Mush Ends a Presidency

U. of Richmond leader announces plans to resign amid continued criticism of his comments and agenda.
January 13, 2006

The many critics of William E. Cooper are getting their wish, but not the timing they sought. He announced Thursday that he would leave the presidency of the University of Richmond in June 2007.

Cooper has been on the defensive since October, when a comment he made in a campus speech struck many students and alumni as insulting. But beyond that comment, his agenda has struck many as elitist and unrealistic -- and the controversy over the comment galvanized the opposition. The official announcement of Cooper's departure made no mention of the recent controversies and quoted board leaders praising his goals, and Cooper noting how many of his plans had been accomplished.

The remark that set off the furor came in a "state of the university" address in which he talked about the need to recruit talented students. "The entering quality of our student body needs to be much higher if we are going to transform bright minds into great achievers instead of transforming mush into mush,” Cooper said.

Many students and alumni said that they objected to the idea that they were "mush" that needed to be replaced by students with more talent. A "Fire Cooper!" Web site was created by alumni, who organized a petition drive to seek the president's ouster. And faculty members voted to request a review of his leadership.

Cooper apologized -- repeatedly -- for his "mush" remark. And in December, Richmond's board affirmed that it wanted him to stay on. But the protests continued through Thursday's announcement.

Much of the criticism extended beyond "mush" alone to broader questions about Richmond's mission. Cooper pushed for tougher admissions standards, higher tuition,  a more national student body, and a shift to an athletic conference where sports scholarships are not awarded. These ideas appealed to some faculty members and alumni, and Cooper was able to point to progress both in fund raising and in academics. Last year, for the first time in 50 years, a Richmond student was named a Rhodes Scholar.

But Cooper's ambitions upset many others, who said there was no shame in Richmond's Virginia roots. Many said they feared that the university would lose its heritage -- and never achieve the national reputation Cooper sought. The phrase "Ivy League wanna-be" has been much tossed around.

Cooper is a cognitive scientist who became president of Richmond in 1998, after holding administrative positions at Tulane and Georgetown Universities. The announcement of his plan to resign as president said that he would become a professor at Richmond after he leaves his current position in 2007.

Otis Brown, a 1956 Richmond graduate and former trustee who has been active among anti-Cooper alumni, said that he was elated at Thursday's developments. Brown said that he met with many trustees and that he believed that they did not have a full picture of the situation at the university when they met in December. Brown said he did not know if Cooper was pressured to resign.

Brown said that he thought faculty concerns about Cooper were paramount to the board.

He praised the board for announcing that it was starting a search for Cooper's replacement and said that he hoped a new president could be on board before June 2007. Brown predicted that disaffected alumni would reconnect with the university. "This has been a rallying point for a lot of people," Brown said. "The good thing is that it got people's attention and they appreciate the university."


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