Reflections on Clement Price

February 21, 2015

So much has been said and written about our dear friend Clement Price since his passing. His commitment to Newark and his impact on the city have been enormous. He had a unique ability to use history in ways that helped our university, our city, our state and our nation address injustices of the past. He refused to consign historical scholarship just to academicians. Indeed, he brought African-American history, the history of Newark and of many other historical fields to broad audiences and to people who otherwise had no contact with the world of historical scholarship. He was also an extraordinarily kind and uniquely warm human being, who had deep friendships with people of every social class, every racial, ethnic and religious group, every age and every level of education. And notwithstanding his extraordinary stature, he was always incredibly modest.

There is at least one other way he helped shape our society. He was truly a pioneer in building the modern urban university. Universities in cities have had a long and complicated relationship with their host communities. From the 1950s through the 1970s, many universities engaged in outreach and service activities for people who lived nearby. By the 1990s, a number of higher education leaders began to argue that universities should have a much broader relationship with their home cities which, by their very nature, provided unique resources for the universities’ core activities -- teaching, learning and research. I came to Rutgers University-Newark in 1998 convinced that the city of Newark and its surrounding metropolitan communities offered tremendous opportunities to greatly enrich student learning by engaging them with the extraordinary array of corporations, cultural institutions, media, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, public schools, and other entities that cluster around our institution. I also insisted that the city of Newark offered a rich array of opportunities for faculty and graduate student research. 

Many faculty initially expressed skepticism. Many believed that our location in Newark constituted a great disadvantage because the city had such a bad reputation, was perceived as unsafe and therefore would have trouble attracting students and top faculty. Clem, of course, enthusiastically and vigorously embraced my vision for our institution, and defended me against the skeptics. But much more important, Clem was already doing what I called for. His brilliant teaching, his scholarly writing and his leadership in developing public history as a field provided superb examples of the direction in which I sought to move us. And as new opportunities emerged, Clem further expanded his use of the city for teaching, learning and research. For example, with Clem’s help we launched a new PhD program in American Studies, with a focus on American cities, race, ethnicity and public humanities. Several students have completed excellent doctoral dissertation on Newark topics, and in many cases Clem was the dissertation supervisor. Clem also won support from the Dodge Foundation to bring newly minted PhDs to Newark as fellows in what is now named the Clement Price Institute. He attracted some of the very best young scholars from top doctoral programs, all of whom now pursue research and teaching that take advantage of the communities in which their universities are located.

Around the country, urban universities are becoming increasingly popular with prospective college students and with scholars seeking faculty positions. There is now wide support for community-based learning, sometimes called service-learning. The advocates of this movement express concern about declining civic involvement of Americans, and see this approach to higher education as a remedy. In other words, higher education leaders throughout the United States are now embracing the pioneering approach to teaching and learning that Clement Alexander Price pioneered more than four decades ago.