Michael Riccards traveled north, west and south in his career as professor, college president and policy analyst, but he thinks, at 72, he has now found an ideal spot from which to write about the political and policy subjects of the day: his Hamilton home.
Growing up in Madison and then Summit, he took a different career path than his father, an accountant, and his mother, a nurse. He was influenced by the social and political turmoil of the 1960s.
“Political science became a really important area of study because of the changes that were taking place in the country in the ’60s, involving antiwar, civil rights and women’s liberation,” said Riccards, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Rutgers University-Newark and then master’s and doctoral degrees in political science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
Riccards’ early interest in political philosophy and the relationship between the individual and the state morphed into a fascination with the American presidency, which he explored in a two-volume history, Ferocious Engine of Democracy.
Using three criteria to judge presidents, he found Franklin Delano Roosevelt the greatest in the 20th century and Lincoln in the 19th century. He explains: “Usually great presidents are in office during times of crisis, war and depression; second, they were people that on important issues could lead the American people despite all the problems; and third, that people have trust in the president even if they don’t understand everything he is basing his decisions on.”
Riccards says he was surprised by the recent election results.
“I guess I overrated my fellow Americans,” Riccards said. “I didn’t realize the American people in that many areas were angry and decided to vote the way they felt, which was their entire prerogative.”
He adds, quoting Obama, that the presidency is a tough job. “It’s not a joke. It’s a serious job, and it requires a tremendous amount of work,” he says, noting how much time Woodrow Wilson spent educating himself on individual issues and studying maps to visualize potential consequences of divisions of countries. Riccards adds that the job has “gotten tougher because we Americans don’t give the president the benefit of the doubt the way we used.”
Applying some of the lessons he learned about leadership from his research on U.S. presidents, Riccards, a Catholic, turned to the papacy and “how do you lead a voluntary association of faith of a billion people?”
Riccards taught at SUNY Buffalo, but moved in 1976 to the college administrator track, becoming dean of the merged college of Arts and Sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. In 1981, he moved to Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he was provost and academic vice president. He then served as presidents of three college: from 1986, St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico; from 1989, Shepherd College, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia; and from 1995 to 2002, Fitchburg State College in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
His approach to college administration, he says, was to “find out what the assets are of the institution and then build around it.” For example, St. John’s in Santa Fe was a “great books” college where you wouldn’t expect one—“a curriculum around the works of what were called ‘old white men’ in the far west, where the culture is so very different.” His job, he says, was to “bring the college down from the hill to be part of what was happening in one of the oldest cities in America.” So he focused on raising scholarship money so that no accepted student would not able to attend for lack of means.
He also focused on constructing buildings—a library at St. John’s, a physical education complex at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and a science building and a library at Shepherd College.
After a heart attack, he left college administration to become the College Board’s Public Policy Scholar in Residence in Washington, D.C., and its representative to both the National Governors Association and the National State Legislatures Association. He cites two of his proudest accomplishments: the first was writing a piece of legislation that allowed veterans to take CLEP exams [providing them college credit for coursework or experiences that have given them mastery of introductory college-level material] for free.
‘That’s what education is about for all of us—it’s opening doors.’
The second was convincing educators at Washington, D.C., high schools to add advanced placement courses.
“It’s not only that it gives kids a break to get into college, but more important it gives them self-esteem—they can say to themselves, I’m taking a college course in high school, and I can do it,” he said, noting that today there are 34 AP classes in D.C. high schools.
What brought Riccards back to New Jersey, in 2005, was an offer to head a new think tank, the Hall Institute of Public Policy in Princeton, which explored problems faced by state government. Significant studies the institute conducted included healthcare before the Affordable Care Act, when “an enormous number of people were uncovered by Medicare”; the continuing pension problem for state employees; and ethics, where they found serious issues at the county level, where “the bosses run the parties.”
At age 70, in 2014, he founded the virtual American Public Policy Institute. Currently, he is working on a book on Woodrow Wilson as commander in chief. He has also written a series of essays about his grandfather, an Italian gardener, as well as his own autobiography. He works with a group of writers every Monday afternoon at the Hamilton Township Library, where people write, read what they have written and critique each other’s work.
Riccards has also written a number of plays over his life, on diverse subjects: St. Patrick; Ty Cobb; Abraham Lincoln; and Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska, who became a saint under Pope John Paul II. Riccards actually met Maureen Digan, whose atrophying legs were cured after praying at Faustina’s grave—a miracle counted toward Faustina’s being granted sainthood.
Riccards traces his interest in playwriting back to a high school teacher, who asked his students to write another scene to Hamlet, “the way Shakespeare would have done it, in blank verse.”
Interestingly, one high point of his tenure in Washington was exposing his underprivileged high school students to Shakespeare. He saw an advertisement in the Washington Post about free tickets for Romeo and Juliet, and he and his wife took about 30 kids. His wife was a high school English teacher in Washington.
“They got a chance to see and listen to the greatest master of English poetry there is,” Riccards said. “It was so exciting. That’s what education is about for all of us—it’s opening doors.”