The Road to Seattle

President Richard L. McCormick Was Born to the Academic Life, and There Were Few Detours Along His Path to Leading the University of Washington.

Richard L. McCormick on the steps of Suzzallo Library. Photo by Mary Levin.

by Tom Griffin

Once a year, in front of several hundred students in his American history course, Dick McCormick had to stand up and make hurtful, racist remarks that contradicted everything he believed in.

McCormick and a teaching colleague at Rutgers University were re-enacting one of the defining moments in American political history, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

While History Professor Paul Clemens--a wiry 6-foot-2 expert on early American history--had the plum part of Abraham Lincoln, McCormick-- an energetic 5-foot-7 expert on American political history--was stuck with the less desirable role of Stephen Douglas.

Because of the difference in height, it was natural for Clemens to play Lincoln and for McCormick to play Douglas, the Illinois Democrat known as the "Little Giant." So he stood before these young minds in his introductory course and delivered lines such as, "In my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men."

"I didn't shy away from it," McCormick says of Douglas' words. "Lincoln is shrewd and thoughtful as he presents the basis for opposing the extension of slavery. Douglas is appealing crudely to the racist sentiments of his listeners. We wanted students to catch both of these things."

"Douglas is the much harder role," recalls Clemens 15 years later. "It takes a good deal of balance and skill to present Douglas in a historically honest way and get away with it. Dick was brilliant."

Like all the roles he has played in his life: son, father and husband--student, sixth grade teacher and professor--dean, provost and now 28th president of the University of Washington, McCormick threw all his energy and all his brilliance into the effort.

Though he has left the teaching podium behind, McCormick has stayed focused on the great debates facing higher education and American society in the late 20th century (See McCormick on the Issues). His command of the issues, and his impressive track record as a top official at two leading public research universities, made him the natural choice to become UW president on Sept. 1.

McCormick says he looks forward to the challenge, though he knows that leading the University into the 21st century is a difficult role. "I feel deeply honored to have been selected to lead one of the finest public universities on Earth," he says. "The opportunity is a thrill and a dream come true."

He says his eyes are open. "I'm ready for it. I expect to work very hard and face some tough times and even some painful ones. I'm not under any illusions that this is going to be easy. It will be the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life."

Those challenges include keeping the UW financially healthy while life support from state government and federal research agencies continues to drain away. At the same time, the "baby boom echo" is reaching college age. The state's budget office estimates that over the next 25 years Washington will have an additional 300,000 college-age citizens.

Then there are the perennial tensions between teaching and research, calls for accountability and more efficiency from government leaders, the threat of a faculty "brain drain," society's racial tensions spilling over to the campus, and the pressures of running a $2 billion enterprise.

"My first job is to get to know this great University," McCormick says. "I have got a lot to learn. I plan to go out and meet folks on their turf--in the classrooms, laboratories and offices. I want to find out about the challenges and the opportunities and what help I can provide."

McCormick is no stranger to a college campus. The 47-year-old native of New Jersey was born to the academic life. Both of his parents were on the faculty at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. Since his high school graduation, McCormick has spent his life in academe as either a student, professor or administrator--except for one year teaching at an inner city grade school in Philadelphia.

He earned a B.A. in American Studies from Amherst College in 1969 and a Ph.D. in history from Yale in 1976. That same year he became an assistant professor of history at Rutgers. Eleven years later he took over the post of history chair, and in 1989 became Rutgers' dean of arts and sciences during a particularly painful era of budget cutting.

Three years ago he left Rutgers for the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to become provost of the flagship university for that state. Again, budget problems were at the top of the list, but McCormick also walked into a firestorm over a proposed Black Cultural Center that some regarded as a "separatist" black student union.

That McCormick was able to soothe a campus that was tearing itself apart--and at the same time find ways to cushion budget blows--impressed UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Paul Hardin. "He was very good at faculty recruitment, particularly minorities. And he was excellent at managing very well a large budget that is never nearly enough," Hardin says.

His track record also impressed the search panel and the UW regents, who offered McCormick the post June 14th after a 13-month search to replace William P. Gerberding. "He had really done his homework. He was exceptionally well-prepared. He knew a lot about the University of Washington," says Regent Dan Evans, who, with Regent Scott Oki, made the final recommendation to the board to hire McCormick.

Looking over Gerberding's 16 years at the UW, Evans adds, "Bill Gerberding's shoes cannot be filled. We have a new president who will bring his own pair of shoes. From what he has been preparing for, they'll be track shoes."

Adds UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Hardin, "Energy is a manifest part of his personality."

Says UNC Associate Vice Chancellor Lawrence Gilbert, "He's always here before me and usually he's the last one to leave. My kids were in town over the holidays and I wanted to show them my office, so we went over there on Christmas Day. When we unlocked the doors, there he was, working at his desk."

Where does this warp-factor speed come from? "I really love what I am doing. If you love what you are doing and believe in what you are doing, that helps," McCormick says.

In addition to his energy, more than one colleague has commented on his phenomenal memory. "He always has his facts at his fingertips and never forgets themp," notes Gilbert.

McCormick has also avoided a bad habit some imperious professors acquire. "He's not the kind of professor who wants to make you into a mold of himself," comments Seattle University History Professor Daniel Burnstein, who did his doctoral dissertation under McCormick. "Dick genuinely likes people. He is easy to get along with."

Many of his best traits can be traced to his parents, both legends on the Rutgers campus. McCormick's father is a professor emeritus of American political history, specializing in the Revolution and era of Andrew Jackson. He served as dean of one of Rutgers' colleges and the university's historian.

McCormick's mother moved from the math department to administration and for many years was the director of space and scheduling for the campus. In the era before advanced computers, much of that work took place in her head, and Rutgers associates describe her as a "walking encyclopedia" with a "mind like a steel trap."

"When I became an assistant professor at Rutgers and told her my office number, she pointed out that the square footage of my office was more than an assistant professor was entitled to," McCormick recalls. "I reminded her that at least half of that space had a ceiling of five feet or less, so if we counted cubic space, I was all right."

Although McCormick grew up in New Brunswick, N.J., in Rutgers' shadow, he never imagined that he would one day move back to become a history professor there. In fact, Rutgers was the last place McCormick wanted to go for college. "I wanted to get away for school. I don't ever remember considering going to Rutgers," he says.

Instead, McCormick chose Amherst College in western Massachusetts, starting in the fall of 1965 and majoring in American Studies. "I worked really hard in college through the middle of my junior year," McCormick says. "As a senior, I did a lot more playing." Part of that change, he admits, was his life at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, where he lived his senior year and served as the chapter's president.

But life was not all fun and games. Outside the fraternity's walls, the Civil Rights movement lost its leader when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. At the same time student protests over the war in Vietnam were heating up.

"The Sixties affected me deeply, but I wasn't actively involved in the protests," says McCormick. "I was probably more affected by the Civil Rights movement than the war in Vietnam. I hated the war in Vietnam, but the quest for civil rights had an even more important impact on me."

McCormick's research interests turned to African-American history during his junior and senior years. "I felt the problems of race relations were critically important in American society." He found out first-hand upon graduating in 1969, when he spent a year teaching sixth grade in an all-black elementary school on the west side of Philadelphia.

"It was a tough experience," he says. "I didn't have the ability to keep the attention of the class. I couldn't get order in the classroom. I ended up, contrary to my ideals, being a very boring, traditional teacher. It was a device, ultimately unsuccessful, for keeping the lid on. Sixth grade is a tough age and there were some boys who by that age no longer belonged in elementary school. It was a hard year."

In contrast to that school's cinder block and asphalt, Yale's ivy-covered walls seemed like another universe when McCormick started graduate school ithere n 1970.

"At that time Yale had the best history department in the nation," McCormick says unequivocally. McCormick specialized in American political history, particularly the post-Civil War and Progressive periods that saw the rise of party machines and then a reform movement to clean up politics.

During the 1970s, number-crunching voting patterns weres the rage among American political historians. While McCormick also analyzed these numbers, he wanted to do more than statistics. "His goal was to reunite that kind of scholarship with the traditional study of elites and policies," recalls Clemens, the Rutgers history colleague who was a member of the search committee that hired McCormick in 1976.

"Dick made a major contribution to the field. I would say that he is one of the very leading historians of American political history," he continues.

McCormick published several articles while still in graduate school and later was the author of three books, including From Realignment to Reform: Political Change in New York State, 1893-1910 and The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era.

Clemens remembers the impression McCormick made in his job interview. "When we met him, we immediately knew he was very smart. Here was a person with many creative ideas. That's what we were looking for, somebody working on big ideas."

Yet McCormick had mixed feelings about accepting a position in his father's department. "In 1976, there were four jobs open in 19th and early 20th century American political history--at Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota and Washington University in St. Louis. I applied for all four and got two offers. Rutgers was the best of the two.

"I never expected to go back home. My parents tried to talk me out of it," he recalls. Asked why his parents opposed his coming to Rutgers, he replies, "Maybe they thought I would be better off at a place where they were not."

"As I heard the story, having his father in the department was more of a problem than an asset," recalls Paula Baker, a University of Pittsburgh historian who did her dissertation under McCormick. "He'd known some of those faculty members since he was a kid."

Leath, who served as Rutgers' provost, says that even though McCormick's father was a "towering" figure at Rutgers, "I didn't think it ever bothered Dick. He did his own thing. Somehow it never became an issue."

Says McCormick, "I tried carefully not to overidentify with my father. I was too proud for that. I intended to be my own person." McCormick's talents were apparent and he quickly moved up the tenure track. Later he even team-taught an American political history course with his father.

President McCormick and his wife Suzanne Lebsock at a June Press conference in Seattle. Photo by Mary Levin.

Another influential person entered his life at Rutgers--his wife, Suzanne Lebsock. Though they had both joined the faculty in the mid-70s, Rutgers was then organized into several undergraduate "colleges" and they were on different faculties. It wasn't until after the departments merged that they became close and married. They have been married for 11 years and have two children, Elizabeth, 10, and Michael, 7.

President McCormick, his wife Suzanne Lebsock, and their chldren "Betsy," 10, and "Mikey," 7. Photo by Dan Sears.

"I'm an O.K. historian, my wife is a brilliant historian," McCormick told reporters at the telephone press conference announcing his appointment. While Rutgers colleague Clemens demurs from that analysis, ("They are both extremely important historians.") he says of Lebsock, "She is clearly one of the foremost figures in American women's history."

Lebsock got her bachelor's degree from Carleton College in Minnesota and her master's and doctorate from the University of Virginia. Clemens calls Lebsock's first book, The Free Women of Petersburg, "One of the major historical works of the last decade" in its field, a book that is scholarly solid but so accessible that he assigns it to undergraduates in his introductory course.

Clemens is not alone in his analysis. Shortly after the publication of Free Women, she won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for the work.

In 1992, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Lebsock one of its "genius" awards--$265,000 over five years with no strings attached. Winners do not apply for the awards. Rather a secret panel of nominators looks for candidates and the foundation makes its decisions behind closed doors. Winners have no inkling of their good fortune until they get the phone call announcing the honor.

Lebsock taught in the history department at UNC-Chapel Hill and this fall became part of the UW history faculty, joining two other MacArthur fellows in the department. As the president's wife, Lebsock says she hopes to do some teaching, continue her research and keep "a close eye on our children," while fitting into her new role. "I think my life is something that's going to be invented as we go along in the next year or two. Right now of see myself as a utility infielder," she told a June 21st press conference in Seattle.

Like his wife, McCormick has seen his role in academe evolve over the last eight years. At first he had no further ambition than becoming the chair of his department. "Like many younger faculty members, I believed that I could provide better leadership for my department than the old geezers who'd been leading it previously," he recalls with irony. "It was my turn and I had no higher aspirations."

Named chair in 1987, he soon was named to campus task forces and committees, gradually being drawn into the larger life of the university. "A whole new world opened up for me, a world that in some ways I had been familiar with my whole life, but didn't really know it."

Leath, provost at the time, watched McCormick with interest. He was particularly impressed with the way McCormick took the lead in establishing a faculty council for the New Brunswick campus.

In 1989, when an opening came in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Leath named McCormick acting dean and after a year-long search, hired him permanently. "He was an obvious choice," Leath recalls. "He was clear and articulate. He had a lot of enthusiasm. He was a leader among the chairs."

Arts and sciences at Rutgers had come through a consolidation of several independent "colleges," and there were still rough patches due to the merger. Clemens recalls how McCormick insisted on a renewed emphasis on undergraduate education. McCormick launched a teaching award program, mandated better instruction for teaching assistants and started a newsletter on undergraduate teaching.

At the same time New Jersey faced an economic downturn. "He had to deal with severe budget cuts," says Leath. Instead of automatically filling a vacant faculty position, McCormick's office "captured" the dollars and created positions where the need was the greatest. "It was a really economic hard time and the way he dealt with it went remarkably smoothly," Leath adds.

"I made the argument that the pie would actually be bigger if the positions were centralized than if they were all left where they were," McCormick says. "It's not an argument that all chairs like to hear. But they went along with it, in significant part because I laid the numbers out.

"It is very, very important when budgets are tight to be candid about the situation."

While the specifics are different at the University of Washington, McCormick says there are certain principles he learned during the hard times at Rutgers that he will bring with him: "Complete candor about the budget and the facts and the difficulties; a belief in working cooperatively to make the most effective use of the available resources; and a commitment to balancing university-wide needs with the needs of the departments and programs."

He's already put that management style to use at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he handled a crisis over a proposed Black Cultural Center. McCormick became Chapel Hill's provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs in June 1992, running the academic departments as well as looking after support services.

When he walked into his office at UNC's South Building, he had no idea that 10 months later the halls would be occupied by students, who were demanding the university build a Black Cultural Center. Those protests ended with the arrest of 16 students.

"It was a real hullabaloo," recalls Associate Vice Chancellor Gilbert. The call for the Center upset traditional white liberals, including Chapel Hill Chancellor Hardin, who felt it harkened back to the separate facilities of the segregationist South.

"There was a segment of the university for it and a segment of the university against it," Gilbert recalls. "All of a sudden Dick McCormick arrived. He handled it terrifically."

"I hit that crisis as an absolute newcomer," McCormick says. "The students and the chancellor were in a big fight with each other. I wanted to find out what it was all about. I listened hard to lots of different people. They seemed to be misunderstanding each other."

The students were not calling for a separatist black student union, McCormick discovered. "It wasn't about socializing or parties. It was to be an academic and cultural facility, providing programming in African-American theater, music, art, dance, lectures, seminars--even a Saturday morning school for 8-to-12-year-olds in the surrounding communities."

McCormick took this information, presented it to the academic community and helped launch a $7 million fund-raising drive to build the Center. "One primary motivation of Dick McCormick is to enhance diversity and minority involvement on campus. It was done in such a way as to enhance the academic side of the institution," notes Gilbert.

"He's deeply committed to diversity," Gilbert continues. "Ninety percent of the administrators talk that way and don't do much about it. McCormick really believes in it."

Asked about his commitment, McCormick responds, "A diverse university is a smarter university and racial diversity in particular is an essential component of academic excellence."

It is important, he continues, that students not be "peas in a pod," and from their differing backgrounds they improve what goes on in the classroom. "We need men and women approaching the subject matter--whatever it may be--from different angles of visions and teaching each other along the way," he adds.

In addition, without the goals of racial diversity, "society would be unjust. What goes on at a university is essential to prosperity and success," he says.

"The university has the responsibility to provide access to all elements in the population on the basis of merit. That doesn't mean everyone has an automatic right to go to the university, but it means all groups have a right to have their sons and daughters aspire to attend the university. And the university has an obligation to welcome them."

Asked if there was one central experience that nurtured his commitment to racial justice, McCormick says, "I don't think it is born of some epiphany I experienced in the '60s, but of a shrewd, hard look at what it will take for public universities to thrive in all of their missions in the years ahead."

McCormick's track record at UNC-Chapel Hill impressed everyone. Hardin was so taken with McCormick that he created a new job title for him 18 months after coming to Chapel Hill, that of executive vice chancellor. When Hardin announced that he was retiring after seven years at the helm, insiders said that McCormick was the most likely replacement.

"We had hoped that he would be here quite a long time," Hardin comments. But earlier this year the UNC trustees tapped the other finalist, Dr. Michael K. Hooker, then president of the University of Massachusetts system, who is a southerner and a UNC alumnus.

"It was a disappointment," McCormick admits. "I'm not complaining. I'm not waking up at night feeling I got the short end of anything." But shortly after he was turned down at Chapel Hill, a call came asking if he was interested in the presidency at the University of Washington.

McCormick was one of four names forwarded from the search panel to the Board of Regents. When he met the regents in early June, they were astonished with his knowledge of the UW. One commented that McCormick knew more about the University than several members of the board did.

What kind of president will he be? "He works hard. He listens. He really wants to know what people's opinions are. He gets people to work together. He wants them to resolve their problems for themselves," says former Rutgers colleague Clemens. "He sets broad goals and then focuses on them intensely until he achieves them."

Sounding like a proud alumnus, McCormick is eager to lead the UW into the 21st century. "It's a great public research university with an extraordinary tradition of teaching and service to the people of Washington," he says. "This is a dream come true, to use a cliché. I don't intend to let you down." END

Tom Griffin is the editor of Columns magazine. Send e-mail to