The ARR Interview
On a Wednesday afternoon in July, 2010, ARR managed to catch up with president Richard L. McGormless for an interview on the policy that has carried Rutgers from "public Ivy" status to its present immersion in Div IA athletics.
ARR: President McGormless, thanks for agreeing to talk to us.
McGormless: Happy to oblige.
ARR: President McGormless, you've been a cheerleader for big time athletics. Some have said that the compromised circumstances under which you arrived -- getting fired by your previous university, the athletics scandals there, the revelations about your personal life, etc -- have left you totally powerless in relation to the Scarlet R booster coterie on the Board of Governors.
McGormless: People have said that?
ARR: Yes. People have said that the BOG is willing to let you bustle around in any other area -- going on about increasing "diversity," fund-raising, churning out vacuous "good news" issues of Rutgers Magazine to mask the downhill slide of the university -- so long as you don't touch their football franchise. Is that fair?
McGormless: Look, as president, I have to come across like a huge football fan. As big a fan as any Rutgers student who gives the finger to the camera on national TV, or --
ARR: Gives the finger on national TV?
McGormless: Sorry, maybe that's not the episode. I might have been thinking about when that kid in the Rutgers student section got drunk up on the top tier and unzipped and urinated on the crowd below. Or the time that . . .
ARR: We get the picture. Let's start right there. As you know, many have claimed that big-time football is driving bright students away from Rutgers. That it's attracting hordes of academically substandard "party animal" types. Is that accurate?
McGormless: Well, sure. You've got to remember that the New Jersey applicant pool is incredibly rich in academic and intellectual talent. Top New Jersey students have lots of choices. Look at entering classes at places like Harvard and Amherst and Columbia. There are incredible numbers of New Jersey students.
ACC: But if the applicant pool is that deep, there must be thousands of extremely bright New Jersey students who still have to make school choices. Why shouldn't they choose Rutgers?
McGormless: It's a problem. In this "Big East" conference the BOG got us into, we're stuck in the academic pits. You think of Rutgers, you think of places like South Florida and the University of Louisville, overgrown community colleges, remedial-level students.
ARR: But Rutgers wasn't always in that category, was it?
McGormless: No. Rutgers used to compete against schools like Columbia and Lafayette and Colgate and Princeton. But that was a different era.
ARR: What era are we in now?
McGormless: Where have you been? Don't you know Mulcahy rammed a $102 million stadium expansion through the legislature when Rutgers was already in desperate financial shape? Don't you know that we're stuck paying his football coach $2 million a year while people in New Jersey are losing their jobs? Don't you know that by the time Mulcahy finally got fired he was paying his women's basketball coach over $1 million a year? She keeps that salary.
ARR: We did hear about that.
McGormless: Have you heard about the cancelled classes? The huge hikes in student tuition and fees? The staff firings? The slum campus, with classrooms falling apart and streets littered with garbage?
ARR: Now that you mention it, yes.
McGormless: Don't you know that the job of any Div IA president is to recite the standard lies about how great football and basketball are for a school?
ARR: What standard lies?
McGormless: Well, that big-time sports pulls in money for academics. My job as president is to keep repeating that. With a straight face.
ARR: Div IA athletics doesn't pull in money?
McGormless: (smiling ironically) Are you serious?
ARR: But you have to repeat the lie?
McGormless: Sure. That's what you do. You say that, like, last year the Rutgers athletic budget was $58.3 million and athletics made a profit of $159,641.
ARR: But some people must be aware of what's really going on. What do they know?
McGormless: A lot of things. At Rutgers, for instance, they know that the $58.3 million Athletics budget includes over $17 million in direct university support.
ARR: What? From university operating funds?
McGormless: Where did you think it came from? Ticket sales? Scarlet R whoopee cushions?
ARR: We hadn't thought about it. Does the Athletics Department get money from other sources?
McGormless: Sure. Millions from student fees.
ARR: How much, exactly?
McGormless: Let me see. I've got it right here. $7,794,629 from student fees.
ARR: We notice that you've got some statistics there on your desk. Could we see them?
McGormless: Sure. It's no big secret. Anyone can get them through the Open Records Act.
ARR: So the Athletics Department is actually running in the red? By a stupendous amount?
McGormless: I'm afraid so. According to Inside Higher Education, Rutgers lost more money last year than any other school in Div IA.
ARR: But wait! There are 119 schools in Div IA. You mean Rutgers piled up a larger athletics deficit than any of them?
McGormless: I admit it's embarrassing.
ACC: How much did Rutgers lose?
McGormless: (resignedly) Take a look.
ARR: Good heavens! You mean Rutgers is consistently running a $25 MILLION ATHLETICS DEFICIT when the university is reeling under A $97 MILLION BUDGET CUT?
McGormless: Hey, what do you want me to do? Scarlet R runs this place, through their crowd on the BOG. I don't get any say in university policy.
ARR: Then what exactly is your job as president?
McGormless: My job is to go out there and say that the football franchise is going to rake in $25 million in profits this year. Or maybe the year after.
ARR: With a straight face?
McGormless: With a straight face.
ARR: But almost every school in the country with a Div IA football franchise loses money. Are there any that actually make a profit?
McGormless: A tiny number. Why do you think I always talk about Michigan?
ARR: Michigan turned a profit?
McGormless: Yes, just like a professional franchise. Why do you think I go around saying that Rutgers is going to be like Michigan?
ARR: But well over ninety percent of Div IA schools lose money on athletics. What chance does Rutgers have of making a profit on Schiano's football franchise?
McGormless: About the same chance as you have of winning the New Jersey State lottery.
ARR: So how can you keep talking about Michigan?
McGormless: You're pretty dense. Why do you think suckers buy lottery tickets? One person in forty or fifty million does win the lottery. Then the Lottery Commission runs full-page newspaper ads with the lucky winners. That's my strategy. Michigan actually turns a profit. So I talk about Michigan.
ARR: Okay. Let's change the topic slightly. Do you ever lie there in the middle of the night thinking about what a great university Rutgers could have been?
McGormless: (regretfully) I do.
ARR: Many people claim that before "big time" athletics, Rutgers was poised to become one of the five leading public universities in the United States. Do you agree?
McGormless: It was possible.
ARR: Imagine that the BOG never set out to make Rutgers into a Boise State or Nebraska clone. We've seen estimates that Rutgers has poured over $400,000,000 into athletics since entering the "Big East" conference in 1994. Do you accept that?
McGormless: It's ballpark.
ARR: Have you ever asked yourself what else might have been done with that $400,000,000?
McGormless: Well, spending $200 million on campus renovation would have given us one of the most beautiful campuses on the East Coast. UPenn did that a few years ago. The results were spectacular. They had a slum campus, something like ours. Now it's beautiful.
ARR: How would you have spent the rest of the money?
McGormless: Well, we could have kept in-state tuition a lot lower. We could have awarded scholarships to top out-of-state students. Given those advantages, we could have raised admissions standards enormously.
ARR: Doesn't raising admission standards shrink applications?
McGormless: Not at all. It increases applications.
ARR: That's a strange claim. What's your evidence?
McGormless: The College of New Jersey.
ARR: What? TCNJ tightened admission standards and increased applications?
McGormless: You bet. (sighs) That's one of the things that haunts me. TCNJ draws from the same applicant pool as Rutgers. It's funded by the same legislature. But in thirty years it's gone from being a nowhere school to one of the best public liberal arts colleges in the nation.
ARR: TCNJ? A "nowhere school." What do you mean?
McGormless: TCNJ used to be Trenton State. They came close to closing their doors. But instead their president convinced their trustees to raise admission standards.
ARR: Applications didn't go down?
McGormless: Just the opposite. They went up amazingly. Their SAT scores went up.
ARR: SATs went up?
McGormless: Yes. Back in the 1980s, TCNJ students had a combined SAT around 1000. By 2004, it was 1270. And by then they were letting in 1400 more students a year than before.
ARR: That's impressive. Suppose Rutgers scores had gone up by the same amount. What would they be today?
McGormless: (resignedly) Well, Rutgers' entering class would have a 1360. That's 670 verbal, 690 math. But look, you can do things at a small public liberal arts college that you can't do at a state university.
ARR: No state universities have done this?
McGormless: (defensively) Hey, most have trustees or regents like ours: pouring money down the athletics drain makes them feel important. You know, "Go Boise State! Go Cornhuskers!"
ARR: So you're saying it's impossible for a public university to go from academic mediocrity to real distinction . . . ?
McGormless: (after a pause) Not absolutely impossible. The University of Vermont did it. But their president, Fogel, is a leader. He spent money on campus renovation and raised admission standards. So UVM doubled applications between 2002 and 2008. They're drawing much better students.
ARR: How was their football team doing?
McGormless: (wistfully) UVM doesn't play football.
ARR: Okay. Let us ask about another of your claims, that "winning teams bring valuable national exposure." "Getting known," "building an image," "making a splash." Do you really believe that?
McGormless: Why not? Who ever heard of Boise State before football?
ARR: But has that made Boise State a better university? Are they getting better students? Are they attracting leading faculty?
McGormless: I'm afraid not. They're pretty pathetic academically.
ARR: Why hasn't national exposure raised their academic standing?
McGormless: (embarrassed) Because in Div IA, "national exposure" only means getting your name known by two or three million overweight middle-aged men sitting in front of their TV sets. That doesn't do anything for a school.
ARR: But look, presidents of Div IA schools say winning teams increase applications. Did you see in the Chronicle of Higher Education where the president of Butler was bragging about more applications?
McGormless: You mean Fong. He's new at the job. What he's going to find is that "name recognition" only means more applications, not better applicants. Studies show that kids who apply to schools because they've heard about football or basketball are academically and intellectually substandard.
ARR: Gosh. Right here in New Jersey, Governor Christie has been saying he supports big-time athletics at Rutgers because it "attracts students." Do you think he has any idea that it's driving bright students away? That it's attracting huge numbers of lowlifes? That the way to make Rutgers a first-rate university would be to get rid of Div IA sports and raise admission standards?
McGormless: Of course not. He's got a lot on his mind.
ARR: But Christie seems intelligent. He gives plausible arguments for his budget cuts. Do you think he has any idea that Rutgers is hemorrhaging $25 million a year on Div IA athletics?
McGormless: Well, I have to confess we're nervous. So far, he hasn't noticed. If we're lucky, he won't.
ARR: But wait! How do you know someone on his staff won't read this interview? For that matter, how do you know that in the age of electronic communication hundreds of people won't just click on a link that lets them contact Governor Christie with urgent messages about the $25 million athletics deficit?
McGormless: We don't. (looks dejected) If it happens, it happens.
ARR: We're getting the picture. It's sad. As president, you're stuck reciting mantras like "winning teams bring in money" and "winning teams make the school more selective." Doesn't this get depressing?
McGormless: It does, a bit.
ARR: And you admit that you look yearningly at the transformation of the campus and the rise in academic quality that could have been underwritten by the $400 million Rutgers has poured down the athletics drain.
McGormless: I'm afraid so.
ARR: So you repeat the Div IA bromides. You keep talking about how "major research universities" have huge football franchises. You take junior faculty members on bus rides around New Jersey and call that "leadership." You're resigned to what is going on.
McGormless: (sadly) I am. Rutgers will never get that $400 million back. It's gone forever. The BOG is going to keep pouring $25 million a year down the drain of Schiano's football franchise. The university is totally in the hands of people who don't have a clue.
ARR: So do you have any hopes for Rutgers?
McGormless: (looking more cheerful) Sure. We might get into some conference like the Big Ten. If we got into the Big Ten, I'd have protective coloration. Those Big Ten presidents know how to recite their Div IA mantras with a straight face. That's why they got the job.
ARR: And if that doesn't happen?
McGormless: If that doesn't happen, all I can hope is that the types we're letting in by the thousands -- the ones who urinate from the upper tier and flip the bird to theTV camera -- don't start turning over cars and breaking windows and setting bonfires after football games.
ARR: That would embarrass you?
McGormless: Well, it would dishearten me. We're not a real university anymore. The athletics buildup has top applicants looking at us as a "school of last resort." But the fact is that the Rutgers name has gone on attracting a significant percentage of real college students. A much higher percentage than a Big Ten sports factory like, say, Ohio State. If we lose those students, we really will be a complete zoo.
ARR: We see. Thank you, President McGormless, for your thoughts.
McGormless: It was a pleasure. Well, not a pleasure, maybe. More like an easing of the soul. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.