Al Cubbage prepares to step down after 2 decades as voice of Northwestern


Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Al Cubbage. After 21 years heading Northwestern’s University Relations department, Cubbage is preparing to step down from his role this summer.

Maddie Burakoff, Print Managing Editor

When Al Cubbage (Medill ’78, ’87) was looking to pursue a master’s degree in journalism, he knew Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism was the only place he really wanted to be.

Since then, he’s just kept coming back. Now, after receiving two Medill master’s degrees, marrying his wife in the Shakespeare Garden, raising two sons in Evanston and spending more than two decades serving as the public voice of the University, Cubbage is taking a step back and retiring from his current position as vice president for University Relations.

Cubbage, who has served in the role since 1997, will step down this summer. After a long stretch in what he described as a “somewhat stressful job,” Cubbage, now 65, said he found it was the right time to follow the example of his wife — a former Northwestern librarian who retired in February. After July, he will be free from his vice presidential responsibilities: overseeing a department of about 60, leading NU’s internal and external communications, and serving as the University’s chief spokesman.

“It’ll be a change,” Cubbage said. “The job is a 24/7 job, and all of a sudden it won’t be there.”

In addition to his role in University Relations, Cubbage is also an adjunct lecturer at NU and said he plans to continue teaching his course in Integrated Marketing Communications for the time being.

A search committee is still in the process of finding his replacement, who will hold the title of Vice President for Global Marketing and Communications. University President Morton Schapiro told The Daily it would be a difficult task to find a successor for Cubbage, who he said is “unflappable” under pressure and always looks to do what’s right rather than what’s convenient.

“All too often things go wrong … and this guy is always there, and he always treats everybody with respect, and gives everybody the dignity they deserve,” Schapiro said. “Going forward without him is really daunting for me, personally and professionally.”

Cubbage grew up in Iowa and stayed in the state to study communications at Grinnell College, and then to work as a reporter and editor at a small-town newspaper in Pella. He said the “on-the-ground” journalism experience let him write about a whole slew of different topics and reinforced the necessity of getting things right — because, he said, anyone he wrote about might bump into him around town the next day.

He left for Chicago to study journalism at Medill and worked at the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights for about 10 years. Eventually, though, Cubbage said he moved over from “hack journalist” to “PR flack,” pursuing his master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications at Medill and working in public relations for the Pace suburban bus service and Drake University — where he also received a law degree.

Part of what motivated the switch was a desire to be — quoting the musical “Hamilton” — in “the room where it happens,” Cubbage said.

“I always felt as a reporter that I was sort of on the sidelines writing about what was happening,” Cubbage said. “It’s the difference between being an impartial observer and being an advocate.”

Since joining Northwestern’s University Relations team in 1997, Cubbage said he has seen a lot of changes — from new buildings cropping up all over campus to social media transforming the entire communications world. When he started in the role, he said the University’s website was essentially just a list of six links and CAESAR was “truly basic,” so a lot of his focus was on bringing NU into the digital age.

Anne Egger, NU’s director of publications, said Cubbage has “really gone with the flow” of the changing media world and brought his team along with him.

“We’re a group that has really evolved,” Egger said. “Everybody is really receptive to change, and I think that’s a good legacy for him, that he’s set a good tone.”

Over all his years at Northwestern, Cubbage said one of the most memorable occasions was the 2001 celebration he headed for the 150th anniversary of the school. He recalled bringing out a massive cheesecake weighing hundreds of pounds at Deering Meadow and chartering CTA trains to shuttle Wildcats down to a Chicago Cubs game.

Stephanie Russell, executive editor of the Northwestern alumni magazine, described Cubbage as a “person of great integrity” who cares deeply about his staff, leading them on mini golf outings and an annual bike ride through the North Shore. Russell, who has worked with Cubbage throughout his entire time at NU, pointed out that Cubbage still helps maintain a commemorative plaque that was installed during the sesquicentennial.

“Over the years since then, the ivy on the building has kind of grown around the plaque and he’ll sometimes just wander over there … with his clippers and clip back the ivy so it doesn’t hide the plaque,” Russell said. “That just really says to me how devoted he is to Northwestern. He’s a true purple alum through and through.”

Moving into his partial retirement, Cubbage said he plans to go to more Cubs games and looks forward to being able to ride his bike more — although he’ll miss his current commute, which takes him on a daily “journey through campus” biking along the lakefront.

Cubbage said he’s had to face some tough situations as the public face of Northwestern and has had to make an effort to be both “transparent” and “thoughtful” knowing that his words will be interpreted as the voice of the University. However, Cubbage said he’s also enjoyed some “great, wonderful experiences” in his role.

He said it’s been easy to advocate for a cause that he truly believes in: higher education in general and Northwestern in particular, a school that he said prepares its students to be “valuable members of their communities.”

“My greatest satisfaction, honestly, comes from knowing that hopefully I’ve been a good influence and a good helper to many, many people, both in my role as a manager and as a teacher … and hopefully to the University,” Cubbage said. “Northwestern is a great place. It was a great place when I got here, and I think it’s an even better place now.”

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Twitter: @madsburk