Here’s a rule for college presidents: Don’t imply that the brains of your alumni are mush.
William E. Cooper, president of the University of Richmond, inadvertently did so, and he’s now doing damage control.
A few comments Cooper made during a “state of the university” address -- which touched on Donald Sutherland, “The O.C.,” and Tom Friedman -- on October 20 are bothering staff members and alumni nearly a month later. “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 told staff members in what has been the most controversial of his remarks that day, according to a transcript.
Some alumni have interpreted the comment as mush slinging in their direction. The Richmond-Times Dispatch  reported Tuesday that a group of over 25 alumni met in Richmond to discuss ways to get Cooper out. Several alumni confirmed that some alumni are remaining active in such discussions.
Since Cooper was appointed in 1998, a major part of his agenda has been to ratchet up Richmond’s national profile. Last year the university announced the $200 million “Transforming Bright Minds”  capital campaign, and increased tuition by about 31 percent,  to $34,850. The dismay over Cooper’s comments puts a spotlight on the tightrope a president must walk when he or she seeks to bolster the image of an institution while not making past students feel like they gave the university an image that needed improvement.
Change has been a constant during Cooper’s reign. Some alumni have been delighted by some changes -- like the switch to covering all of students' demonstrated financial need, and the extension of employee benefits to same-sex partners -- while others alums have been distressed. An undercurrent of the changes at Richmond has been a push to change the university from one that attracts good students, largely from the region, to a better institution, attracting more competitive students from all over the country.
Robert D. Seabolt, the past president of the Richmond alumni association, said that nearly all alumni support Cooper’s vision. Seabolt said he recently spoke with one of those pushing to get rid of Cooper, and that even that person admitted to embracing the university’s direction. Cooper “has not always shown the velvet touch of some of his predecessors,” Seabolt said, adding that Cooper is so focused on the future that he that he “tends to speak too much about the things that we are not today. I think people want to hear a little more about the great things we are doing now. But if we agree with his vision, we should help him fine-tune his message.”
Seabolt noted that Richmond moved this year into U.S. News and World Report’s national liberal arts category and is ranked 34th, and that the capital campaign is way ahead of schedule. “What is going so wrong that we’d want to throw the president out?” he asked.
Last week, the alumni association board accepted Cooper’s apology.
In his apology, according to alumni, Cooper said that he was frustrated by a handful of students involved in some recent theft and vandalism incidents, and that he does not consider all students and alumni “mush.” In an e-mail Tuesday, 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.’”
In an earlier apology to staff members, Cooper pointed out that he was jet-lagged from a fund-raising trip and made his speech off the cuff. With regard to the infamous “mush” comment, which was a response to an audience member's question, Cooper said that he was “not in any way inferring that this is what is typically done here at Richmond. In fact, the opposite is true.” In the original address, he expounded on the mush remark by adding that “not all of our students have the raw talent that our faculty deserve to work with to make the best use of those four years.”
One other remark that drew the ire of the alumni was a comment about alumni giving. “No wonder we are number 123 in alumni giving,” Cooper said in his address. “We sold ourselves cheaply to the most price-sensitive customers, and then we are surprised we cannot get donations out of them?” In his e-mail Tuesday, Cooper noted several reasons for low alumni-giving including that “for many decades the university charged a much lower tuition rate than the actual value of the education our students received. As a result, a number of alumni do not realize that we need their support to help fuel our efforts to become a premier liberal arts university.”
The fact that Cooper’s address was peppered with praise for staff members -- “we need to pay you more,” he said, followed by applause -- has largely faded into the background. But, bruised egos aside, staff members may come out ahead. In his apology, Cooper noted that he has “requested a meeting with the Staff Advisory Council … to discuss the ideas for additional staff benefits that were raised at last week’s address.”