Keynote Address of Chancellor Steven Diner at Investiture of Dr. Edythe Abdullah as President of Essex County College

August 29, 2011

After President Abdullah’s outstanding address, one might wonder , what is left for the keynote speaker to say?  My academic discipline is United States history, and I have written on the history of higher education, cities, race and immigration. So let me try to place today’s celebration, and the vital  role played by Essex County College, in historical perspective.

In the eighteen century and much of the nineteenth century, only a very small number of Americans pursued any form of higher education. Almost all of those who did so, largely in private church-affiliated colleges, were old-stock white men from middle class or affluent backgrounds.  In the post-Civil War years, college attendance extended to middle and upper class women, and to rural young men who went to the new land-grant universities to study agriculture and related fields.  With the end of slavery, colleges for black students, mostly in the south, educated modest numbers of African-Americans. (although the first historically-black institution, Cheyney University, opened in 1837).

From the end of the Civil War until the mid-1920s, approximately tens of millions of  immigrants entered the United States, primarily from Europe, working largely in rapidly expanding jobs in industry and manufacturing. The industrialization of the United States brought about a dramatic growth of cities. In many of these cities, “streetcar universities” opened to enable immigrants, children of immigrants and other urban residents to acquire the education needed to enter professions like law (which at that time did not require a post-baccalaureate degree) and to pursue a wide range of white collar jobs.  My own institution, Rutgers-Newark, was one of these streetcar universities. It owes it origins to the founding of New Jersey Law School in 1908 and the Newark Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1909. These institutions merged with a few others into the University of Newark in 1936. In 1946, the University of Newark was taken over by the then private Rutgers University.  Schools like City College and Hunter College in New York and Temple University in Philadelphia, although founded earlier than the University of Newark, played the same role as streetcar universities.

Essex County College was established in 1966. A modest number of 2-year “junior colleges” had been established in the late nineteen and early twentieth century. But the massive growth of community colleges occurred in the 1960s and 1970s because  state governments and the nation recognized that some form of higher education was becoming crucial for economic mobility as America entered the post-industrial era.  Community colleges were open enrollment institutions for high school graduates. They served students who could not afford four-year institutions or who needed academic transition to gain admission to and to meet the academic demands of four-year colleges. They also served students seeking specialized vocational skill. Today, there are nineteen county colleges in New Jersey serving 400,000 students.

Just as the “streetcar universities” emerged at a time of massive European immigration to cities, the community colleges developed at a time when very large numbers of African-Americans migrated from rural areas and small towns in the south to northern industrial cities and when large numbers of people from Puerto Rico likewise were migrating to urban areas in the north. In 1965, Congress repealed the highly restrictive immigration law of 1924, the National Origins Quota Act, which had severely limited European immigration to the U.S.  As a result, immigration to American cities from across the globe accelerated. These immigrants and their children have also been served by the new community colleges as well as by older “streetcar universities” like Rutgers-Newark. From its inception, Essex County College has educated large numbers of African-American and Puerto Rican students, and increasingly it enrolls  also many immigrants and children of immigrants from across the globe.

Today, the mission of Essex County College is more vital than ever. The cost of four-year residential colleges has increased dramatically. Our economy needs many more college-educated workers, as President Obama has said, if we are to remain economically competitive in this global world.  Indeed, a college education today is as basic for many entry-level jobs as a high school diploma was in the early and middle of the twentieth century.

The institution I lead, Rutgers-Newark, has had a longstanding partnership with Essex County College. We have had extensive articulation agreements for many years, enabling students from ECC to move smoothly to Rutgers-Newark upon completion of the associate degree. Like ECC, we have a longstanding commitment to making opportunity available to students of poor and modest backgrounds, minorities, immigrants and children of immigrants. Indeed, half the students who earn baccalaureate degrees from Rutgers-Newark transfer from other institutions, and mostly from community colleges. And students from Essex County College represent a very large portion of these graduates. We share with ECC a deep commitment to engagement with and service to the Newark community. And we share the racial, ethnic and religious diversity of ECC. This is not only important in its own right, but it provides invaluable learning experiences which uniquely prepare students for our global economy. When a majority of the world’s nationalities and religions are present on campus and in the classroom, students gain a unique educational experience. Indeed, Rutgers-Newark students tell us continually that the campus diversity is one of the most important elements in their education.

Our shared mission of providing opportunity for students of modest means is vitally important in its own right. But it takes on even greater importance at a time when many colleges are moving away from this commitment.  A growing number of colleges shape their admissions practices with a view to increasing their rankings in U.S. News. Although research shows that the SAT is a poor predictor of college success, especially for minority and low-income students, more and more schools are obsessed with increasing the average SAT of entering students. Schools also work hard to increase applications so that they can then raise  their rejection rates. So our commitment to opportunity is more important now than ever before.

President Abdullah, you are leading an institution with a proud history and a mission absolutely crucial for the future of Newark, Essex County, New Jersey and America. You have an enormously challenging job. But we know that you are up to the task and committed to it. And everyone here is ready and eager to help you.