UW President Richard McCormick is here to stay

Your average Ph.D.-granting institution in the U.S. gets a new leader every 5.8 years. According to Art Padilla, a professor at North Carolina State University who studies higher education, the “churn factor” is only going to get worse.

One example is the sudden departure this February of E. Gordon Gee from Brown University. Gee had promised to stay at Brown at least eight years. But after only two years at the Ivy League school, Gee got an offer approaching $1 million from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., making him one of the highest paid presidents in the nation. Brown’s governing board refused to get into a bidding war and Gee left.

Padilla says these “exploding salaries” are a factor in the turnover of these highly visible positions. Due to the salaries, expectations are raised to unrealistic standards. “It’s kind of like the star coach category of a sports team,” he warns. An article in the New Republic agrees. “Presidents are likely to have abandoned research at a young age for the managerial fast track, switching from one school to another like journeymen basketball coaches,” it reported.

While the University of Washington has suffered from bidding wars over faculty, fortunately it has been spared when it comes to its leaders over the last 40 years. Charles Odegaard served 15 years, John Hogness six years, William P. Gerbering 16 years and now Richard L. McCormick is completing his fifth year in office.

“At this University there has been a tradition of presidential longevity,” McCormick told me during our interview for the cover story about his first five years here. When I suggested five years was a milestone, he discounted the notion. “At the University of Washington, where presidents have enjoyed long tenures, and the University has enjoyed long service, I’m still an asterisk at the bottom of a page somewhere,” he said.

McCormick said he is here to stay. Not only does he love his job and feel that he is just beginning to have an impact, but, after moving twice in the span of three years, his family has adjusted nicely to the Pacific Northwest. “Nobody in my family is asking to move again,” he noted wryly. “All of us wish there was more sunshine. That’s the only drawback.”

While other schools may have to deal with short-timers, it doesn’t appear that we will be losing our 28th president in the near future—unless there is a sudden turn for the worse in our weather. How certain is McCormick that he is here for the long haul? “You can schedule the interview for my 10th anniversary right now as far as I’m concerned,” he said.