McCormick apologizes for affair that brought 'considerable pain'

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Rutgers University President Richard McCormick held a news conference yesterday in which he acknowledged he had an affair with a woman in the University of Washington's administration while he was president there, and that the affair was one of several factors that led to his departure.

The Seattle Times published a story yesterday saying the board had encouraged McCormick to leave the university.

In recent months, McCormick had insisted the affair never happened and denied reports that the UW Board of Regents had pressured him to leave. But after learning The Seattle Times was preparing to publish a story, McCormick, Rutgers president since October 2002, told the newspaper he had decided to "amend" his previous statements after doing a "great deal of soul-searching."

During the news conference at Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J., McCormick, with his wife at his side, apologized for the affair, calling it a "grave personal mistake that has brought considerable pain and humiliation to my wife, my family and the other individual involved and her family."

McCormick did not offer details about the woman with whom he had the affair, except to say she was not a student and that she did not receive any special benefits as a result of the relationship.

Gene O'Hara, chairman of the Rutgers Board of Governors, read a statement expressing support for McCormick.

"President McCormick's performance in the last 12 months has more than validated the reasons we asked him to be our leader. He had the board's support a year ago, and he has the board's support today," O'Hara said.

McCormick said he plans to meet with student and faculty leaders, beginning this morning, to express his regrets and ask for support.

After eight months of interviews with two UW administrators, a high-ranking state official and seven people close to the matter, The Times reported yesterday that regents had long been unhappy with McCormick's performance but did not encourage him to leave until reports surfaced that he had had an inappropriate relationship with the UW employee.

When regents asked him about the alleged affair, McCormick denied it, The Times reported.

McCormick withdrew his name from consideration for the Rutgers presidency at one point last year. He did not directly respond yesterday to the article's contention that UW regents urged him to reconsider, instead saying he already had made the decision to pursue the job again.

"It gnawed at me," he said. "I knew I'd made the wrong decision. I told my family I got it wrong."

Reports of the affair were never fully investigated, largely because McCormick denied them and he took the Rutgers job before the allegations could be resolved, The Times reported.

The university has no rule prohibiting intimate relationships between administrators and subordinates, but sources told The Times regents were "pleased and relieved" McCormick left for Rutgers, saying they avoided what might have become an "ugly and messy" employment matter.

McCormick's wife, Suzanne Lebsock, is a nationally recognized historian who taught at UW and moved to Rutgers with McCormick. She declined to answer questions yesterday about her husband's affair, saying it was a personal matter that is being dealt with privately.

The Times did not name the woman who had the affair with McCormick or say in which UW department she worked.

In earlier interviews, McCormick said he decided to take the Rutgers job because he saw it as a chance of a lifetime. He grew up in New Jersey, both his parents had taught at Rutgers and he began his academic career there.

Hired as UW's president in 1995, McCormick, was the first UW president in 50 years to leave for another university. At Rutgers, McCormick made headlines in September, when police in Piscataway, N.J., detected alcohol on his breath after he left the scene of a minor accident in a parking lot.

McCormick said he didn't realize a collision had occurred. He blamed the incident on fatigue, saying he had had a glass and a half of red wine during dinner.

No charges have been filed.