Richard James Cook

Click to Expand Painting of Richard Cook

20th  president, August 1, 1996—July 31, 2008

Born October 20, 1947, Cook grew up near Hubbard Lake in northern Michigan, attending a one room grammar school. Following graduation from Alpena High School as valedictorian he majored in chemistry at the University of Michigan, graduating with class honors in 1969. Study at Princeton University led to a Master of Arts degree and, in 1973, to a PhD in organic chemistry. Cook then joined the faculty at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he served as professor of chemistry, eventually as chair of the division of natural sciences and mathematics, and in 1989 became provost. In the latter position he participated in a major modernization of the curriculum and calendar and expanded the college’s noted study-abroad program. In 1987 he received one of Kalamazoo’s highest honors, the Lucasse Fellowship for excellence in scholarship.

Cook became known most for his environmental concerns and activities. At the request of his brother he agreed to “look through” the report of a study by the government’s Environmental Protection Agency on the Love Canal near Niagara Falls, New York. The report asserted there were no serious pollution problems, but Cook identified fundamental flaws in the design of the investigation. His examination led to a reevaluation of the plan for the rehabilitation of that area, which became nationally known for its toxic waste pollution. This experience led to more environmental activities, including service on the State of Michigan Environmental Science Board and chairing the opening sessions of both the Second and Third International Symposiums on Operating European Hazardous Waste Management Facilities.

It was the enjoyment derived from assisting citizen groups that nurtured Cook’s already strong interest in working with people and led him to accept a departure from full-time teaching to administrative posts at his college. He would also serve on the City of Kalamazoo Community Relations Board and the boards of directors of the American Lung Association of Michigan and the Great Lakes Colleges Association.

Though the chemist envisioned spending the remainder of his career at Kalamazoo College, when the call came to preside at Allegheny he accepted the challenge. A believer in volunteer work and in building neighborhood relationships, Cook quickly made friends. His participation in local “Make A Difference Day” labor crews won attention. Students took up the challenge, and the number of volunteer hours contributed by the campus to the community increased steadily.

On campus Cook supported steps to educate against harassment based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. His interest in environmental concerns resonated well and spurred the College to take environmentally sensitive actions. These included installation of an experimental in-vessel food composter in 2001 and commitment to wind-generated electricity for a portion of College power needs. His leadership, defense of the liberal arts, and scholarly record brought election to Phi Beta Kappa by the College chapter in 2003.

Cook’s challenge was to confront a systemic deficit. The work of a specially appointed committee provided guidelines for a retrenchment that Cook undertook with determination and sensitivity. His openness, instincts that usually led him to say the right thing at the right time, and evident concern for all segments of the College community enabled him to retain the support of its majority. Within a short period new initiatives were launched and a capital campaign undertaken with unprecedented backing from the Board of Trustees. The challenge of holding expenditures to income levels did not disappear immediately, however, and a new round of staff reductions proved necessary in 2004.

Cook did not seek markedly to alter the student clientele the College served. In his experience this would be possible only if the institution received a huge boost to its endowment. He believed that the traditional Allegheny College practice of helping students of limited financial means and of opening new horizons for those whose opportunities had been circumscribed should be celebrated and nurtured, not avoided. He strove to bring to the attention of the educational community Allegheny’s strong record in giving aspiring students opportunity and its reputation for changing students’  lives in a positive manner. He also encouraged awareness of the history and heritage of the College.

The capital campaign was closely linked to a strengthening of trust and collaboration within an increasingly well-informed Board of Trustees. Success in raising over $115 million dollars (pus $15 million in government grants excluding student financial aid) brought an increased sense of confidence on campus. It also brought several computer assisted “smart” classrooms and the creation of the Tippie Alumni Center in a restored and expanded Cochran Hall. The Merrick Archives were created in the library, and the building itself was renovated with creation of a Learning Commons on the main floor. The Center for Political Participation was founded and provided good quarters. A remarkable glass sculpture rose at the Senior Circle. Major remodeling of the Campus Center took place, and work was begun on the construction of dormitories that would constitute part of what became known as the North Village Complex. The  College acquired the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity to transform it into an admissions building. The football field and track received major refurbishment. Construction was begun on a new large communications building, to be known as the Vukovich Center.

Efforts to improve the physical campus were matched by efforts to strengthen the substance of the College. Progress was made in recruiting more minority representation within the student body and faculty and in increasing the number and status of women in the faculty and administration. New curricular programs arose and faculty additions again became possible. In the regional and national fields, Cook served on the steering committee of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment and as chair of the Council of Independent Colleges-New York Times Partnership. Allegheny was invited to joined the Great Lakes College Association in 2008.

Cook’s decision to resign at the end of the 2007-08 academic year came as a surprise. Yet he believed it appropriate for his family and  the College. The former strategic plan and capital campaign had been completed; building projects were well underway; the budget was balanced; a strong and cooperative administrative team had been formed and gained experience. New plans and a new campaign he thought should be the purview of a new leader.  The appreciative trustees purchased a handsome old building on the site of the Old Court House, where the College was founded, named it Founders House, and dedicated it in honor of Cook and his wife, Terry Lahti.  They also launched plans for a major renovation of Carr Hall to create the Cook Center for Environmental Sciences.

In retirement, the former president enjoys the farmland of his birth and actively assists his wife as she and her sister expand the work of the nationally known admissions officer recruitment firm they founded years earlier. Cook maintains a close relationship with the College and his successor and has returned to campus on several occasions.

*Portions of this account are taken, with permission, from  J. E. Helmreich, Through All the Years: A History of Allegheny College .  Meadville, PA., Allegheny College, 2005.