he speaks of it also as a “privilege”—to attend closely to the needs of the community. A School of Criminal Justice, for example, is located at Newark, more traditional and research Ph.D. programs at New Brunswick, and Camden, the smallest of the campuses with 5,000—6,000 undergraduates also has schools of law and business, and a new Ph.D. program in Childhood Studies. All Rutgers undergraduates, however, pay $20,000 for tuition, room and board; by contrast, the figure at the top privates jumps to $50,000. Seventy-five percent of Rutgers’ kids receive financial aid; 80% work; 25% get Pell grants; over a third are the first in their families to go to college.
By community, however, the president means not just issues of major concern to the campus cities, but also wider concerns peculiar to the state: protection of the shore line; revitalization of older cities, including infrastructure; closer collaboration between K-12 public schools. In this last regard, President McCormick is especially pleased at just having instituted the Rutgers Future Scholars Program, all privately funded (so far), whereby 50 eighth grade students in the campus cities will be groomed for higher education and given free tuition and no fees to study at Rutgers. The program, a “huge deal,” he says, can have a great impact on getting more minority students into college, particularly in academic subjects where they have not yet been a major presence. As is, many of the African American and Latino students who attend Rutgers come from suburban areas around Camden, Newark, New Brunswick / Piscataway, not the inner cities. Meanwhile, the university’s Graduate School of Education will continue to target math and sciences for these youngsters, for all youngsters. Why should “freshman calculus be the place dreams die?”
Diversity, in fact, will be the subject of a major end-of-the year conference at Rutgers in collaboration with The College Board and Columbia University. Diversity, the president points out, can no longer be defined as it was in the sixties. New groups are changing the country’s demographic, especially the arrival of Latinos and South Asians in New Jersey. New legal challenges are on the horizon regarding affirmative action, he predicts, and curricula will need to be reconsidered to some extent to acknowledge the heritage of the newer populations. That this ground-breaking conference will be held at Rutgers says a lot about the university’s status but also about its drive and track record. #