‘Rutgers since 1945’ book chronicles pivotal events in recent University history

Even though many Rutgers students and alumni take pride in the University’s rich 249-year history as the eighth-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, most are probably unaware that the University experienced the most change within the past 70 years.

Just in time for the kickoff of a one-year celebration for the University’s 250th anniversary, a Rutgers professor chronicled significant historical developments throughout the last 70 years of the University’s existence in a new book, “Rutgers since 1945: A History of the State University of New Jersey.”

Former University President Richard P. McCormick, the father of the previous President Richard L. McCormick, provided inspiration and a groundwork for writing the book, said Paul Clemens, a professor in the Department of History and author of “Rutgers since 1945.”

“What I originally planned to do was pick up the story where McCormick left off, which was roughly 1961,” Clemens said. “That didn’t make sense in terms of Rutgers history and Rutgers’ story ... It made sense to go back and re-do some of the work that McCormick had done.”

The year 1945 was important to cover in the book because that era included major events like World War II, the adoption of the Rutgers—Newark campus and Rutgers becoming a state university more officially than it had been in the past, Clemens said.

Clemens has been teaching history at Rutgers since 1974, and said the most significant development experienced by Rutgers in recent decades was its progress in becoming a first-rate research university, particularly during former University President Edward J. Bloustein’s tenure in the 1980s.

But as a person who was living during this pivotal time period, Clemens did not recognize the importance of this progress and how it fit in the greater picture of Rutgers history, he said.

“In retrospect, having written about it, I now understand how ... it was a major step in redesigning the University,” he said. “From a personal point of view, what I felt was probably most important was the way in which the University was reorganized from different colleges.”

The most recent reorganization was announced in Spring 2007 when Rutgers College, University College, Douglass College and Livingston College were consolidated into what is now the School of Arts and Sciences, and the remaining Cook College became the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

The two reorganizations of the Rutgers—New Brunswick campus changed in countless ways that took both a positive and negative toll on University undergraduate life, Clemens said.

Consolidation of the University programs provided students with a greater sense of freedom to pursue academic degrees in various divergent subject areas, Clemens said. It also gave rise to an unprecedented demand for transportation to the other sub-campuses within Rutgers—New Brunswick.

Most programs strived to offer introductory classes on all five sub-campuses and continue to do so, but that did not always work out as planned, Clemens said.

“It really opened up any program to any student in any program on any campus,” he said. “It made it harder because if a woman on Douglass wanted to take a program that was not offered on her campus, she had to get on a bus and go somewhere else.”

Allowing the faculty to work more closely with one another as a result of this consolidation improved research projects and graduate programs more than anything else, Clemens said.

“I don’t think it hurt undergraduate education, but it did mean that for a while, undergraduate (programs) didn’t get quite the emphasis that (they) had had in the past with the older colleges,” he said. “That was something the University had to consciously (work) to change.”

Since 1945, working for change was something that the University became accustomed to in terms of academics, as well as the promotion of racial equality, gender equality, acceptance of sexual orientation and religious beliefs.

In 1945, the University was mostly a small liberal arts college suited for men. This started to change when students decided to voice dissatisfaction by protesting to make Rutgers suitable for everyone, Clemens said.

The single most important thing that changed at the University’s social construct for students was the black student protest movement at Rutgers during 1969, Clemens said.

“They weren’t just proposals, they were demands for changes in admissions policies at Rutgers,” he said. “There were similar protest movements by Puerto Rican students following that. Collectively, those concerns fundamentally accelerated things that probably wouldn’t have happened ... (as) quickly at Rutgers.”

This movement is the origin of a much more diverse Rutgers campus, Clemens said. The students deserve the entire credit for starting that protest, but there were many faculty members who also worked to bring those changes about.

Increased student diversity “definitely” made New Jersey’s flagship state university a more interesting place to be, Clemens said.

After World War II, there was a single student culture at Rutgers. Today, there are “very few” things that all students have in common or do in common, Clemens said.

“There have been other changes (resulting) from this that just have to do with size,” he said. “Rutgers was like a middle-sized high school right after World War II. Now it’s a huge, huge university. Part of what that means is that there can’t be a single common student culture at Rutgers.”

In addition to the history of the University’s structural reorganization and protest movements, “Rutgers since 1945” also includes chapters that address student life from the perspective of a Rutgers student during particular years after 1945, Clemens said.

A few other people assisted Clemens with the writing of “Rutgers since 1945.” Among these contributions is the fifth chapter, “Residence Hall Architecture at Rutgers,” an essay by Carla Yanni, an assistant professor in the Department of Art History.

Gaining knowledge of the University’s past might provide current Rutgers students with more of a reason to appreciate where they are studying now, Clemens said.

“Public higher education is absolutely essential for the kind of world they’re going to be living in,” he said. “I think that understanding your university is a way of understanding a larger enterprise you’re engaged in and make you a better citizen in the long run.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article said that Rutgers was the 13th-oldest college in the United States.

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