A Century of Reaching Higher

Keynote Address by the Honorable Cory A. Booker, Mayor of Newark for the centennial gala of Rutgers University in Newark, June 19, 2008

It has been an interesting three weeks. I was given this task some time ago but confess that I didn’t begin preparing but a few weeks ago.

I’m now at a point in my life where I imagine I’m getting older. There are people in my life, however, who still want to retain fierce allegiance to the settled roles they had when I was younger.

I have a mother in my life who, although I am now an adult, will not stop mothering me. And my high school football coach, for example -- I cannot talk to him without hearing him talk to me as if I were still on the football field and I am of that age where I now get injuries just watching football games.

And there is another man in my life, who is a dear friend, but who seems unable to escape his role in this university, in this city, and I believe in the larger American context. That is “Professor” -- I use that title purposely -- Professor Clement Price.

So I call the “Good Professor,” and he doesn’t give one doggone doodle that I’m mayor of the city. He talks to me like an older learned man would to a young student. I say to him, “Clem, I am giving this speech on Rutgers’ history. I’ve done deep surveys of Newark’s history. I still feel such a dedication and allegiance to one of the great historians of our city, Charles Cummings. (May God rest his soul.) I’m not sure how to approach this?”

And Clem says, “I can help you.”

And before I knew it I had a reading list longer than any class I had ever taken at Stanford.

Now the problem with that is that I am a history buff. I am no way a historian such as Clement, but unfortunately, everything he gave me I felt determined to read.

So the last three weeks of my life have been exhausting and very unproductive in my normal duties as mayor. So if anyone is worried about trash being picked up this week or parking tickets, etc., please give me some leniency, for I have been reading and researching. I’ve been sending staff members to run to the library to pull out primary research.

Clem just gave me a book the other night about the black student protest at Rutgers-Newark, which I read cover to cover. I have to say now, operating on about three hours of sleep, I hold great enmity in my heart for Professor Clement Price.

But now let me pull from Clement Price, who I feel should be giving this talk. I will try to hope that when I finish, I can get something approximating a C+ or B- from Professor Price.

In my immersion in the great history of this great university -- deeper than I have ever been before -- I really found three themes that overwhelmed me in my reading, inspired me, and very frankly, left me feeling humble, if not even very small in comparison to the giants that have come before us; especially as I looked at the great civic leaders from the past -- many of the mayors and other elected officials and what roles they played in this institution. I realize quite clearly that Rutgers was an institution with these three themes that to me are still alive and still resonate today.

The first of these three themes -- I began to see Rutgers and understand this university here in Newark in the larger context of America. At the university’s founding, one hundred years ago, this country was still in a deep struggle for its own soul, for itself. Just decades had passed since the institution of slavery was confronted and combated and still we were a nation fighting for our soul. We were a country that had savage inequalities not just between races, but also between genders as well as in the realm of socioeconomic status. It was in this context that I believe this university tried to live up to the higher callings of America.

I pull first from some of the writings of people that mean a lot to me, even in this day as I go about my work. First and foremost, one of my heroes from my college studies was Booker T. Washington. I first understood education in the context of my research as something that was denied to so many African-Americans. I read story after story about what African- Americans in this country did, frequently breaking laws to struggle with other white abolitionists or freedom fighters, to sit and try to learn how to read, how to add, and how to understand the inequities in which they lived. Booker T. Washington’s story in and of itself is a tribute to the pursuit of a deeper understanding of America, and he saw himself in this context of trying to help America live up to its dream.

Decades and decades later, Langston Hughes would write, “America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath -- America will be!”

And it seemed like so many Americans saw education as the route to defining this country, towards establishing this country and securing our ideals and principles.

In some of the writings of Thomas Jefferson to colleagues like James Madison, Jefferson asks, “And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government or information to the people. This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people … they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

In a letter to M.A. Jullien, Jefferson further states, “If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated, as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it.” This to me is the most powerfully important stream of America. It’s the empowerment of individuals, not simply for their own benefit and gain, but for the larger American ideal that collectively if we share the riches of knowledge we will advance this nation towards its greatest ideals. We will actually even make this great global experiment live up to our holiest hope.

This country was formed not in any obvious commonality -- not around a common religion, not around a common ethnicity, not with this idea of divine right and monarchies. Rather, this nation was found through common ideals and principles….Each generation working to instill these ideals in the hearts and the minds of us all through education. This tradition has been made real in this city through its institutions.

The theme that I find first is the larger theme of America. This next theme to me is the exciting one of the historical point in our evolution. At its worst, it’s a movement that in many ways can be criticized as being patriarchal about a tendency to “infantilize” the poor and disadvantaged in our country. At its best, this movement tried to bring, in a richer and more textured way, the highest ideals in America. To understand Rutgers-Newark, you have to understand that movement. At the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, it was called the Progressive Movement.

So many of the individuals at the founding of this great university, Rutgers University—Newark -- were steeped in the Progressive Movement. I came to be enraptured by many of these, but I have to say that in my trips to the library, I was looking more and more into the life of John Cotton Dana.

One of the original sources I found was a celebration in 1935 -- it’s at my home right now, a wonderful bound edition -- An Account of the Celebration of John Cotton Dana Day at the Newark Museum. In there are proclamations of Meyer Ellenstein, the mayor of Newark at that time. But I was struck by Dr. Frank Kingdon’s words, one of the great leaders of the University of Newark, “It is a good thing for a city to recall its great men and to draw inspiration from their memory.”

In these days, with a faltering economy and the administration of public schools and institutions, it is particularly necessary that we do not lose sight of the community ideals these institutions serve. Democracy above all must keep intact its agencies for the training of its citizens to share in public affairs. No man in Newark has felt this more deeply than John Cotton Dana. I feel Dana was truly, in many ways, a man ahead of his time.

Bruce Ford writes in A Champion of Individual Liberty, an essay about Dana, “John Cotton Dana College, even though it was not founded until shortly after his death, embodied his philosophy. Its founder, Richard Currier, endeavored to create a school that would not follow in the tradition of older institutions of higher learning but would meet the special needs of urban, working class students. Its admission requirements were flexible. It admitted students whose high school preparation had included more vocationally-oriented courses than other colleges allowed. Currier hoped, in fact, to add such courses to the curriculum. Political liberals dominated the college’s faculty, and intellectual freedom flourished.”

In Harold Wechsler’s Brewing Bachelors: The History of the University of Newark, he writes, “Currier shared early 20th century optimism about the future of higher education. ‘Education may not be the panacea of every social evil’ [Currier] wrote in 1901. But it is ‘a most potent factor in the progress of human development toward the ideal in the individual and the state.’”

Wechsler continues, “Casting the university as a servant of Newark’s poor, [Dr. Frank] Kingdon asked potential supporters whether democracy could survive as long as the American electorate averaged a sixth grade education. ‘In an age when the media of propaganda have attained unprecedented scope and power,’ he warned, ‘America presents fertile soil for the same kind of demagogue who has utilized these media with such successes abroad.’”

This was the power of the Progressive Era, looking around at the world and the local context. It was people feeling that America had fallen so far short of its ideals, of its hopes.

This university was founded on a different mission than even the other universities here in the state of New Jersey. It wasn’t a charter from England like others. This was a university that saw itself in the context of the world and the context of America and the context of a city. At the time of its founding, it was dealing with wave after wave of immigrants. It made sure that its very courses, its very admissions, and its very faculty were attenuated towards empowering these Americans to achieve our highest ideals. It wasn’t about just dealing with poverty or the struggling working class. It was about race and religion. In fact, the early discussions of merging with New Brunswick faltered over the fact that many in New Brunswick were concerned with having so many Jews come down to that campus.

Women’s rights as well were vindicated by Rutgers-Newark’s early champions. According to Frank Kingdon, “Every woman should be trained for a job. Every woman who knows enough to do it should take advantage of every possible opportunity to promote the independence of women. No young woman should be expected to stay at home or take care of her parents with any greater degree of expectancy than is extended to the young men of the family.”

This second theme of progressivism, touched with the idea of a larger sense of America, were the two themes that seemed to motivate me in my readings. But the second one is something Dr. Price and I talked about so explicitly. This idea that this university, with these noble ideas, with its contextual vision in American history and the larger challenge of America, also had something that was so special and unique. This is what fills me with pride, not only as a person but also in my professional role as mayor of this city.

I listened and read with my heart open about how people talked about this next theme. It was a deep abiding passionate love of the city of Newark. Every one of the founders I read seemed to understand that Rutgers was here with a mission to be a part of city life, to empower the city, indeed to exalt this city around the globe.

Currier writes, “Here is the great metropolitan area, Newark -- virgin territory so far as an urban college is concerned, and Dana College, unhampered by tradition, can do practicality anything under the sun.

“It is a staggering responsibility, but two things stand out: We cannot shirk it and we must succeed. And it is true, I am sure, that if we succeed[,] it will not be through the efforts of any one person. Success will only come through the development of a spirit of cooperation on the part of all those interested in collegiate education in Newark.”

Frank Kingdon, who was John Cotton Dana’s biographer and served as the first president of the University of Newark into which Dana College was merged, worked on the assumption, as Ford points out, that, “The influence of the urban university ought to extend beyond its students to the city at large. He, as president, encouraged universities’ involvement in civic affairs.” He writes, “No large community is complete without its university. But as a source of opportunities for the individual and the radiating center for the subtle but powerful interplay of the intellect upon civic activities, I envision Newark University with a strong faculty, a free and inspiring experience at its hearts.”

“There will be a liberal arts college in which our children may make their contacts with the main cultural trends of the centuries and so come into the fraternity of educated men. It is without borders of time and nation. Around this college will be grouped professional schools, buildings, and upon this general culture, professional skills informed by the understanding of larger issues of life. The lawyer, business man, medically-trained, social worker, religious leader, and the teacher will go forth from its portals bearing not only the stamp of a great university’s approval, but also the equipment of workers who need not be ashamed.”

“The name of Newark shall have a new luster in the minds of men and for those who bear its degrees, a new content of affection making them loyal to it, Newark, though they travel to the ends of the earth. Our students work in a kind of place where they will live out their adult lives, have the resources of the entire city with which to shape and enrich their learning.”

“Our campus is the city, crowded with experience. What a campus it is. There is no moment day or night when it is still, and in its restless life moves the forces making this civilization of tomorrow. But to be a university not separate from a city means that you must involve yourself in the complexities of that city; means that you cannot shirk from controversy; means that you cannot stand back and be a spectator; means that you must risk the scorn of civic leaders because your pursuit is higher than politics. Your pursuit is higher than the necessities of daily life. Your pursuit is truth and is justice for all the citizens in the city.” Frank Kingdon seemed to understand that, and he seemed to suffer as a result.

As Ford continues to write, “His (Kingdon’s) commitment to intellectual freedom was uncompromising. The political inclinations of many faculty members and students aroused criticism notably from a group lead by the Rev. Matthew J. Tooney of St. James Church who charged at the university of Newark was honeycombed with radicals of the most extreme type. Kingdon countered that it was exactly as radical as the constitution of the United States, which guarantees freedom of speech to all of its citizens. Kingdon’s stance incurred the wrath of Frank Hague, the political boss of Jersey City, whose encroachment upon free speech had been opposed by members of the university’s law school faculty. Pressure that Tooney and Hague brought to bear led to Kingdon's dismissal and directly to the subsequent resignation of Beatrice Wisner, who had succeeded Dana as a librarian at the Newark Public Library.”

We see in the history of this university time and time again in its hundred years, a courageousness among its leaders, its faculty, and its students to engage in Newark life, to engage in the complexities and even the conflict of the day and age. And when the university at times would veer from its focus and its mission, I glorify in the fact and rejoice in the fact that students stepped up to ensure the university got back on track, a track again pointed out by its founders.

As one author writes, “The civic unrest that surfaced in Newark during the late 1960s compelled the officers of the library, the museum, Rutgers-Newark, the successor to the University of Newark, to face questions about their role and relation to the city that Dana had considered much earlier. The conclusion that they reached quite often was in accord with Dana’s. Dana’s ideals continued to influence their decisions and remained a standard, against which they measured their performance.”

I was born in 1969 in the spring, and February 24 has been discussed already tonight. About 25 students carrying food, blankets, tools and chains entered Conklin Hall before the sun rose. It took them about 40 minutes to secure the building. Now these students, in the preceding days, were pushing on so many different fronts.

But notably, before we even look at the front within the university, the author of the good book that the professor had me reading over the last nights, talked about the fact that the black students in this city, in many ways before they could focus on the university itself, were involved in all levels in activism within this city. They were an integral part of what was happening in Newark at that time as our city tried to rise up and meet its destiny of being a city of more justice, of more light, of more hope.

On that February morning, they came with a list of demands. Fortunately they had preparation, they had skill, they had diplomacy, and through negotiation and through discussions, they were able to, after three days, on February 27, come to a first set of agreements.

I feel blessed in my life that I’ve met numerous people that were involved in these activities and see that their activism did not end with this very famous chapter in Newark’s history and of the history of this university. But their efforts and their sacrifices should not be minimized at a time when, all over this country, student protests were resulting in violence, and where student protests were resulting in expulsions, and where people’s careers were put in jeopardy.

Some of the people that entered Conklin Hall were literally saying afterwards that they had made peace with the fact that their efforts might lead to their own death. They are a reflection of the greatest courage within American history, people who are that willing to put their lives on the line for larger causes in which they believe. It was not simply their love of black people that compelled them. It was their love of the university, their love of Newark, and their love of justice. Their actions lead to the creation of numerous programs, the most significant of which was the Educational Opportunity Fund. But also it led to a rapid increase in the enrollment of African-Americans and Latinos, to African-American and Latino recruiters being hired by Rutgers, and African-American and Latino financial aid administrators, new courses added to the curriculum from African-American studies major to urban study classes, African language classes, and special programs for those who were teaching in urban schools.

We see in the history of this university a willingness not to be separate from community life. Students, faculty, and staff have pulled, pushed, led and followed this university to truly being a model of a civic university. Rutgers now, in my life, has simply been transformative in my administration. From economic development, to tutoring and mentoring, and to sciences and math and provision of health care, in so many ways this university touches Newark, lifts Newark, assists Newark. This university is Newark.

We have a century of history here, profound actions of a consistent belief, of an undetermined spirit to be a university that reflects our nation, and a university that reflects the proudest traditions of social activism. A university that is synonymous with the city in which it exists. We have so much to be proud of as I look in humble awe at the graduates of this institution and how they are transforming this state in which I grew up and live. From the legal profession to science and technology, to business and industry, to athleticism, Rutgers-Newark students are being felt, seen, celebrated all over New Jersey, and all over America and all over this world.

We now need Rutgers-Newark more than ever before. I look out on my country and I am not satisfied. We have so much work to do if the idea of America is to fully take root in this country, affording fruits and riches for all of its citizenry. We still live in a nation, and indeed a city, where high school graduates still cannot gain entrance into universities -- even this one -- where we still have to focus on ensuring that all of our children are learning at equal and high levels.

We’re making tremendous progress in Newark, but I believe our city is a perfect microcosm for our nation. You see the towering heights of human achievement, but you also see the work left to be done. We’re a city right now leading the country in the reduction of violent crime, but that is no solace because there is too much crime in this city. We need Rutgers-Newark now. Health care disparities, disparities in education, disparities in incarceration, they still exist all around us -- within our cities and maximum security institutions coast to coast.

What will we do in the next century? How will our courage be defined? How will our strength of character be measured? How will our vision for the future be determined? This is the challenge we have.

I see now that time is rewarding. That if generation after generation is committed to principles and ideals, not just in concept or in study, but in actual action and deed, then we can create transformations that are simply miraculous. This institution is truly a miracle.

There is a great theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr who writes about the challenges of individuality and the necessities we have in enduring institutions or connections to each other. If I may read from him, he says, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime. Therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history. Therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore, we are saved by love.” This university, in all of its glory, is to me one of the most astounding human testimonies to hope, faith and love.

Allow me to conclude by going back to that day in 1935 when they had a celebration of John Cotton Dana. The concluding feature of the occasion was the reading by an author of an original sonnet dedicated to Mr. Dana. The author was Mr. Gerald Rafferty of Elizabeth. His words speak to Dana as well as this university.

“He hurled no ultimatum at the state, nor led a revolution out to cry an empty creed against the empty sky. Nor ever did he play upon the hate of poor for rich, of ignorant for great. And since his slow revolt was fine and high, for him no banner dipped along the sky. No cannons roar, and no millions venerate. His deed was no sudden blaring thing. It was a life work, patient, unacclaimed. And now before the searching mind of youth, the serried Scot thinkers of the ages fling their gold. This man- made knowledge free, unchained. He loosed the slow, invading tide of truth.”

I am grateful again for this university, for its service to our flawed but evolving democracy, for its service to this city, for its service to the highest callings of humanity.

One hundred years. May Rutgers-Newark thrive for another century and more.

Thank you.