UW President Richard McCormick is ready for any challenge

Forget the crises, brain drain, chronic underfunding and even the rain. After five grueling years, Richard L. McCormick still loves his job as UW president.

When he looks back over his first five years at the UW, Richard L. McCormick will admit that he is "battle hardened," "worried," and had his share of disappointments. He'll even reveal that he has been wooed by other universities. But that doesn't take away from the joy he feels as the 28th president of the University of Washington. "I love coming to work every morning," he says.

As the CEO of a $1.8 billion enterprise with three campuses serving more than 50,000 students, faculty and staff, McCormick has kept a steady hand on the wheel during a sometimes bumpy ride.

Since he took over from William P. Gerberding on Sept. 1, 1995, he’s seen the sudden firing of the football coach, the tragic death of the medical school dean in an avalanche, a morale-busting faculty brain drain and the dismantling of affirmative action programs he strongly believes in. But he’s also seen record levels of research support and private giving, the establishment of new partnerships beyond the boundaries of the campus, innovative means for inspiring change within the UW, permanent homes for two new UW campuses, and initiatives to transform undergraduate education and improve the graduation rate.

That he will celebrate his fifth anniversary this summer is noteworthy. When he accepted his position, the average tenure of a president at a Ph.D.-granting institution was less than five years. While that number has improved slightly, the American Council on Education says top universities can expect new leaders every six years.

McCormick says he is staying put (“At this University there has been a tradition of presidential longevity,” he notes), but his achievements haven’t gone unnoticed by others. Recruiters from a private university and from his previous employer—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—have sent feelers his way.

I believe in the mission of the University of Washington. I'm really proud to be doing what I'm doing. Although the pressures are great, so are the rewards.

UW President Richard McCormick

“I told them I’m flattered, but no thanks,” McCormick says. “I believe in the mission of the University of Washington. I’m really proud to be doing what I’m doing. Although the pressures are great, so are the rewards.”

His workday can be overwhelmingly long. Alumni have received e-mail messages from McCormick with a 4 a.m. time stamp. He can go through three commencement ceremonies in one weekend, then jump on a bus the next morning for a weeklong faculty field tour of the state.

McCormick doesn’t seem pressed by the 24/7 lifestyle. “Everyone around me is working very hard too,” he declares. “Tens of thousands of people, beginning with our students and extending throughout the state of Washington and well beyond, are depending on us for some very important work, and I believe in that work. That’s pretty satisfying.”

Although he’s had his share of crises, McCormick says his first five years could have been much worse. “You know there are jokes about university presidents at schools like this, where the football team and the medical school and the hospital are sources of endless anguish. I have been almost completely spared that kind of thing.”

Taking a break from running the UW, McCormick, far right, barbecues chicken with the help of his father, Rutgers Professor Emeritus Richard P. McCormick, while the President’s wife, Suzanne Lebsock, watches.

Not that there haven’t been disappointments. Near the top of the list is the passage of Initiative 200 in November 1998, which required all state agencies to dismantle their affirmative action programs.

“That was unfortunate. Initiative 200 brought, as we anticipated it would, a significant decline in the diversity of the freshman class we enrolled in 1999,” the President says. Comparing the freshman classes of 1998 and 1999, there was a 33 percent drop in African Americans, a 23 percent drop in Native Americans and a 33 percent drop in Latinos.

The University is in the midst of a massive effort of outreach and recruitment, targeting students of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The UW also wants to attract more top high school graduates in the state. But when asked if he feels he is doing enough, McCormick quickly answers, “No.”

“We won’t be doing enough until young men and women of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds truly have equal opportunities for higher education in our state and in our nation,” he replies.

“We can’t be satisfied yet. The UW has many new outreach programs of which we are very proud. Over the long run, I do expect that they will result in an upturn in diversity. But I do not know what the results will be for the fall 2000. It would be very heartening if we turned the corner and restored at least some of the loss we experienced in 1999, but it is too early to know. These programs require long-term investments and long-term commitments.”

Trend is toward privatization of public universities

Another disappointment is the level of financial support higher education receives from the state. Like most states, Washington has decreased the percentage of state appropriations that go for higher education. In fact, if you charted the decline in state funding and projected the line into the future, it would reach zero by the year 2027. But we are not alone. A recent study found trend lines for higher education support in all 50 states eventually reaching zero.

McCormick knows that this scenario is imaginary, but it illustrates a serious point. “Higher education is now regarded as something that mainly benefits the individual, not society. This line of thinking suggests it is appropriate for students and their parents to pay the bills for college. The collective benefits of higher education are much less fully recognized today than they were by my parents’ generation in the years after World War II,” he says.

Looking specifically at our own state, McCormick says he is worried. During the 1990s, the impact of three voter initiatives limited access to public higher education. In the early part of the decade came the spending-limit initiative I-601. Later came I-200, dismantling affirmative action, and I-695, reducing the motor vehicle excise tax and putting a $750 million hole in the state budget. In this climate, Olympia has cut back UW requests for more enrollments and more facilities, despite the arrival of the baby boom echo.

“I’m concerned about our state’s priorities and investments. Between I-601, I-200 and I-695, Washington has reduced its commitment to a half-century of tradition and policy involving the use of government to advance opportunity and equality,” he says.

I do believe in public higher education. But the trend line is going the other way right now.

UW President Richard McCormick

“I don’t mean that the people of this state have utterly renounced that tradition. That would be an exaggeration. But they’ve backed away from a full scale commitment,” he adds. “So I worry about these directions.”

Many alumni don’t realize that taxpayer dollars only pay about 16 percent of the UW’s annual operating budget. The UW leverages this money to pull in research dollars, private giving, patient revenue from its teaching hospitals and other sources to create a $1.8 billion enterprise. “State support is needed to get academic work done and to achieve excellence in core fields,” the President explains.

As the University depends more and more on dollars from other sources, it travels down the road to privatization. While McCormick is a graduate of two private institutions—Amherst and Yale—both his parents worked for New Jersey’s flagship public university, Rutgers, and he has spent his entire career in the public university setting.

“I believe in public education, but I am perhaps a little more battle-hardened by the years of contending for all kinds of budgetary support, including state support, tuition increases and private support,” he says. “We’re going to maintain the excellence of the UW and its accessibility through a wide range of funding measures, including fighting hard to maintain and increase the state’s investment in the University. But I am under no illusion that that’s going to be enough to maintain our academic distinction and our students’ opportunities.

“I do believe in public higher education. But the trend line is going the other way right now.”

One disturbing trend is the University’s ongoing brain drain. A widening pay gap coupled with the higher cost of living in Seattle makes the UW faculty ripe for the picking by other top universities. Tracking the flight of faculty two years ago, the UW found that even when it made a counteroffer, nearly a quarter of the professors still left.

Historian Richard White was one of them, departing for Stanford and blaming the state Legislature for his decision because of its persistent underfunding. Earlier this year geneticist Leroy Hood, who was lured to the UW with the help of a $12 million gift by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, cut his UW ties to establish a private research center.

While Hood’s departure had more to do with state regulations than it did with state funding, it was still a blow to the UW’s reputation. “It’s a serious issue,” McCormick says of the brain drain. “When you pay salaries that are, on average, 15 percent lower than your peers—and that’s before you take into account the higher cost of living in Seattle—you have to worry. And I worry a lot about it.”

Being creative on football field, in classroom

If White’s and Hood’s departures caused some notice, nothing matched the uproar over the quick exit of former Football Coach Jim Lambright in December 1998—or the hiring a few weeks later of Rick Neuheisel. Some alumni were upset that a loyal coach who had been on the staff for 30 years was suddenly let go; others were appalled by the new coach’s million-dollar compensation package.

McCormick says he was involved in both decisions. “I was behind the scenes, (Athletic Director) Barbara (Hedges) was in front, where she belonged, and she handled it very, very well. We worked on this consultatively, which I believe you have to when a personnel issue is so visible as the football coach. Really, it is the most visible appointment at the whole University with the possible exception of the president—and I’m not even sure about that,” he says.

President McCormick answers questions from faculty during a bus tour of Washington.

McCormick says reaction to Neuheisel’s salary was not nearly as contentious as the media reported. “I don’t think I received more than five letters about that. What I said in response was that to perform with the best you’ve got to pay market-based salaries, and that’s true whether you’re hiring a chemist or a football coach.”

He points out that the UW’s $27 million athletic program is built around revenues generated by football. There are no state-appropriated or tuition revenues involved. “You need someone who is capable of managing that business,” he explains, as well as training student-athletes. Neuheisel, he says, was an excellent choice for both roles.

Unlike the majority of athletic programs around the nation, the UW’s is self-supporting. “There are a great many other universities, including one of my former universities, where the intercollegiate athletic program has become a huge draw upon resources that otherwise could go to the academic program. We don’t have that situation at the University of Washington,” he notes.

While pleased with the success of the athletic program, McCormick quickly shifts to the bigger picture when summarizing his first five years. He cites the “massive integration” of the UW’s teaching, research and public service missions and a shift from the UW’s relative isolation to “a much greater outward orientation” toward surrounding communities.

A distinctive strength of an outstanding research university is the opportunity its undergraduates have to learn from some of the best minds in America. Last year, the UW found that 24 percent of its graduating seniors had participated in at least one research project during their time on campus. More and more students are also serving as interns, community-service volunteers or mentors, in what the University calls “experiential learning.”

“We’ve also changed the way we relate externally,” the President notes, building stronger ties with K-12 education, community colleges, other four-year institutions and with private business across the state. In the K-12 arena, McCormick lured former New York Public Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew away from the Big Apple to head the UW’s new K-12 Leadership Institute. The UW also has a partnership with Seattle Public Schools to launch the John Stanford International School, a new elementary school with an international emphasis and a “Generation-2” Internet hook-up.

We can't fulfill all of the expectations or seize new opportunities without reinventing pretty significantly how we operate internally.

UW President Richard McCormick

Relations with another external group—the UW’s 300,000 living alumni—remain strong, he adds. “The University is really lucky to have tens of thousands of alumni in our state and beyond. The University has always depended on its alumni and that dependence will deepen in years ahead,” he says.

McCormick says alumni would be surprised by how much the University has changed in the way it does its business. “We can’t fulfill all of the expectations or seize new opportunities without reinventing pretty significantly how we operate internally,” he says.

Soon after he arrived, McCormick realized the University was going to have to be more creative if it was going to launch new initiatives. With the support of the faculty, deans and the regents, he started a new budget procedure that captures a small percentage of each department’s operating budget. The money goes into a pool to fund new initiatives in teaching, research and public service. Long-term grants come from the University Initiatives Fund and one-year awards are offered by the Tools for Transformation program.

Faculty panels evaluate the proposals and funding is awarded in a competitive process. “There are some concrete expectations that go with the money and strong accountability measures at the end of the line,” he adds.

Graduation rate rises, but there is more to do

In his academic regalia, President McCormick marches with the regents toward a temporary stage in Husky Stadium for the UW’s commencement ceremonies.

McCormick has also changed the way the UW serves its students. “One of our efforts is to ensure that undergraduates get the courses they need when they need them,” he says.

It’s no surprise to alumni that students can’t always get into every course they want to take. But when that course is a prerequisite to a major, it can create a bottleneck and delay graduation. The University has spent millions on computer systems to track the bottlenecks and on new course sections to open the pipelines.

“Of some 50 courses that were identified as problem areas, we’ve improved student access significantly in about half of them and we’ve made more modest improvement in another one-quarter. So we’ve achieved some progress, but we have not yet reached the point where we can say that all undergraduates can get the courses they want when they want them,” McCormick notes.

The investment is having an effect on the overall graduation rate. When McCormick arrived at the UW, 67 percent of its undergraduates received their degrees within six years. Today the UW six-year graduation rate is 72 percent. “Contrary to popular impression, graduation rates are improving, not worsening,” he says. “It reflects the changes in the way we’re managing the University internally, so I’m very proud of that.”

There are other happy numbers. Last year the UW received a record amount in research grant and contract income, about $600 million, and it continues to be the top public university in the nation in the amount of federal research income it earns. Private giving is also at record levels, with $103 million in private gifts last year, a 21 percent increase over the previous year.

The President also talks about people when he reviews his impact on the University of a Thousand Years. “One of my responsibilities and privileges as president is to appoint deans, vice presidents and other leading members of the administration.

“I did not anticipate how important that would become. But this is possibly my greatest opportunity for having a long-term impact on the University, through the people I appoint, more than anything I do myself.”

He recounts a long list of appointments—Lee Huntsman as provost; Denice Denton, the first woman to head a top engineering school in the nation; Paul Ramsey, the dean of the medical school who stepped in after the tragic death of Philip Fialkow during a trek in Nepal; Yash Gupta, recently appointed dean of the business school; Marc Lindenberg, the dean of the Evans School of Public Affairs; David Hodge, dean of arts and sciences; Marsha Landolt, dean of the graduate school; and others.

“These are deans and vice presidents who are agents of change and who are empowered to transform their colleges and schools. I take a lot of pride in these appointments,” he says.

But change is coming from beyond the University as well as from within. When President McCormick arrived in 1995, the UW had just launched its Web site. Five years later, the Internet has transformed everyday life, from the way we get the latest weather and sports scores to how we buy gifts or order groceries.

Higher education is also facing a revolution in “e-instruction.” Some public as well as private universities are offering Internet-based degrees across the nation. Legislators look to computer terminals and high speed connections as a better investment than bricks and mortar—or new professors. In 1998, concerned that Olympia might resort to computers as a quick fix for access to higher education, more than 900 UW faculty signed a letter condemning any move to a “virtual university.”

But McCormick is optimistic about the coming changes. “For a long, long time to come—even as more students take more courses via distance learning and we have more offerings via distance learning—the UW campus will still be a physical place that adds value. People will want to come here because there are faculty, staff, classrooms, libraries, laboratories, football, a pretty campus, residence halls—and above all, other students,” he says.

“It’s a new world where we’ll be stretched by competition from other universities. That competition will be good for students because it will improve their opportunities. The changes will also be good for the institution because, overall, they will make us better through the competitive process. There’ll be some pain and bumps along the way, but it’s a healthy new world.”

“It’s satisfying to provide leadership for change at the University of Washington,” he says. “The opportunities are boundless.”

Life as UW top dawg

On his style: “I’m a list maker and a list keeper. I sometimes get 100 e-mail messages a day. I also have far more paper than is good for me. So I keep in hand some lists of what’s really important, and I take them seriously. I do pride myself on making respectful responses to my own e-mail and my own phone calls. But it can go too far, to the point where you didn’t accomplish anything as president except politeness.”

On his children: Betsy, 15, and Michael, 11—“My kids are leading basically normal lives. I realize what incredibly privileged kids they are—by that I don’t mean they are pampered or spoiled—but privileged to live in 808 (the President’s House) and to see a succession of people come through it. They are lucky kids.”

On his wife: History Professor Suzanne Lebsock—“She has done a very good job in multiple roles and of course they are difficult roles, including being a mother, because I haven’t done my share of the parenting and she’s compensated for me.”

On the role of the president: “Fund-raising and lobbying are important. I know that I have to spend a good deal of time with prospective donors and with legislators. I like that stuff. But it’s part of a larger package, a larger set of responsibilities having to do with communicating what the University’s challenges are and how it is meeting those challenges. Everybody you talk to, everyone wants to know, ‘What’s the big picture? Where’s the University really headed?’”