On The Banks of the Old Raritan

GUEST: Richard L. McCormick
AIR DATE: 04/24/10

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And when Bill Moyers interviewed me for our Fiftieth Anniversary program a while back, a viewer waggishly wrote that perhaps L. for “longevity” should become my middle initial.

Now that’s truer, much truer now than ever, of course, as it turns 54 years since I began to produce and host this series … as, indeed, my wife and I mark our 60th anniversary this year … and particularly as I’ll tell my new students at Rutgers this fall that I first came to teach history and political science on the banks of the old Raritan on July 1, 1948 … one heck of a long time ago!

In other words, I’m an old man … and I’ll just assume as one of the prerogatives of age that today I may use Rutgers as the fulcrum for a further discussion of the role of massive public universities in 21st century America.

Appropriately enough, as well, my guest again today is Richard L. McCormick, who led still another of the nation’s great public institutions – the University of Washington – from 1995 to 2002, and then became President of Rutgers – the State University of New Jersey.

But before we talk about public higher education and the ever more critical role it will play in our lives, I want to share with you a very brief Rutgers-produced visual presentation of how — like many others — this particular state institution of higher learning has grown to serve its citizens and the nation.
Narrator –
Rutgers has a long and rich history as the eighth oldest university in the country. It became the State University of New Jersey in 1956, fully embracing its mission of teaching, research, and public service. In 1989, Rutgers was invited to join the prestigious Association of American Universities, a group of the top 62 research universities in North America.
The university is rooted in New Jersey, one of the most diverse, densely populated, and complex states in the nation, making it an ideal place to discover and test solutions for the 21st century.
Rutgers is an educational powerhouse.
With nearly 10,000 part-time and full-time faculty and staff, Rutgers offers over 180 bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and professional programs.
Barry Qualls
“…you can talk about graduation rates…for instance our student athletes are amongst the most celebrated in the country for graduating above the national average, certainly above the Rutgers average… but you can also look at the wonderful national fellowships that our undergraduates win… Gates, Rhodes, Fulbrights, Marshalls, Churchills, Trumans, Goldwaters, all of these are measures of the attention that Rutgers give to undergraduates, and the support it brings to undergraduates”.
Narrator
Rutgers has 360,000 living alumni and adds 10,000 new graduates each year.

Alumni have achieved widespread acclaim in their professional and civic lives, from Paul Robeson and Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman to sculptor Alice Aycock, chef and entrepreneur Mario Batali, and Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz.
Barry Qualls
“Well, Rutgers ranks higher and higher nationally, the AAU of some years ago was a sign of a university as a research university having arrived, but more importantly, our departments, Philosophy is now #1 in the country, many other departments…we have… you know, when students come here they can do everything, from anthropology to zoology, from library science to computer science. There’s almost nothing a motivated student could not manage to do at Rutgers and do it very well”.
Narrator
With three campuses and facilities across the state, Rutgers makes an impact in every county in New Jersey. It is a vital resource for New Jersey businesses, training sophisticated and highly-skilled workers and providing data, reports, and other services.
Michael J. Pazzani
“Last year Rutgers brought in $391 million of research funds and the state gets back six times its investment of what it puts in to Rutgers. We generated $28 million in royalty income… we started 25 companies in past year five years and we generated 150 patents in the past five years, as well”.
Narrator
Rutgers has an international reputation with teaching centers around the globe.
Now approaching its 250th anniversary, Rutgers continues its work as a premiere public research university committed to educating promising students and to resolving the complex challenges of tomorrow faced by New Jersey and the world.
HEFFNER: President McCormick, after that visual presentation of what you and Rutgers are doing, I, I have to comment that when you were here before … you were, I thought a very optimistic person.

Now a few years have gone by … lots has happened to our economy. Do you carry with you that same optimism?

MCCORMICK: Well, I do. But like any university President these days, I’m certainly mindful of the impact of the economy on our students and on our institutions and the impacts, the impacts are important. Students are, are having more difficulty paying for college. They and their families may have experienced the impact of the downturn.

And for our part the institution has, has hurt as well. As, for example, New Jersey State revenues have declined … once again our institutional budgets are being … are being cut.

And the impacts … the impacts are severe. If, if the recommendations set forth by our governor are enacted, Rutgers’ base appropriation from the State of New Jersey will be back to where it was in 1994.

Fortunately, fortunately our, our faculty and our staff and our students have undertaken a great many things to respond to that and hence the basis for my continued optimism.

Our faculty brought in more in research support last year than ever before, almost four hundred million dollars. Our foundation raised more than ever before … almost one hundred thirty million dollars and our … all kinds of revenue generating programs, executive education, continuing education, online education are endeavoring to compensate for what we’re losing in State appropriated support.

So my belief in the power of public higher education is undaunted, as is my conviction that Rutgers and other institutions like it will meet the challenges of the 21st century as well as they have the 19th … and the 21st century as well the 19th and the 20th.

HEFFNER: Well, I know that when this program … when our discussion today is first seen in the New York metropolitan area … that same day, Rutgers will be celebrating Rutgers Day and what you had … fifty thousand or more people there last year?

MCCORMICK: April 24TH, 2010 is Rutgers Day. And, and last year I think it was April 25th, the first ever Rutgers Day in 2009, we had about 50,000 people on our campus. And, and they saw no less than 400 examples, exhibits, presentations, speeches, opportunities for participation, performances illustrating the wide, wide, wide range of what a great public research university does.

So important to be able to share with the people of our state and some came from beyond the borders of New Jersey.

So important to be able to share the extraordinary range of educational opportunities we provide … research we do and service that we give to the nation and, and the world based on, based on the work of our faculty and students.

HEFFNER: Well, I know I’m prejudiced; I have my bias … naturally. What I’ve maintained, after all these years of teaching at Rutgers, is that in all probability a smart student, who is well-guided, who knows his or her way around … can probably get as good, at least as good an education on the banks of the old Raritan, as any place in this country.

MCCORMICK: Mr. Heffner, I absolutely agree with you. I’m a little biased, too. I grew up at Rutgers, I taught on the faculty for 16 years before going away for a while and now I’m returned as President, and you’re absolutely correct. Our 54,000 students … biggest enrollment we’ve ever had, have amazing educational opportunities.

Now, now compared to what they would experience perhaps at, at a wealthier private institution, maybe a small liberal arts college, they may have to work a little harder to find those opportunities and to take full advantage of them, but for those who do that and happily, the great majority of our Rutgers students, do … they get a terrific education at an affordable, at an affordable price.

HEFFNER: Affordable price. Now can that be debated?

MCCORMICK: Sure it can.

HEFFNER: What does it mean “affordable price”?

MCCORMICK: Sure it can. Well our tuition is currently about $11,000. If, if a student lives on campus and eats in the dining hall, in other words, the full, the full nine yards of the college experience … it would be about $21,000.

It has risen in recent years, to be sure. But for that matter so have the costs of all, of all institutions. About 80% of our students qualify for financial aid. Generally need-based financial aid. So the majority of them don’t pay … shall I say, the full sticker price. They have, they have help from the Federal government through Pell Grants and from the State of New Jersey through tuition aid grants and, and from Rutgers which sets aside millions of dollars each year for, for financial aid for students who need it.

So, sure the price has gone up, though it’s still a lot lower than many other institutions. And those who, those who need help, those who need help paying the bill, will have it.

HEFFNER: You know, a little more than a year ago Vartan Gregorian, the President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York joined me here talking about the full two page … I called it an “ad”, Vartan was upset by that … he called it an open letter to President-elect Obama and his Administration urging the enactment of a Higher Education Investment Act.

When in the middle of the night you face the realities … do you think we understand as a people well enough this matter of investment … of investing in higher education?

MCCORMICK: No, you know, I really don’t. Hmmm, my, my parents’ generation of Americans, living their adult lives in the decades after World War II, understood it. They made vast and historic investments in, in higher education. Inventing community colleges, dramatically expanding traditional institutions like Rutgers, investing hundreds of millions and ultimately billions … in student financial aid and in scientific research.

Those, those investments changed the nation and the world. They opened up higher education opportunities to men and women who never would have had it in earlier years. And they, they catapulted the United States into scientific and technological and yes, economic pre-eminence.

Those were investments that paid off hugely and, and I’m afraid that the appetite of the American people for such investments has declined. It’s not entirely gone away, certainly the Federal government continues to support scientific and technological research though perhaps not at the levels that it should.

Certainly Federal financial aid is still there, though too much of that money is in the form of loans. But the States in particular have dialed back their investment in, in public higher education … believing, understandably, but I think wrongly that the cost ought to be borne increasingly, perhaps, eventually, entirely, by those who are in the classroom and get the degree. Not, not recognizing, as my parents generation did that our whole society benefits.

Our problems are more readily solved, our economy grows and our opportunities are vastly enlarged when, when everyone has an opportunity to go to college. And that it’s worth, it’s worth the collective investment, not just the payment of tuition by the student who earns the degree.

HEFFNER: You’re an American historian. Pray tell, what is your own interpretation of that shift between your parent’s generation, my generation … in fact, your Dad and I taught together at Rutgers. What’s … what’s happened?

MCCORMICK: My Dad, in fact, joined the faculty just about the same time that, that you did in the late, in the late 1940s.

HEFFNER: Right.

MCCORMICK: Well, you know, I … I’m not sure. Certainly there are, there are vast competing demands upon scare governmental resources. Health care, for example, is a lot more expensive than it was in those, in those years.

And the expectations for government investment in a myriad of things have grown.

And so higher education has more competition for scarce dollars. I think there’s also a growing sentiment that those who, those who benefit should pay. It’s well known, for example, that a person with a college degree will earn very considerably more over her or his lifetime than someone without one. So that, so the theory goes … well, let them, let them pay, let them pay.

HEFFNER: You mean take on debt.

MCCORMICK: Let them take on debt. Which is, which is in fact what, what many of our students have to do. Or let them pay more, let their family dip more deeply into, into resources they may have accumulated. Whatever. The individual, or the individual family, it is now thought, should, should bear the burden.

So many, so many other nations in the world are looking at it otherwise. In Asia for example, huge, huge investments are being made by economies and, and nations that are looking to the future and counting on colleges and universities to propel them toward that future and into it and through it.

And we … it’s like we’ve been there and done that and aren’t doing it so much any more.

I think the responsibility lies with us in the colleges and universities, however, to make the case. I, I am not suggesting that it’s all somebody else’s fault, or the burden rests entirely with, let us say short-sighted public officials. That’s not the case.

We, in the colleges and universities, have to do as well as they did during the era after World War II to explain why the investments that your, that your mentioning should be made.

HEFFNER: But Dr. McCormick, you say you’re not blaming others and I, I appreciate that. I’m not so aware that it was the academic community that played that role. Your mother and father, right. My generation … yes. I don’t think it was so much the academic community interpreting the need for our public offices …

MCCORMICK: Well, that’s a …

HEFFNER: It was something else.

MCCORMICK: That’s a very shrewd point. That’s a very, very good point. Men and women in, in public life and, and in business … and civically aware people joined together, as it were, almost with one voice in that era to make the case for those investments.

The college presidents of the day no doubt joined in. But they, they did not bear the … they by no means bore the full burden of explaining why the American people should invest in, in higher education.

Those, those other voices beyond the boundaries of our campuses now seemed … now seem muted. They have, they have their eyes on other concerns … perhaps their own concerns. And, and the tide, the tide has turned.

I, I, I must, I may say though I, I feel that … I feel the spirit still encourages my, my optimism. There are, there are few parents out there who do not want their children to go to college. There are few towns and municipalities and cities out there that don’t want their institutions to be larger and to contribute more greatly to the economy.

The American people polls show every, every day have a very, very high regard for this nation’s institutions of higher education. And we are, and I mentioned this toward the beginning of my remarks today … we are finding other means to achieve our goals.

So I, I wish … I wish that the spirit of investment that was in the open letter that Vartan authored and I had the privilege of signing to then President-elect Obama, I wish that spirit of investment was, was even more alive than it is today.

But colleges and universities are resilient, are just as essential to the future of our people and the nation and the world as they were fifty years ago. And the, the determination of Americans to see their children to college and of, of communities to have those institutions thrive is the best evidence of it.

HEFFNER: Do you think Vartan and the letter that you people sent to The Times make … it makes the point that in crisis times, even in crisis times, when we were worried about national survival … there was a GI Bill … that Lincoln was able to think in a forward manner …

MCCORMICK: The Morrill Act.

HEFFNER: With the Morrill Act … that in so many instances we’ve known, in crisis time that there was going to be a tomorrow and we had to prepare for it and invest for it.

So you think that that’s what’s gone? Not gone, but diminished in our American psyche?

MCCORMICK: Well, it is … it is, it is diminished. Certainly there are too few summonses by our leaders within the institutions and within the government and in business to, to a new day and a tomorrow of which we can be even prouder. The, the optimism I’m, I’m expressing today is admittedly sometimes more difficult to maintain.

I, I do believe, I do believe we’re coming through the current recession and that, that the strongest institutions … one of which is my own will, will, will not only survive, but thrive.

But it is, it is a warier environment. It is a, perhaps, more cynical environment. And it’s, it, it, it … it demands greater effort and greater resilience on the part of colleges.

HEFFNER: That’s very interesting, you say a warier environment, a more cynical environment. You think that’s a clue to what we’re talking about here, the basic problem?

MCCORMICK: Well, it, it … ah, it, it, it may be. Certainly I remember … I referred to my parents generation, so I’ll refer for a moment to my actual parents who, who had their careers within Rutgers.

They, they, they took such enormous pride in the growth of its enrollments and the construction of each building. I remember, as a child, going out and looking at the cranes that were being used to build the new dormitories along the Raritan River.

There was enormous sense of opt … optimism and wariness would not have been a, a by-word. I, I do think … I do think people have pulled in, have pulled in the reins. I think there is, there is a sense of the need to take care of one’s self and, and one’s own. And maybe, maybe a diminished sense of generosity.

But the greatest, the greatest institutions will, will rise above that and, and will continue to produce leaders who, who summon us to be more than we currently are. And who will sweep wariness aside with their, with their look to the future.

HEFFNER: Well, I know why you’re the President and why I’m just a teacher. Because you can maintain that optimism. And I find myself, maybe because of my years, awash in the sense that this concept of investment that Vartan and you and your colleagues … the chief executives of state universities understood … but that’s not shared any more. And I’m not trying to drive you down to my level of …

MCCORMICK: Well, let me, let me respond. It, it is …certainly it is not shared in the same way that it was in the nineteen fifties and sixties and seventies.

But besides my, besides my service as President, I also teach at Rutgers … just as you do. And I, I taught this year a first year seminar for twenty nineteen year olds … all from, all from New Jersey … twenty nineteen year olds from suburban New Jersey … both genders, all colors, very wide variety of economic circumstances … but, but sharing enormous … well, affection for their university in which they are first year students, but, but hope for the future.

A belief … their … the one is studying business, the other is biochemistry, another isn’t sure what she wants to study. A third is taking a chance and majoring in theater … a fourth is taking a chance and majoring in theater. They, they believe in themselves, they’re grateful to their parents, they believe in the future, they’re happy to be getting a, an outstanding education at Rutgers. And yeah, they complain that the meals on Saturdays aren’t as good as they should be, and they … they sometimes have to wait longer for the bus than you would like. But, but the, the, the opportunity and the experience are, are a joy to them, and they, they ooze that from every pore.

HEFFNER: Well, I know that my Honors seminar last year was the best I’ve every had. The students were the best I ever had. And now as the registration process goes on for next year … they look like they’re even better in terms of the enthusiasm and the devotion and the understanding that you’re talking about. I’m not talking about then, I’m talking about their parents.

MCCORMICK: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And I’m talking about those who are not making the investment. But let me ask what you think the impact will be of what President Obama has suggested thus far in terms of higher education.

MCCORMICK: Well, I’m, I’m very pleased … the, the higher education proposals that he made were enacted by the Congress and signed by the President. It means that there will be significant improvements in the size and availability of Pell Grants over the years. That they will rise, not as much as I would like, but that they will be available to more students.

Pell, Pell Grants are the … it’s the Federal need based scholarship program that depends upon the family’s income. About 30% of Rutgers students qualify for Federal Pell Grants so it’s terribly important. Unfortunately the amount of the grants has stagnated for a while now. Now it will, now it will rise.

The Federal government has also enacted and made universal the Federal Direct Lending program, which means that the Federal government itself will lend money to students who need it, rather than through the middle man of a bank. This, this frees up many millions of dollars which can be further invested in, in student aid and I’m pleased that that recommendation of President Obama’s has also been, has also been enacted.

HEFFNER: Do you think there is anything … when I began to teach at Rutgers there was still the mass of GI’s …

MCCORMICK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … who were there. When that was over, when they were no longer there … teaching wasn’t all that much fun for sometime. Do you think there was something about the crucible through they had gone that was then reflected in the attitude of all of us?

MCCORMICK: Well, that’s, that’s an interesting point. I wasn’t myself teaching at that time. I was far too young to do that. But, but now, now we’re seeing a new generation of, of veterans return to our classrooms. They’ve been in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have, in some cases, experienced very, very challenging, life changing trauma. But they are, they are entering our classrooms by the hundreds … Rutgers has some four to five hundred veterans in our, in our midst right now. And they are, they are a very together impressive group of men and women. They’re making themselves heard and they’re, they’re letting us know what they need and how much they value the education they’re getting.

HEFFNER: God willing they will do that and be the same influence that the returning veterans were back in the forties. Dr. McCormick, thank you so much for visiting with me today on The Open Mind.

MCCORMICK: It’s always a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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