Values: From Amherst to Public Higher Education
Issue   |   Mon, 11/12/2012 - 21:31

Richard McCormick has stood at the helm of higher education in America, serving distinguished posts such as President of Rutgers Univ. and Provost of the Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But through all of his many accomplishments, McCormick has stood apart from the rest by developing a strong academic ethic through his own education, and the will to maintain and utilize it by securing and advancing the education of so many others. From studying the virtues that crafted American history and politics into realizing their manifestation through his own work with public institutions of higher learning, McCormick has made something practical of his liberal arts studies.

An Atypical Amherst Admission

Growing up in Piscataway, New Jersey, McCormick heard much about Rutgers, the flagship public university several towns over. Everyone in McCormick’s position knew about Rutgers, as it was, and still is, a major national research university and a very common destination for bright kids of middle-income background. McCormick also had two parents working for Rutgers, both eager for him to attend there.

McCormick, however, was determined to attend an out-of-state college. Naturally, after his father heard from the Rutgers admissions director that the country’s finest undergraduate institution was Amherst College, McCormick was determined to study there. “From that time on it was more or less foreordained that I was going to Amherst,” McCormick said. “Of course, I had not yet been admitted ... but I decided fairly early on that I wanted to go there, based in significant part on [the recommendation of the admissions director.]” McCormick applied and was granted entry through early admission, ensuring that the Rutgers director’s Amherst recruitment was accomplished.

Elite Education and Social Awareness

McCormick chose American Studies as his major at Amherst, which was an especially relevant course of study for the time period. McCormick recounts that about 20 percent of the Class of ’69 were American Studies majors, due to what McCormick refers to as an “intensification of interest in politics.” His college years witnessed the civil rights movement, an intensified war in Vietnam and resulting political resistance, and the recent passing of John F. Kennedy, all of which fostered a highly involved, critical academic culture. McCormick thrived at Amherst, reveling in courses such as Theodore Greene’s Colonial American History and Earl Latham’s Constitutional History, where he first began to consider values and how the grapple for them leads to politics as we understand it.

“Something we learned pretty well was that good values could be in conflict with one another. Life imposes upon us the responsibility to make choices between good and ... good,” McCormick said. If life only presented us with choices between good and bad, most people would get the right answer most of the time. But it’s not that easy. And the application of that insight to the study of America began to be fascinating for me.”

McCormick chose to express this moral insight academically, and believes that Amherst presented him with the perfect medium through which to develop it.

“To have really smart faculty members in a campus drilling down really added something,” he said.

To Yale and Beyond

Upon completing his education at Amherst, McCormick realized that he wanted to teach and study at the university level. For that he needed a Ph.D., and after spending a less-than-productive year teaching a sixth grade class, he enrolled in Yale to complete a course of graduate study on American History. He completed his dissertation under the preeminent American historian C. Vann Wooward about the state of New York politics in the late 19th century. This would later turn into his first book, From Realignment to Reform: Political Change in New York State, 1893–1910.

As his Ph.D. program was coming to a close, McCormick searched for teaching positions across the country’s universities, and eventually narrowed down his search to Rutgers and the Univ. of Minnesotta, both of whom selected him as a finalist for assistant professor positions in their history departments. McCormick favored the Univ. of Minnesota, but Rutgers was the one that ultimately offered him the position, against the advice of none other than his own father, who taught there himself at the time and didn’t believe that Rutgers was in a position to be hiring another history professor. And so fate dragged him back to central New Jersey. Though he was somewhat frustrated at first about not getting his first choice position, McCormick reports that “within minutes [he] was thrilled to be there.”

Rutgers: Junior Faculty to Dean of Faculty

McCormick taught at Rutgers from the time he was hired in 1976 as Assistant Professor in the History Department to 1992. McCormick learned to love studying amongst what he referred to as a “brilliant faculty” and teaching bright, motivated students, so he worked hard to publish more of his works, which brought him onto the tenure track and which secured for him a full professorship in 1985. Though upon coming to Rutgers, McCormick didn’t consider any positions other than that of professor, he began considering administrative roles. McCormick recalls that in the mid-80s he would torment the older faculty that chaired the history department by arguing against multitudes of their decisions. He claims that they grew so tired of him that in 1987 he was made Chair of the Department of History, his first taste of academic administration.

Two years later he was offered the position of Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and despite his father’s warning him that he was being offered the university’s “shittiest position,” and that it should only be taken as a step to “become president of the university,” McCormick took the job. Unbeknownst to his father, the idea of resigning from the university had already found a pleasant space in his mind.

North Carolina and Washington: The Real Deals

McCormick eventually left Rutgers to work for the Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then later for the Univ. of Washington, two of the country’s most prestigious public institutions. While he had always expressed very positive sentiments about Rutgers, he also bemoaned that the unkept state of the cities that hosted the University’s campuses compromised the standing of the University. McCormick likes to brag that the change of institutions gave him the pleasure to live in both the “most beautiful college town on the planet” (Chapel Hill, North Carolina) and the “loveliest city in the country” (Seattle, Washington). At UNC McCormick served as Provost (alongside a few other role) from 1992-1995.

His proudest accomplishment was the initiation and expansion of racial diversity, which has been something McCormick had deeply cared about since he began learning about race relations and racial identity at Amherst. The keystone project that he championed was the establishment of the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center, something that he felt was absolutely necessary for the development of black cultural studies on campus, but something that was also very controversial. Nonetheless, McCormick fought, and though he left before the project was completed, he remains proud that the building was constructed and stands as one of the most majestic structures on campus.

At the University of Washington, where McCormick served as President from 1995-2002, he faced similar racial issues when the state of Washington, “not nearly as liberal as one might expect,” McCormick said, voted through a referendum to forbid the use of affirmative action policies by any public institution. As expected, the representation of minority students plummeted with the very next incoming class, and the university faced a diversity crisis. In response, McCormick championed new admissions strategies, including an increase of outreach to high schools with high minority representation and a restructuring of the application process so as to make it more attainable to students from under-represented backgrounds. These strategies were so successful that within four years the pre-referendum diversity was restored, completely without the benefit of affirmative action.

Rutgers: A Return to Home

In 2002, McCormick left the Univ. of Washington to fill his seemingly-destined position, President of Rutgers Univ. Thrilled to be back in his home state, McCormick served his role as president until he resigned earlier this year, though he continues to serve his teaching position, as the Board of Governors Professor of History and Education.

In this last administrative stretch, McCormick continued to champion various forms of diversity, culminating in the facilitation of the Rutgers Future Scholars Program in 2007. The program identifies troubled middle school students in the public schools of the cities that house the university, mentoring them and promising full scholarships to participants are admitted to Rutgers after graduating high school.
McCormick’s career has brought him from coast to coast, and he has advanced from studying the great American experiment, to teaching about it and finally, to implementing the study on a grand scale. But through all of his success, what is so amazing about McCormick is that he managed to shape his career in the mold of an ethic he learned as an undergraduate.

The great insight McCormick had at Amherst is that American politics and government were nothing but the pursuit of certain values, the “responsibility to make choices between good and other good.” And by fighting to improve the state of some of the nation’s most critical institutions, those of higher learning, McCormick pursued just that.