Building the Future One Relationship at a Time: The Presidency of Richard J. Cook

By Kathy Roos

Although college presidencies are judged by historians who examine the big picture—the broad sweep of years seen through the lens of new buildings, innovative programs, and enrollment successes—presidents themselves are remembered for the much more finely drawn detail of their personal style: the qualities they bring to their work and the way they conduct themselves day in and day out in the most challenging and demanding position in higher education.

For Richard Cook, who retires this summer after twelve years as president of Allegheny College, that style might be summed up in a simple lesson learned in childhood.

“I’ve always told people—and not totally tongue-in-cheek—that I think I’ve kept my job because my mother taught me how important it is to write notes,” Dr. Cook says. “It helps build relationships and acknowledges not just people’s work but their lives.”

In many ways those notes symbolize a presidency that has brought a remarkable vision into reality. By building relationships, Allegheny’s twentieth president has built much more, strengthening the institution and creating an increased presence on the national stage for Allegheny College and its programs and people.

“He’s Too Tall”…That’s All

Dr. Cook is quick to credit Allegheny—alumni, students, faculty, and staff—with being a community where he immediately felt at home. “It’s an egalitarian place,” he says, “with an unusual combination of tough standards and a warm heart. The more people I met from Allegheny, the surer I was of the match and the fit. It helps to be surrounded by people who share similar values and approaches. If your values are similar, it’s likely to be a more productive relationship and conversation.”

Evidence of those shared values and approaches can be found in the obvious respect that the Allegheny faculty and staff have for the College’s president. Whereas other institutions sometimes make the news because of rancorous relations between faculty and administration, Allegheny trustee Bill Steffee ’57, who served on a trustee committee that evaluated Dr. Cook’s performance, says that faculty reviews were without exception positive.

“Every comment was glowing,” he recalls. “Finally I said to the faculty, ‘C’mon—there’s got to be something you don’t like about him.’ After a long pause, a junior faculty member spoke up from the back of the room and said, ‘He’s too tall.’”

Those glowing comments have been well earned. Allegheny is on a sound financial footing, and applications to the College under Dr. Cook’s leadership have steadily increased, resulting in higher selectivity and a better fit between student and institution. The College’s profile on the national educational landscape has become both more prominent and more sharply defined. But, perhaps most telling of all, Allegheny is a place where relationships are genuine and where respect for others starts at the top, where the president sets the tone for civil, informed, and engaged dialogue, and where students learn that sometimes it’s more important to listen than to talk.

Stronger, More Vital Connections

The respect and pride that Dr. Cook so obviously feels when he speaks about Allegheny students and alumni have paid dividends in stronger, more vibrant connections among the College community.

cook5More alumni are lending their talents, skills, and expertise to the College than ever before, whether it’s as members of the Alumni Council, planners for their class’s next reunion, or mentors to current students. (When the alumni office sent out a request recently for graduates to serve as mentors, more than 1,400 alumni responded.) It’s a connection—between college and alumni, between alumni and current students—that Dr. Cook has forged through assiduous attention to a collaborative working relationship with student groups such as Allegheny Student Government. Once students feel truly invested in the success of the College, graduation cements rather than attenuates their relationship to Allegheny.

Dr. Cook himself is unapologetically sentimental when he talks about the student experience at Allegheny. “I’ve run into dozens of seniors over the years who say they don’t want to leave,” he says. “Graduation is coming up, and they’re not ready to say goodbye. I remember that I was more than ready to leave my campus. But I didn’t go to a place like Allegheny.”

Going to a place like Allegheny, in the years of the Cook presidency, has become even more special. Melissa McCrimmon ’03 was living in Houston when Hurricane Rita struck in September 2005. “I was attempting to evacuate from Houston,” she recounts. “I managed to speak with my father at one point while stuck in traffic. He told me that he had contacted Dr. Cook to see if any Allegheny alumni in neighboring states could offer me a safe place to stay during the storm. Dr. Cook and the alumni office not only contacted Alleghenians in Louisiana and Mississippi, but Dr. Cook also stayed in touch with my parents throughout the storm. I will never forget Dr. Cook’s personal concern in helping me, an alumna halfway across the country, find a safe place to weather the storm.”

A Legacy of Collaboration

Andy Walker ’00 was a self-described “wide-eyed freshman” in August 1996, when Richard Cook assumed the presidency of Allegheny College. “What impressed me most as a student,” he says, “was Richard’s visibility on campus. He was always accessible and approachable.”

Now, as executive director of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Meadville, Andy Walker sees that same accessibility in the way that Dr. Cook keeps the connections strong between town and gown.

“Richard maintains that same presence in the community,” he says. “Allegheny College, under his leadership, has been a consistent and invaluable partner in community and economic development. He clearly understands that the future of the College and the community are inextricably linked. I think his greatest legacy to the community is the culture and spirit of collaboration that will lay the groundwork for even greater things to come.”

Dr. Cook has viewed himself as a partner in the region’s development from Day 1 of his presidency, keeping the lines of communication open between town and gown and working with city and county officials, school boards, the Chamber of Commerce, and nonprofits throughout the region to put the expertise, energy, and enthusiasm of students, faculty, and staff to good use in the community.

And Dr. Cook takes a very personal interest in helping to create a thriving community that will allow the College to continue to flourish. One of the highlights of his year is October’s Make A Difference Day, when he and his wife, Terry Lahti, roll up their sleeves and work alongside students to paint a garage, rake leaves, or even roof a house for Meadville residents who can use a helping hand. Word on the street is that students on Dr. Cook’s team always had to work extra hard and twice as fast as other teams to keep up with the president and his wife.

cooktractor At his family homestead in Michigan

“Everything You Would Hope to Find in a College Administrator”

As Allegheny’s visibility in the local community has increased—it’s not unusual, for example, to hear the head of a nonprofit agency remark that she couldn’t keep the doors open if it weren’t for student volunteers from the College—so has Allegheny’s reputation and profile on the national scene.

Over the last twelve years, reporters have learned that they can call Dr. Cook and get straight talk on the complex national issues facing higher education, to the point where Allegheny has become known as a “go to” school for education reporters looking for solid information and sound opinion.

“Richard is everything you would hope to find in a college administrator—he is wise, decent, patient, thoughtful and, most important, visionary,” says Bill Schmidt, assistant managing editor of the New York Times. “He is an eloquent spokesman not only for Allegheny, but for that larger community of small liberal arts colleges that are among the country’s great academic resources. You get good vibrations just being around Richard. Imagine Jimmy Stewart, whose characters radiated all that middle American wisdom, empathy and honor, as a college administrator and you get a pretty good picture of Richard.”

The New York Times has quoted Dr. Cook numerous times and talked about Allegheny in a page 1 story on January 1, 2006, but the College and its people and programs have also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, CNN, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Renda Broadcasting outlets, among many others, including Web-based media such as salon.com and Yahoo News.

That kind of recognition doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it’s fostered by the challenging work of serving with peers in the trenches of higher education. Dr. Cook has served on the board of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), as a member of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and as chair of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania. He has also taken a leadership role as Division III schools in the North Coast Athletic Conference do some soul-searching about reorganization of a division where the colleges range from 400 students to 40,000.

“Richard Cook is a highly effective president who is often on the leading edge of important improvements in higher education,” says CIC president Richard Ekman. “He was one of the first college presidents to wade into the waters of evaluation of student learning and didn’t hesitate to join CIC’s Collegiate Learning Assessment Consortium. He was an exceedingly thoughtful, energetic, and wise board member who played a key role on the national scene in higher education.”

Dr. Cook has also thoughtfully and energetically nurtured the College’s connection to legislators at the regional, state, and national levels, resulting in increased appreciation for the role that Allegheny—and its alumni—play in the world, appreciation that sometimes translates into dollars. During the last fund-raising campaign, for example, the College received $15 million in state and federal grants. State legislators—not all of them alumni—were instrumental in helping to secure $4 million in Commonwealth funding to aid in the construction of the Vukovich Center for Communication Arts, a community resource scheduled to open this fall.

A Gentle But Persuasive Fund-Raiser

Allegheny’s most recent fund-raising campaign was the most ambitious—and successful—in the College’s history, raising more than $115 million, which was $10 million over goal. At the campaign’s conclusion, Tom St. Clair ’57, who chaired the effort with the late David Hoag ’60, summed up Dr. Cook’s work in securing the gifts that would make the difference between maintaining the status quo or accelerating the College’s climb to national prominence.

cookchapel“Richard’s fund-raising prowess is unsurpassed,” Mr. St. Clair said. “He worked tirelessly, and with persistence and/or gentle persuasion, depending on the circumstances, to secure major gift after major gift that made this campaign the most successful ever for Allegheny.”

One of those major gifts—the largest gift in the College’s history—was made by Robert Vukovich ’65 and his wife, Laura. “Richard is a remarkable man with many talents, among which is his ability to find additional funding for Allegheny College,” says Dr. Vukovich. “His gentle yet persuasive approach commingled with his forward-thinking vision has resulted in very successful development efforts, including giving a very necessary boost to Allegheny’s endowment.”

Dr. Cook also nurtured Allegheny’s relationships with foundations, including a now strong relationship with the Corella & Bertram Bonner Foundation, from his first year on campus. The result has been the establishment of both a Bonner Leaders program and a Bonner Scholars program at Allegheny. To date, the Bonner Foundation has made grants of more than $200,000 in support of Allegheny’s two Bonner programs, which engage students in significant service to the community during the academic year and summers.

Furthermore, the Bonner Foundation has recently approved an endowment grant approaching $3 million to Allegheny to permanently support the program.

“Every foundation begins with the premise that philanthropic dollars are scarce and the needs of the nation’s colleges and universities are large,” says Eugene M. Tobin, program officer for higher education at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “At Mellon, we are attracted by the best ideas and the ablest intellectual and institutional leaders. Richard Cook is among the most talented and successful presidents of his generation, but he is also among the most modest and unpretentious. His undeniable pride in Allegheny’s people and programs has always been tempered by a refreshing humility and candor and by an unrelenting dedication to strengthen the institution. It is no surprise that Richard’s tenure has paralleled Allegheny’s emergence as one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges.”

Two other aspects of the campaign give insight into the character of the Cook presidency. Eighty-five percent of the College’s employees donated a total of $2,075,398 to the campaign. Not only are faculty and staff loyal to Allegheny, which indicates high morale, but they are so confident in the College’s leadership that they are willing to return a portion of their own salaries to the institution.

In addition, Richard Cook and Terry Lahti made their own gift to Allegheny College during the course of the campaign: $500,000. In fund-raising parlance, that’s known as a stretch gift. It’s also virtually unprecedented among college presidents.

Giving Every Measure

Part of Dr. Cook’s success as chief fund-raiser for Allegheny is based on his reputation as a careful steward of the College’s resources. Those who give to Allegheny College know that the president and his staff will make the most of every dollar.

“When you look at the quality of experience we offer, the quality of faculty we have, and the facilities on campus, we outperform our monetary resources day in and day out,” Dr. Cook explains. “That’s due to the immense dedication people have to our mission. The faculty, staff, and trustees believe so much in the mission of the College that they give every measure to achieving it.”

cookdegree President Cook—flanked by Dean of the College Linda DeMeritt and Secretary of the Faculty Courtenay Dodge—is awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters, honoris causa, at Commencement ceremonies on May 11, 2008.

That commitment to responsible stewardship also frames the leadership role that Dr. Cook has taken on sustainability issues. One of the early signatories of the now 500-member American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC)—a national challenge to colleges and universities to develop a comprehensive action plan to reduce greenhouse gases by becoming more energy- and materials-efficient—he now serves on the ACUPCC’s steering committee.

Through his foresight, Allegheny was selected as one of eleven ACUPCC signatories that will launch pilot projects to further green their campuses—and was the first college or university in the nation to submit a request for proposal from energy service companies under the program.

“Apart from any decreasing uncertainty and debate that remains about global climate change, a great advantage of participating in the Climate Commitment is that it makes great economic sense,” Dr. Cook recently told a reporter for Biocycle magazine. “It is a sound business decision to make our campus facilities and practices energy- and materials-efficient. Why would anyone think that financial returns of 10 to 50 percent annually through investments to save energy are not worth taking and taking right now?”

Other milestones on the road to sustainability have been Dr. Cook’s appointment of a Task Force on Environmental Responsibility, development of a set of environmental guiding principles that shape the College’s approach to environmental stewardship, installation of an advanced composting facility, and a commitment to “green,” energy-efficient building, such as the North Village residential complex.

“Richard is a leader who gets it,” says Terry Bensel, chair of the College’s Department of Environmental Science, “someone who understands that environmental initiatives are not just about improving the public face of the institution but also about improving the health of its students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community; about saving energy and saving money for other, more central purposes of the College; and about providing opportunities for students to get involved in learning about and caring for the local environment and community.”

Working to create a renewed interest in the College’s history and traditions, Dr. Cook has been as careful a steward of Allegheny’s history as he has been of its other resources. During the last twelve years, the History and Heritage Committee began their work, Jonathan Helmreich’s weighty Through All the Years: A History of Allegheny College debuted, the campus community once again began to celebrate Founder’s Day, the Merrick Historic Archival Center opened its doors and the position of college archivist was created, and historic buildings such as Cochran Hall, housing the Patricia Bush Tippie Alumni Center, were lovingly restored.

When Inspiration Isn’t Enough

Paralleling Dr. Cook’s commitment to the wise use of College resources is a passionate commitment to civic engagement.

“Today’s teach-in gives me hope that the younger generation will show the way and inspire those in power to do better,” Dr. Cook told students at a recent all-day forum on issues related to the nation’s future. “But in case inspiration won’t be enough—and it won’t—I urge you to empower yourselves through the political process and insist that the public servants we elect have no choice but to do the right things or be replaced by those who will.”

cookofficials With State Representative Sean Ramaley ’97 and Meadville mayor Richard Friedberg ’70

Dr. Cook has modeled the behavior that he expects from students. He is one of the originators and signatories of Campus Compact’s Presidents’ Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education, which he describes as “a statement that acknowledges our special obligation to educate for citizenship.”

In addition, under Dr. Cook’s leadership, Allegheny became one of only ten colleges nationwide invited to be charter members of Project Pericles, an innovative program of the Eugene Lang Foundation to create national models for other institutions that want to provide to their students effective education on citizenship and social responsibility. The College is also one of twenty-eight institutions invited to be part of the Leadership Consortium of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Core Commitments program, which explores how higher education can foster engaged citizenship, teach personal and social responsibility, encourage a respect for diversity, cultivate excellence, and implement programs that support community engagement.

During his tenure, the College’s Center for Political Participation (CPP) opened its doors. The CPP has sponsored programs ranging from Model Campaign USA, in which high school students learn through hands-on experience the ins and outs of running an effective—and ethical—political campaign, to an all-day event in February that brought political leaders together with student teams from as far away as New Hampshire to begin a national discussion giving American voters a voice in reformation of the presidential nomination process.

cookandlahti At the meeting of the College’s board of trustees in February, the board and other representatives of the College community surprised President Richard Cook with the news that a new environmental center, to be housed in Carr Hall, will be named in his honor. The Richard J. Cook Center for Environmental Science will provide even more visibility for Allegheny’s already strong and nationally respected programs in environmental science and environmental studies. It will also acknowledge and celebrate the many contributions that Dr. Cook has made to a sustainable future not just at Allegheny but also at college and university campuses across the nation.

Civic engagement has become part of the Allegheny zeitgeist, whether it’s through the Values, Ethics, and Social Action (VESA) minor, the Center for Economic and Environmental Development (CEED), the Bonner Leader Program, the Davies Community Service Leader Program, or a host of other initiatives, large and small, that Dr. Cook has always supported and many times shepherded.

Life after the presidency of Allegheny College holds many attractions for Dr. Cook—including, he says, having the time to read for pleasure again. He admits that being able to be more active himself in hands-on community projects and service on boards and advisory groups is something to which he looks forward.

“For twelve years I have felt an obligation to suppress my own views on many matters because I represent the entire campus and because my position is symbolic of the College,” he says. “I think it’s been right for the College, but it can also leave you feeling somewhat powerless because you can’t have your own voice. So I’m quite confident that in the years ahead I will be an active and vocal citizen and, I hope, a productive one.”

Raising Our Ambition

Alumni have embraced Dr. Cook every bit as enthusiastically and warmly as the on-campus community, as evidenced in 2006 when Dr. Cook and Terry Lahti were awarded honorary alumni status and the Alumni Medal for distinguished service at Allegheny College.

“As a family with deep Allegheny roots, we are very appreciative of what Richard has accomplished in his twelve years at Allegheny,” says trustee Dag Skattum ’84. “In truly transforming the institution, Richard did it by respecting what makes Allegheny great. His inspirational and inclusive style made us all feel privileged to work with him—and with Terry. He leaves Allegheny in its best shape ever, with faculty, the administration, the board and alumni energized to make it even better in the next twelve years.”

As Allegheny College approaches its bicentennial in 2015—a milestone that few colleges in the country have achieved—Dr. Cook has left Allegheny a remarkable legacy. His tenure has been a period marked not only by extraordinary accomplishment but also by an ability to inspire others to continue building on his vision for Allegheny, a vision that he has crafted with deliberation, innovation, a profound respect for Allegheny’s history and traditions, and, always, a spirit of collaboration.

“He has increased our awareness of what Allegheny is all about,” Dag Skattum says, “and raised our ambition for what it can be.”

This article was featured in the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.