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Narrow Escape From the Mush

December 5, 2005

After four hours of deliberations Friday, the University of Richmond Board of Trustees decided that President William E. Cooper is still their man.

Cooper’s job has been in jeopardy since his state of the university address on October 20. In the improvised speech, Cooper told staff members that :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." Many took that to mean that the president thinks that past and current students are of low quality.

Otis D. Coston, head  of the board, emerged from the closed-door session and told reporters that the board was deeply disappointed by the remarks, but that after  "consideration of all of the factors involved in this matter, the board voted to support the vision and strategic direction of the university."

In a short, and planned, comment, Cooper gave thanks to “both those who have lent support and to those who have offered criticism during this challenging time.”

Henry L. Chambers, a law professor and chair of the faculty council, said that “it’s time to recognize the president has the confidence of the board.” But Chambers said he doesn’t think it’s realistic that any statement from the board could make everybody move on. “I suspect folks will at least hold onto their fire for a while.”

Fiery alumni and some students have relentlessly heaped scorn atop Cooper’s now infamous “mush” comment. The remark itself is simply the lightning rod for several issues that have angered many at Richmond during Cooper’s push to raise the university’s national profile.

Discussion about ousting Cooper has intensified, and some alumni have held meetings to organize, in the wake of the “mush” flap. Other alums and students have shared their disdain online. Cooper now has a Web site devoted to his removal. Site visitors can buy anti-Cooper buttons, or check out political cartoons from The Richmond Times-Dispatch, like the one showing Cooper in an ivory tower, asking what “those mush brains want!?” in reference to angry villagers set to storm his tower.

Cooper has apologized profusely since the speech, and the alumni association board, which supports the direction Cooper has taken Richmond in, officially accepted his apology. Not everyone has been so forgiving.

Firecooper.com has a link to an online petition giving the trustees a not so subtle hint that continuing with Cooper in charge “has very tangible and deleterious effects in terms of alumni giving and support.” The petition has about 2,300 signatures and was the 11th most popular on Friday at www.petitiononline.com. That was four spots ahead of the petition to have Nike mass produce the futuristic sneakers Michael J. Fox wore in “Back to the Future II,” and only six spots behind a petition from elected officials to have “the Federal Bureau of Investigation get fully involved in searching for Dr. Zehra Attari.”

Judging from comments by signers, a 31 percent tuition hike, increased recruiting of out-of-state students, and Cooper’s desire to move Richmond to a non-scholarship giving athletic conference, have drawn more ire than any mush could. “How does one justify a 30+% tuition increase for a school that boasts such a sizable endowment?” wrote David P. Franklin, an alumnus.

Another graduate, Ray Alexander, wrote that he is “pleased we have a new Rhodes Scholar,” and amused “to find a UR advertisement in most airline publications,” but added that he is “disturbed to see a shift away from the school’s origin, history, and its geographic home.”

Other students and alumni, some of whom identified themselves as mush, condemned the University of Richmond of today as an “Ivy League wanna-be,” and said that the tuition increase would lead to a homogenous student body.

In his apologies, Cooper has said that the mush he was thinking of was constrained to a few students recently involved in theft and vandalism. In an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed, Cooper said that his “remarks were an attempt to draw a contrast between what we at the University of Richmond should be doing, which is to focus our energies on ‘transforming bright minds into great achievers’ versus what we should not be doing, which is turning ‘mush into mush.’”

Cooper supporters also started their own online petition, which says that  that those calling for Cooper’s job are “a minority of alumni.” The petition had 137 signatures Friday, some of which were from anti-Cooper people who apparently wanted to post disparaging comments on a pro-Cooper petition. Supporters on the petition did commend the direction the university was taking, noting the university’s first Rhodes Scholar in 50 years. Robert D. Seabolt, the past president of the alumni association has said that he think most alumni share Cooper’s vision for Richmond, even if they are distressed by some of his comments.

Chambers added that there are a number of faculty members who are upset, even though Cooper’s contentious comments were not aimed at them. Chambers said he doesn’t need to hear an apology, but would like to hear an explanation of what Cooper meant, so that lingering criticism can be directed in a constructive manner. Even then, though, Chambers doesn’t expect some of the flames to die down. “Mother Teresa could be president of Richmond and some people would say, you know, she just doesn’t give enough.”

 

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