Former Roosevelt University president Theodore Gross tells a bunch of stories in his recently published memoir, The Rise of Roosevelt University, but the pivotal one is about a fund-raising fiasco at a Rancho Mirage country club in the fall of 1994. As he remembers it, Gross was looking for a donation to finance the major achievement of his presidency, a permanent facility for Roosevelt’s Schaumburg campus. He’d identified the donor, trustee and construction mogul Al Robin, and set the stage–lunch with a trio of coconspirators, trustees Alan Anixter, Jerry Stone, and Norm Mesirow. Everything was pleasant enough, Gross writes, until one of them–“probably, and incorrectly, me”–floated the pertinent question. Then, “Al sits there stolidly, growing perceptively tighter and more irritated. . . . He begins to mutter that he is waiting for others to step forward with him, as his eyes rove around the table and settle on each of his fellow millionaires. . . . His words come out as isolated syllables: “What do you guys think I am, a pigeon?”

That story, with its poker-table dynamic, is emblematic of both Gross’s 14-year presidency and his book, which could almost as easily have been called “The Rise of Ted Gross.” Raised in Brooklyn, the second, less-talented son of an intellectual but stymied father, he grew up convinced that “I would never be smart enough . . . never think of myself as fully accomplished.” His brother had a PhD in physics at age 21; Gross, at 25, wrangled a conditional acceptance to Columbia University’s graduate school, where he studied English, aiming to teach and write fiction. He joined the English department at City College of New York in ’58 and by the early 70s, in the first blush of open admissions, was department chair and then dean. By ’75, he was CCNY’s vice president for development, but he’d “begun to doubt the dream of open admissions.” There wasn’t enough money for remedial courses, unprepared students couldn’t be brought along fast enough, and talented students fled. “It couldn’t work,” Gross concluded. An essay he wrote to that effect was published as a cover story, “How to Kill a College,” in the Saturday Review in February 1978. “The piece was presented more sensationally than I could ever have dreaded,” Gross writes. “I trembled as I held it in my hands, sensing that my little, self-absorbed, meteoric career was over.”

In the storm that followed, Gross resigned. He resurfaced as provost at Penn State Harrisburg and then as a dean at SUNY Purchase, bruised and hankering for a university presidency. When an invitation came from Roosevelt, he saw a chance to redeem himself. Last week, at a lecture to a tiny audience at Roosevelt, Gross recited the challenges he found when he arrived there in ’88. Roosevelt, created in 1945 in response to discrimination against blacks and Jews at other colleges (and disparaged through the 50s as the “little red schoolhouse”), had lost its distinctive identity to federally mandated integration in the 70s and had let itself become a sort of glorified night school. The endowment was a paltry $3 million, full-time faculty were paid as little as $18,000 a year, the business school had lost its accreditation, enrollment was declining, and the Auditorium Theatre was running deficits that the university had to make good on. Roosevelt’s fabulous century-old Adler and Sullivan building was falling apart, and the school’s administrative structure was equally decrepit. Seeing that “I’d need a provost to take care of the internal things,” Gross brought in Bob Graham, a former colleague at Penn State Harrisburg, and created an abrasively top-down administration. His own primary job was chasing money.

The Rancho Mirage fiasco drove Gross into the major controversy of his presidency: an eight-year, $6 million legal battle for control of the Auditorium Theatre. Gross believed that Roosevelt’s suburban campus, housed in rented quarters in Arlington Heights, was “gold waiting to be mined,” and when Al Robin refused to pop for a building, he feared the opportunity would slip away. Desperate, he writes, “I did what I had publicly pledged I would not do”–sought to have $1.5 million transferred from resurgent ticket revenues at the Auditorium Theatre to be used as collateral for a loan. At the time the Auditorium was being managed by the quasi-independent Auditorium Theatre Council. The next day two members of the ATC–including Gross’s nemesis, the “elusive” media mogul Fred Eychaner–filed suit, contesting Roosevelt’s ownership of the theater. Gross says Eychaner “was intent on controlling that theater regardless of what it would cost in legal fees.” In the ensuing public relations blitz, Gross claims, he was demonized while the ATC got the support of the mayor by telling him that money from this Chicago treasure would be siphoned off to Schaumburg. But when the case was finally resolved by the Illinois Supreme Court, it was in Roosevelt’s favor. By then the theater’s run of blockbuster bookings like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera was over.

Gross says he was careful about what he wrote, but there’s plenty of unsavory dish on his marriages and enough you’ll-never-lunch-in-this-town-again fodder to have anyone who crossed his path scanning the index. One college dean is “a feisty, little, round woman” motivated by personal rather than institutional needs, while another is an embarrassment who, he asserts, “could not command respect from members of the business community.” Barry and Lester Crown are “the McCoys and Hatfields of Jewish philanthropy,” and Eppie Lederer wanted Gross to be her escort, “whatever that might mean.” As for the author himself, he waded willingly into his work, courting donors, “seducing them financially, sick at times for being so manipulative,” but also hooked: “The pleasure was immediate and intense, like a rush of adrenaline that makes you feel you can do anything, that money rules the world, that money is all that counts.”

Gross closed his lecture last week by ticking off the accomplishments of his term: increased enrollment (up from 5,700 to 7,500), more full-time students, higher salaries, lighter teaching loads, an honors program, a college of performing arts, an increased endowment, new programs in insurance and real estate, an MBA degree that’s drawn international students–and of course the Schaumburg campus, named for Al Robin, who eventually kicked in $5 million. Gross didn’t mention that he was well compensated for his trouble: In 2001-’02 he took home $610,000 (including payments from a deferred-compensation arrangement), which made him the nation’s best-paid university president. When Roosevelt’s current president, Charles Middleton, asked how this book fits in the historical and literary tradition of memoirs by university presidents, Gross–ever the younger brother–responded “I don’t think I’m good enough to be in that tradition” and “It’s a highly personal book; I wrote it for myself.” In the end, however, he gave the question the answer it deserved:”It’s a modest book about a modest university,” he said. “Now I’m writing a novel, which really tells the truth.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.