NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Rutgers University President Richard McCormick, who has spent nearly a decade as the head of New Jersey's flagship university and endured a year of bruising headlines, announced Tuesday that he would step down at the end of the 2011-12 academic year.
McCormick formally notified the university's Board of Governors of his decision Tuesday, then held a news conference at which he said he wanted to leave the post on his own terms and not because he was pushed out, as many of his predecessors had been.
"There have been headlines that I'd rather had not been written," McCormick said.
The recently ended school year was punctuated by tragedy and tumult.
The university and its policies on bullying and acceptance of gay and lesbian students were thrust into the national spotlight with the suicide of freshman Tyler Clementi, who killed himself in September after authorities say his roommate used a webcam to spy on Clementi's encounter with another man.
Officials pulled the plug on future RutgersFest events because three shootings followed this year's concert, and there was an uproar after reality-TV star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of Jersey Shore fame was paid $32,000 from student activity fees to speak.
Students also staged a 36-hour sit-in at McCormick's office to protest tuition increases.
"It's not always reflected in those headlines - the passion, the effort, and may I say the brilliance of our faculty and students," McCormick said, adding that his frustrations "pale in comparison to the accomplishments."
McCormick said he was most proud of a major university reorganization in 2006 that simplified a complicated system of undergraduate colleges by consolidating four of the five colleges at the central New Brunswick/Piscataway campus into a School of Arts and Sciences with unified admissions standards and academic requirements. The remaining college became the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
The changes streamlined a university experience that Rutgers officials complained was confusing and unfair, with students considering some colleges better than others.
McCormick, who previously taught American political history, plans to leave his $550,000-a-year post and take a year off before returning to the faculty as a professor, teaching history and graduate studies.
When he returns, he will become the highest-paid professor at the school, making $335,000.
Ralph Izzo, chairman of the Board of Governors, said the board was "comfortable" with the salary given McCormick's expertise.
McCormick, 63, said he had not spoken personally to Gov. Christie about leaving. The governor issued a two-sentence statement about McCormick's "retirement," thanking him for his service.
In his last year, McCormick says he hopes to raise more money and help carry out a proposal made by the governor's higher-education task force to merge Rutgers with the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
McCormick has served as head of the university since 2002, overseeing nearly 57,000 students at the campuses in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden.
Word of McCormick's departure came a little more than a week after the university's second-highest-ranking administrator - Phil Furmanski, the executive vice president for academic affairs - announced he was leaving his $450,000-a-year post to return to working as a biology professor and cancer researcher at Rutgers.
Matt Cordeiro, president of the Rutgers Student Assembly, said the students would notice the changes at the top.