Wednesday, February 27, 2008

McCormick Qua Miracle Man

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 deja 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.

Best Comment on My Blog So Far

"Richard McCormick has done more to raise the image and standards of Rutgers in the past 5 years than all the other Presidents in the past 40 combined!

You're the Bozo Robert."

Posted on a football message board.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Triumph of Bozo at Rutgers University

What a difference the triumph of Bozo has made.

At least it has me sitting on my hands when it comes to supporting Rutgers University and that is a dramatic change.

Two years ago, when N.J. Gov. Corzine suggested there would be stiff cuts in the budget of Rutgers University, I plunged into action. I personally met with my assemblywoman, I contacted the office of my assemblyman, I wrote a letter to the editor of the JERSEY JOURNAL that attacked Corzine and which had enough zing so that my state senator passed it around to his contacts (so one told me). I wrote letters to other papers, some of which went into print. I also was very active in Friends of Rutgers, attempting to rally other alums.

The budget still was cut over $60 million. Hundreds of jobs were lost, hundreds of classes canceled, and maintenance was deferred across the university.

This year rumors are everywhere that Corzine will propose still stiffer cuts -- budget cuts I am told by senior Rutgers officials that will seriously impair the university -- and what am I doing?


I will contact no elected officials, I will write no letters, I will rally no alums.

Even though the projected cuts quite probably will transform Rutgers in fundamental ways and may well push the university off the precipice and into an abyss of thickening academic mediocrity.

It is not Corzine who is Rutgers' worst enemy. It is the university administration which has become besotted with Bozo.

Two numbers explain my inaction:

o $1.8 million. That is what football coach Greg Schiano -- who, incidentally, sports a lifetime losing record -- is paid as the highest paid Rutgers employee (indeed the highest paid public employee in NJ). Of Rutgers' six highest paid employees, four are in athletics (including men's basketball coach Fred Hill at $520,000, even though Hill could not spell "win" if spotted the consonants). At the highest levels of the university, there has been a vigorous embrace of sports over academia, of coaches over professors. I went to a school, not a sports factor, and I want the same for the present generation of students. But that is not assured, not with the present university administration.

o $100+ million. That is how much money impoverished Rutgers says it will spend on expansion of Rutgers stadium, presumably to accomodate ever more braying football fans with faces painted red. This staggering amount of money will be spent exactly in the same moments in time as teachers get pink-slipped, students discover their favorite classes are canceled, and yet more decay spreads across ever more classrooms. Pretty much every newspaper in the state editorialized against this reckless plan, but the jock-sniffing Board of Governors marched forward, in defiance of logic, intelligence, and a decent sense of priorities.

Rutgers, by the way, loses money on football -- at least $3 million per year and that number predates a massive pay increase for Coach Schiano and smaller increases for many of his assistants. Guess that the program loses $4 million annually and you are in the neighborhood. Guess that nobody really knows when the losses will end and you are home.

I did not sign on to support the embrace of Bozo by Rutgers president Richard McCormick (who was nudged out of his prior job amidst athletic department and personal scandals), and I will tell any state rep who asks.

I will also urge other alumni to keep their hands in their pockets this time.

Unless of course it's to sign a petition to replace the statue of Willie the Silent with one of Bozo. At least that would be an accurate symbol of the university's direction under President McCormick.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Stop the Stadium Expansion

Talk about fuzzy logic. Just what do you think they are smoking at Old Queens, the administrative headquarters of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey?

Just as the FBI unleashes multi-pronged investigations of the scamsters who profited from sub-prime lending, now the university leadership unveils its own sub-prime scheme to finance building a $100+ million football stadium expansion. Maybe, technically, it's not a sub-prime gambit, but it is Panglossian to the point of hallucination. If this weren’t New Jersey, everybody involved would have been jailed weeks ago. That is how funky the logic underlying this plan is.

This, incidentally, is the same Rutgers that suffered a $60+ million budget cut 18 months ago. That led to cancellation of hundreds of classes, firings of dozens of lecturers, and, across the university, routine maintenance on dorms, classrooms, and offices has been "deferred," which is administrator talk for forgotten about.

And it is the very same Rutgers that, Trenton political insiders whisper, will suffer another $60+ million budget cut later this spring as New Jersey struggles to balance its devastatingly bloated budget. That will trigger another round of canceled classes, lay-offs, and still more "deferred" maintenance.

How could that same decaying university find $100+ million to add seats to the football stadium? Enter the Piscataway version of sub-prime financing.

The financing scheme hinges on the promise that expansion will pay for itself. How? Decades of stadium sell-outs will be needed and that is a high risk assumption given that Rutgers only had one quality win in 2007 and the only real star of the program opted to take early flight and declare for the NFL draft. To call the program mediocre is to flatter it. Early pre-season prognostication sees the Scarlet Knights as Big East bottom feeders in 2008 and that will not draw in sell-out crowds to see games that might charitably be called boring.

Even more far-fetched, the financing depends on raising $30 million in private donations – and just about every expert on the planet raises questions about the probability of success with this venture in what is looking ever more like a deep recession.

A third prong of this cockamamie thinking is that corporations will fall over themselves to buy big-ticket luxury boxes. Sure, right, of course there will be a land rush to watch Coach Schiano's Stumblers; high-rollers love to pay big bucks to eyeball inept flailing between the white lines. Heavens!

What happens if any of these Lucy Ricardo-style budgetary gimmicks fails to deliver? Well, of course the students and staff and faculty will pay this piper, with higher tuition, job losses, and the continued steady degradation of the value of a Rutgers degree.

But we are assured by Old Queens that would not, could not ever come to pass. Right.

Pass what you are smoking, Rutgers President Dick McCormick, because we will all need a toke to get through the mess that looms ahead.

What should Rutgers be doing instead:

O Launch a search for a new president. The McCormick Presidency is a failure. Let’s terminate it before more damage is done to Rutgers.

O Clean house at the Board of Governors. This collection of flunkies, fools and political hangers-on cobbled together the stadium financing plan.

O Put Rutgers in 1AA football, playing teams like UMass, Univ of Rhode Island, and Stony Brook. These are natural rivals, not schools such as Louisville and the Univ of South Florida.

O Commit to a pledge that, by 2010, Rutgers will have 10 academic programs nationally ranked in the top 10…and 20 by 2020. Put academics first and mean it.

O Restore the terminated Olympic sports. The budgets are small, the payoff for the university is high.

O Restore funding for the state’s Outstanding Scholars program, which keeps New Jersey’s brightest high schoolers home.

Stop the Stadium Expansion and Return to Making Rutgers an Outstanding University Again.

Robert McGarvey is a 1970 graduate of Rutgers.