In 2001, the new chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities promised he would stay on the job for at least three years. Minnesotans associated with the unwieldy system created via legislatively forced merger in 1991 thought they would be lucky to get five years of James McCormick's seasoned, stabilizing leadership.
MnSCU has been lucky indeed. On Monday, McCormick will "graduate" from chancellor to emeritus chancellor. He provided strong leadership through 10 crucial years in MnSCU's institutional life.
McCormick took charge six years after the system had been stitched together out of three distinct ones -- state universities, community colleges and technical colleges. All the seams still showed when he arrived.
The series of interim, acting and short-tenure chancellors that preceded him gave the structure a feel of instability. It was not yet clear whether it could produce the merger's hoped-for result -- a high-quality, accessible, cost-effective system that allowed students of all ages, places and academic backgrounds an opportunity to pursue their goals.
McCormick set to work to make the seams fade. He ushered in administrative order, clear objectives and a culture of accountability. He engaged a citizens' panel to help develop a strategic plan for the system that has guided it ever since.
He made himself one of the system's unifying touchstones. He started a round of personal visits to the system's 53 campuses before he had even landed the job. He met individually with every legislator before his first regular session.
He courted trustees, campus presidents, donors -- and journalists, too -- with courtly charm and dogged persistence. It soon seemed that everyone connected to MnSCU knew the chancellor, and he knew them.
"One of Jim's core competencies is building personal relationships," said MnSCU board chair Scott Thiss. McCormick's determination to stay in close contact with MnSCU board members became the stuff of legend.
Thiss related that the chancellor once telephoned trustee Jim Luoma while the latter was up in a deer stand, hunting. When Luoma explained his whereabouts, whispering to avoid attracting the attention of his prey, McCormick replied, "Would you mind climbing a little higher? The reception isn't very good."
McCormick made friends easily and impressed them with integrity, hard work and articulate advocacy for higher education. By one tally, he drove 170,000 miles on MnSCU business.
David Olson, CEO of the state Chamber of Commerce and a past MnSCU board chair, recalls 6 a.m. phone calls from McCormick in which he said that he had already been on the road for several hours.
McCormick's accomplishments can be seen in part in the statistics recited above (see box). He also deserves credit for something less quantifiable. On his watch, MnSCU grew up.
It became the integrated system that its legislative architect, former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, envisioned 20 years ago. Its quality improved and its impact on the state's economy and culture was enlarged.
Last week, in the last of the 108 MnSCU board meetings he attended, McCormick outlined the challenges that remain for higher education in this state. Minnesota has an achievement gap that diminishes prospects not only for nonwhite students but for the economy as a whole.
Students are graduating with too much debt. That's in large part because state support for higher education has been repeatedly slashed, putting a greater share of its cost onto students' shoulders.
"Just because state funding has been shrinking, do not give up calling for increased investment in higher education," he said. "We must reinforce the idea that public higher education is a public good that benefits all."
MnSCU's public good is more obvious today than it was 10 years ago, and for that, McCormick deserves thanks.
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