Reflecting the Light

By Jennifer Delahunty Britz

Allegheny’s 20th President Is Resourceful, Rooted, and Relentless in His Quest to Take Allegheny to the Next Level

Any attempt to single out Richard Cook makes him want to run for cover.

If there’s anything the twentieth president of Allegheny dislikes, it’s calling attention to himself. “I can’t wait until this interview is over and I can go back to work,” he says with a laugh. Anyone who knows him recognizes that this is not posturing: It is precisely how he feels.

Cook’s Midwestern roots account for a good deal of his retiring nature. He was raised in northern Michigan on an 80-acre wooded homestead that originally belonged to his great-grandparents. During his first seven years as a student, he attended a one-room schoolhouse, eventually heading off to the University of Michigan for his undergraduate degree and Princeton for his Ph.D.

His style to take learning and work seriously without taking himself too seriously, to be driven but not to distraction dovetails with Allegheny’s culture. “I don’t cherish the spotlight,” he admits. “Reflected light is the most satisfying for me.”

Cook’s academic right arm agrees. “Richard is kind of like Johnny Carson,” says Lloyd Michaels, dean of the College. “He does everything he can to make the person sharing the stage with him shine. Only later do you realize how brilliant he was at directing the spotlight away from himself and onto you.”

The Chemistry of Collegiality

Before Richard Cook was a college president, as he has been at Allegheny for the past six years, or before he served as provost at Kalamazoo College, as he did for seven years, he was a chemistry professor. Is it any surprise then that one of his key successes to date has been to create a remarkable chemistry on campus?

“The sum of the changes he has effected in six short years is tremendous,” asserts Dean Michaels. How has he accomplished so much? “Through open communication and decision by consensus,” Michaels posits.

Associate Professor of Biology Ann Kleinschmidt, who has served on the College’s Faculty Council and the Administrative Executive Committee, has watched Cook in action over several years. “He seems reserved at first, but you can see that he’s taking in all the voices, all the opinions,” she says. “It seems to me he is attempting to make decision-making at the College as open as possible.”

Cook is described as having a light touch when it comes to academic initiatives. “Richard is a strong and quiet leader,” says Rich Bowden, associate professor of environmental science. Cook’s posture is to let ideas such as the Center for Economic and Environmental Development rise out of the faculty and then help bring them into reality, Bowden says. “He encourages faculty to take the initiative, and then as things proceed he asks very good questions and makes sure we’ve done our homework.”

When asked about his greatest accomplishment after six years at the College, Cook quips: “That I still have a job!” He enjoys his joke briefly, then turns serious. “People tell me that the sense of community, trust, and morale both on and off campus is the highest level in memory. If I played some part in that, I would consider it the single most important thing I have done. If that isn’t there, then none of the other institutional accomplishments would be possible or would matter much.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Cook has taped to his computer a quotation by Margaret Mead, with whom he dined once as a Princeton student: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

A Penchant for Planning

Credit chemistry also for Cook’s commitment to planning. “When chemists synthesize compounds, they have to look ahead and anticipate the steps. I’m not smart enough not to plan,” Cook says, laughing.

When he came on board in 1996, some tough decisions had to be made to recover the institution’s financial footing. In 1997 he convened what he called the Summer Working Group, a cross-campus committee charged with reevaluating the College’s direction and priorities.

“He gave us a charge, asked us some questions, and stepped back,” recalls Dave McInally, who was then dean of students and is now secretary of the College. “When it was time to finalize the plan, he put in some great ideas. He has an amazing ability to make us think about what is possible. Richard is the right combination of practical and visionary.”Richard Cook
The final plan, New Century Connections, established institutional priorities and spelled out a five-year plan for the College that was achieved ahead of schedule. “It succeeded because everyone felt ownership in the plan,” McInally reflects. The plan altered some departments, a predictably unpopular move. “It was a painful decision, but it was the correct decision,” says Dean Michaels. “Most new presidents come in and try to raise political capital. This president came in and made a painful decision and is now regarded as a popular president. In fact, the College is in the strongest position it has been in for thirty years. The faculty is the best we’ve had. The sense of collegiality is the highest it’s ever been. The involvement of the trustees is the strongest. There’s a sense of confidence that we’re moving in the right direction.”

To keep the College moving in that direction, a two-week, cross-campus planning workshop was held in the summer of 2002, and a new five-year plan, Tradition and Transformation, has just been released.

Rooted in Reality

Richard Cook is having lunch with a group of five students. He knows their achievements, some of their parents, their majors, and even their hometowns. He jokes with Melissa McCrimmon, a senior from his home state. “Sault Ste. Marie is the plane stop right after Alpena,” he kids. “It’s the big city.”

McCrimmon has asked Cook to write her a recommendation for a Rhodes Scholarship, a request that thrills him. “So tell me more. What did you do during your semester in Russia?” he asks, taking notes for his letter. He is forced to draw her out on her many accomplishments in a manner that mirrors his own reluctance to boast.

Walking across campus after lunch, he comments: “Our students are so capable and so hardworking.”

He gets similar praise from Allegheny students. “I was coming back from the library one night at midnight and I met the president leaving his office,” recalls Brian Dulski, a senior from Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. “He was about the last person I expected to meet that time of night. He stopped to say hi.”

Cook’s legendary work habits began at home. He planted 8,000 trees with his father on his family’s property. When his father passed away, he asked that memorial gifts be used to plant three oaks within view of his Bentley Hall office window. Across the sidewalk from his father’s small grove is the pin oak given in his honor by the class of 2000 in recognition of the fact that they enrolled the same year he became president. They presented him with the tree at Commencement and then rose to their feet to acknowledge him with thunderous applause. When asked about the event, he asks, “Did they really stand? I must have been in shock.”

Strolling the campus sidewalks, the 6′ lanky president unselfconsciously picks up trash and tosses it into a garbage can. He easily greets students. He shouts at a group of maintenance men in a truck, “Another joy ride?” They wave and laugh. “He’s a great guy,” says Bill Geiger, one of the supposed joy riders. “He talks to everyone throughout the College. He’s never too busy to stop and say ‘How’s it going?'”

“He has great range,” says Tom Ponto, Kalamazoo College’s vice president for business and finance, who knew Cook for most of his nearly two dozen years on that campus. “He truly cares about people, and he develops relationships as easily with CEOs as custodians.”

According to Ponto, Cook’s range is both personal and intellectual. “He can talk about anything, whether it’s the environmental problems at Love Canal or how to fix the rust on your car.” Cook provided expert testimony in one of the nation’s most notorious pollution cases.

Michaels agrees. “He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He doesn’t demonstrate his intelligence, he exercises it.”

Allegheny’s VP for finance, Marcus Buckley, concurs. “I’ve worked for eight or nine presidents and he gets it,” asserts Buckley. “He’s the best at seeing the whole financial picture of anyone I’ve ever known.”

Cook’s fiscal acumen may come out of his scientific training, but his conservative way with a buck comes from northern Michigan. “My parents never had a mortgage or car payment,” he recalls. “My dad and mom took several jobs to support us and to ensure that my brother and I would receive a college education. They certainly taught us the value of hard work and perseverance.”

Under Cook’s leadership the fiscal health of Allegheny has improved steadily, says Buckley. “We are being very prudent and are not overly dependent on endowment to sustain the budget. But we could use more resources to offer everything students and faculty need to be a first-tier college.”

Cook is critical of the college rankings that established the notorious “tiers,” saying emphatically, “There is no demonstrated correlation between most of the measures used by popular ratings and educational effectiveness.” Still, Cook is a realist. “We do know that for Allegheny to make our mark on the national scene, it is essential that we dramatically increase our endowment to include student and faculty support and that we raise funds to improve our buildings and equipment.”

In October Allegheny launched a $105 million fund-raising campaign, the first under Cook’s leadership. The trustees have offered him their unqualified support. “Richard has transformed Allegheny,” says Marty Pfinsgraff ’77, chief operating officer of iJET Travel Intelligence, Inc. “He has re-energized the faculty, reshaped the curriculum, reconnected with the local community, and now is about to embark on the most ambitious capital campaign in the College’s history to ensure that Allegheny continues to fulfill its mission in the future. He’s the right person at the right time for Allegheny.”

Building Cross-Town Bridges

One day last winter, Cook decided to join some Meadville friends who had formed a cigar club. He loves the camaraderie and conversation but not the smoke. He was talking with his administrative assistant, Sandy Duchene, about this when they had a telepathic moment. “I knew exactly what he wanted,” laughs Duchene. “I went to the theatre department and got it.” Cook walked into the cigar bar wearing a gas mask, a move that sent everyone into hysterics.

This wasn’t an isolated antic. He’s driven a Harley in the homecoming parade. He’s worn a Rolling Stones T-shirt and led a conga line through Dean Michaels’s backyard. He let a magician make him disappear at a staff holiday party. “He has a wonderful sense of humor,” says Duchene, whom Cook affectionately calls “Lucy” because of her Lucille Ball­like mishaps.

His approachability has been a boon to relations with he town of Meadville. He’s taken faculty and administrators on tours of the area’s tool and die shops, and he’s invited Meadville residents to use campus facilities and attend campus events.

“The College and town weren’t at odds, but they didn’t have much to do with each other either,” observes Gus Rylander ’49, who returned to Meadville after his retirement from the steel industry. “Meadville knows him. He’s involved in organizations around town. I think Richard’s the best thing that’s happened to the College in fifty years.”

Indeed, Cook is often seen in Meadville. In addition to being a member of the Chamber of Commerce and other organizations, he’s been known to put in fifteen miles walking around town on the weekends.

“A Difference Maker”

You might think that someone with such positive press hasn’t ruffled any feathers in his time on campus. Not so. “His style is not confrontational, but he’s not afraid to enter a situation that will cause some conflict if he feels that the conflict is worth the end result for the institution,” comments Kleinschmidt.

His willingness to jump into the fray when necessary was well known at Kalamazoo. “He’s a difference maker,” notes his former colleague Ponto. At “K” College, Provost Cook revamped a year-round calendar that had been in place for more than thirty years. “From recruitment to retention, the change has had a positive impact on campus in every way. Richard made that happen,” says Ponto.

Cook has worn his difference-maker hat from day one at Allegheny.

On his watch, the College introduced the Allegheny College Center for Experiential Learning (ACCEL), a program focused on learning through internships, service earning, leadership development, and international programs. The College has been active in the Annapolis Group, a consortium of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. Plus, Allegheny has launched several new academic programs, including managerial economics, biochemistry, professional writing, and applied computing.
Cook has also supported the College’s longstanding commitment to civic engagement by joining Project Pericles as one of ten founding members nationally. Project Pericles is an initiative to stimulate colleges and universities to make Richard Cook preparation for a life of social responsibility central to an undergraduate education. (Eugene Lang, founder of the “I Have a Dream Program,” holds Allegheny up as the prototype institution for Project Pericles.) Supporting that initiative academically is Allegheny’s new Values, Ethics and Social Action (VESA) program, an interdisciplinary minor that draws on courses in social sciences and philosophy and religion. This fall the College opened a new Center for Political Participation, an innovative program of study, research, and action that is already attracting national attention and acclaim.

Add to these accomplishments the fact that it was on Cook’s watch that the College received the largest gift in its 185-year history, a donation from Dr. Robert A. Vukovich ’65 and Laura J. DiMichele-Vukovich. A portion of that gift will help to support the development and construction of a new theatre and communication arts complex.

“Dr. Cook was influential in our decision to make our recent donation to Allegheny,” says Vukovich. Dr. Vukovich, who founded Wellspring, a pharmaceutical company, says he feared that in the 1990s Allegheny was not connecting the liberal arts with contemporary challenges. He says that under Cook’s leadership, he’s seen many positive changes. “His energies and leadership have prompted me and other members of the board of trustees to invest together to create an institution of enduring quality,” he reflects. Vukovich says he and his wife, Laura, are pleased to spearhead the College’s new fund-raising campaign with their gift. “We have the capability to make the commitment, and Allegheny deserves no less than our best effort,” he concludes.

A Believer in the Liberal Arts

While several programmatic changes have been made at the College, Cook hasn’t veered a millimeter from his commitment to the liberal arts. Earl Adams, Andrew Wells Robertson Professor of Economics, was on the search committee that hired Cook. “We were attracted to Richard early on because he represented the liberal arts perspective that we hoped we would find,” says Adams. “He’s a true believer in the kind of liberal arts education in which Allegheny has a comparative advantage.”

As an economist, Adams understands the market forces bearing down on liberal arts colleges to make their programs more appealing. He applauds Cook for staying the liberal arts course, and for good marketing, not pandering.

To underscore his commitment to Allegheny’s approach to learning, Cook has launched a “Liberal Arts Initiative,” drafting a manifesto to increase public understanding of why the liberal arts are individually and collectively important. He’s in the process of asking the nation’s business leaders to sign the document.

“We are enlisting the help of prominent business leaders and others to make the case that a liberal arts education serves one well for making a living and for living a life,” asserts Cook.

Cook’s own undergraduate education included an opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty member doing chemistry research at the University of Michigan. “What happened to me was largely accidental,” he recalls. “That kind of interaction between students and faculty is intentional at places like Allegheny.”

A Teacher Above All

One Allegheny faculty member enjoys a rare perspective on Cook. Assistant Professor of Computer Science Andrew Thall enrolled in Cook’s chemistry class as an undergraduate when they were both at Kalamazoo College. “Richard was personable and a good lecturer. We knew he was hip because he worked in a tie-dyed lab coat,” jokes Thall. As a professor, Cook won one of Kalamazoo’s highest faculty honors the Lucasse Fellowship for excellence in scholarship.

Does Cook miss teaching? “I’d like to have all the answers again,” he says with a laugh.

But more than the answers, it’s the questions that intrigue Cook. How can Allegheny become better known? How can the Allegheny story be told in a way that appeals to more alumni and prospective students? While he doesn’t know all the answers, he does have a very specific goal. “Allegheny deserves to be more widely recognized nationally as one of the best places to get a great undergraduate education,” he says with conviction.

When asked the tough question, “What do you want your legacy at Allegheny to be?” he fires back, “That’s a Barbara Walters question! No fair.”

Then he stops to ponder. “I read a farewell speech by one president who simply said, ‘I love this place. I always gave it my very best.’ I doubt I could be that succinct, but that’s exactly what I would want to say about my time at Allegheny.”

Jennifer Delahunty Britz is a writer and editor of The Lawlor Review, an education marketing journal.

This article was featured in the Winter 2002 Issue of Allegheny College Magazine.