April 19, 2019 | 73° F

JUSTICE: Rutgers shaped by student protests that promote common good

Opinions Column: Past Imperfect, Remembering Rutgers' History


At the student protest against Rutgers' 250th anniversary kickoff celebration this past November, Rutgers junior and activist Sivan Rosenthal challenged the seeming contradiction between the University’s theme, "Revolutionary for 250 years," and its nonchalant response to her group’s demands for tuition reduction and more attention to diversity. "A lot of the revolutionary progress that was made — at least in the field of social justice at Rutgers — was made by the students, who are almost never acknowledged for that,” she said. "We feel it's unfair the University is touting these wins of students in the past and suppressing what we're trying to do."

Rosenthal’s historical observation is important and largely true. As I discovered in my own historical research for "Rutgers: A 250th Anniversary Portrait," student activism has often moved harder, faster and more righteously than administration or faculty have been willing to go. During the Civil Rights Movement in particular, black students played a critical role in pushing our university to become the more diverse and socially just institution we celebrate today.

During the early 1960s, Rutgers' leaders responded to the civil rights pressures by planning for a gradual increase of black student admissions. Between 1965 and 1968, black student enrollment grew from 100 to 400 students (about 3 percent of the student body). Moreover, plans for Livingston College imagined a space that would be more representative of the population of New Jersey, including people of color, and more engaged with social issues. Nevertheless, the administration was not at all prepared for the ways in which these new students would expose fundamental flaws stretching across all aspects of the University.

Many black students found Rutgers to be unwelcoming, atomizing and intellectually inert and irrelevant. They demanded things we now take for granted: more diverse admissions and faculty hiring, better community relations and curricular and programmatic reform. By the spring of 1969, black student organizations, fed up with the lack of real progress, staged protests across all three campuses. Students at Rutgers—Newark occupied Conklin Hall, chained the doors and did not leave for the 72 hours of negotiations that followed. In New Brunswick, students staged mass food dumpings in the main dining halls of Rutgers and Douglass Colleges, and organized meetings with faculty members and the Board of Governors. At Rutgers—Camden, students disrupted a Student Council meeting and later barricaded themselves inside the College Center. Across the University, classes were canceled for two days.

While many white students and the general public responded with anger or confusion at the black students’ methods and demands, the president and the great majority of the faculty were supportive. Unlike presidents at other universities, Mason W. Gross refused to take a hard line, neither expelling the students nor involving the police unless absolutely necessary. Instead, he led the University in a significant effort to address the students’ concerns. The University expanded recruitment efforts in urban high schools, created an Africana Studies program, offered a number of new courses in other departments and expanded extracurricular activities, campus resources and cultural events of interest to African-Americans in particular and other traditionally excluded groups. The University expanded diversity in the faculty, including hiring civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor. While these changes did not eliminate the problems of institutional or societal racism or meet all student demands, they were major developments.

Black students deserve most of the credit for pressing these reforms forward two generations ago, an effort that required extraordinary bravery and political acumen. But it’s also fair to give a little credit to faculty, administration and other students who responded in ways that recognized the justice of their demands, and to recognize other groups who followed their lead and made still more demands for reform.

African-Americans remain underrepresented today among Rutgers students and faculty, while shrinking enrollment in the humanities and the marginality of gender and ethnic studies programs — and their de-emphasis in the curriculum — mean that most students can pass through Rutgers without seriously engaging problems of injustice and the inequality endemic in American society. If we are serious about training the leaders of tomorrow, we have a lot further to go.

Still, the University administration is right to celebrate the successes of previous generations of students in making Rutgers better and, to its credit, has supported the recent work of historians trying to unearth those stories. If past performance is any indication of future success, all of us at Rutgers University  would be wise to continue encouraging student activism as a check on the moral necrosis that seems endemic in large, elite institutions.

Benjamin Justice is chair of the Department of Educational Theory, Policy and Administration in the Graduate School of Education. His column, "Past Imperfect: Remembering Rutgers' History," runs on alternate Mondays and is in collaboration with Paul Clemens and Carla Yanni.


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Benjamin Justice

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