A Message from the Provost

February 24, 2004
 

Six years ago, when I came to Rutgers-Newark as Dean of Arts and Sciences, I heard over and over again that the Conklin Hall takeover of 1969 had redefined the Newark campus. I'm a historian, and we historians understand the importance of historical memory. We realize that the way people remember the past defines how they understand the present.

So the Conklin Hall takeover really looms in my mind as the watershed event that transformed this campus to what it is today. Those courageous young men and women couldn't possibly have imagined the chain of events that they would set into motion, or the transformation that they would bring about through their efforts to correct a profound injustice on this campus.

That is reason enough to be commemorating this event, but that's only part of the reason for today's commemoration. We also are commemorating nothing less then the American Civil Rights Movement, which produced one of the truly great achievements of the 20th Century. The Civil Rights movement eliminated a profound injustice, and it did so in a non-violent way.

We all know the great landmarks of the civil right movement: the Montgomery bus boycott, the march in Selma, Alabama, the freedom rides, the sit-ins and many others. But the civil rights movement was not limited to the South. It involved every community, every state, our whole society. The Conklin Hall takeover was an important part of the national civil rights movement, and we must understand it within that context.

In 1969, Rutgers-Newark was a nearly all-white institution in a majority African-American city. It was an institution isolated from the city; even its architecture was designed like a fortress to keep out the community. It was that isolated institution of the 1960s in which the Conklin Hall liberators enrolled, and it was that which they found so inhospitable.

I won't go through the details of the Conklin Hall sit-in itself; those who were there can best speak to that. But let me talk to you about what I see as the concrete achievements of that protest.

Some of these achievements were more or less immediate, while the Conklin Hall protestors were still undergraduates at Rutgers-Newark. Other changes occurred over several decades. .

Thanks to the Conklin Hall liberators, the campus began to recruit African-American students in a way that it had not done before. It began to recruit students from the City of Newark, and to aggressively recruit low-income students. It also found an effective way to provide academic support for able students who did not have the background to plunge fully into college work immediately upon arrival. Through the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program, students from low-income families could enroll and succeed at Rutgers.

The E.O.F. program was a small state program that predated the sit-in, but it is a program that Rutgers-Newark, in particular, embraced with great passion, and made a top priority. Certainly when I brag about this campus, I always start with the E.O.F. program, and what that program has meant to bright, capable students who might not have been admitted to Rutgers under traditional guidelines. The E.O.F. is the greatest expression of what came out of the Conklin Hall sit-in.

The Conklin Hall takeover did more than impact our student recruitment efforts. It also led Rutgers-Newark to appoint more African-American faculty. The year after the Conklin Hall takeover, Clement Price was appointed to our faculty, and everyone in this room knows that this institution would be an entirely different place, and a much poorer institution, without Clement Price.

The takeover also energized a new generation, not only of students, but also of faculty and administrative leaders at Rutgers-Newark, committed to equity and to the urban mission of the campus, leaders such as Norman Samuels, Clement Price, James Ramsey, and many others.

Thanks to the Conklin Hall protest, Rutgers-Newark developed its current identity as an urban university committed to the city. Today we are an interactive institution with extensive outreach to the community. Our pre-college programs bring hundreds of Newark students to the campus to study science, learn critical thinking, and study mathematics. Rutgers-Newark students tutor in schools throughout the city. Our Law Clinic provides direct legal support to low-income people in the local community. The Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies conducts important policy research on issues that really matter to the City of Newark. Our Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, founded by Clement Price, sponsors numerous educational activities for the community. One of these, the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture, has been a great event in African-American History Month for 24 years. Every February it brings the finest scholars to campus to speak to audiences of six to seven hundred people, packing in the Robeson Center with both scholars and community residents.

There are so many examples of current campus activities that grew from the Conklin Hall sit-in. Let me list just a few:

  • Clem Price and several of his colleagues worked with the state to educate 2,700 State Troopers on issues of race and culture.
  • Our minority biomedical science program, one of the longest continuous programs in the country, has for many years enabled minority students to enter the biomedical professions.
  • Our campus emphasizes experiential learning, using the city as a great resource for teaching.
  • Our Police Institute provides professional development for law enforcement officers across the state, and
  • We are a major center for the study of race and ethnicity, and historical memory.

These are not marginal activities, or add-ons to the curriculum. These are the heart and soul and core of what we try to do, and the way we try to gain distinction at the University in Newark.

And we take particular pride in the fact that U.S. News & World Report, which has been ranking schools by diversity for seven years, has for each of those seven years ranked our campus as # 1 in diversity among national universities.

But just as the legacy of the civil rights movement can't be limited to specific pieces of legislation, the Conklin Hall sit-in left a legacy that goes beyond even these concrete achievements. Conklin Hall taught us how a university can achieve greatness by engaging with the city. This engagement is not a charitable add-on to the core activities of the university, but an integral part of teaching and research, and the way that a great university defines itself.

The Conklin Hall takeover also taught us that the study of race, ethnicity, and cultural difference, as well as the experiences of diversity on the campus, are essential to being liberally educated in our society today. When we recruit students, we say, "If you want to be prepared for 21st Century America as it is today, come to Rutgers-Newark, where you will mix with students of every background and come to understand what diversity really means in our culture today." That's the best of the liberal arts tradition, not a marginal element.

So is this job done? I think not. I believe this campus must do much, much better in recruiting both minority faculty and minority members in the senior administration.

We also must recruit more students from the City of Newark. As diverse as we are, the number of students coming from the Newark schools is not what it ought to be. We already have begun a variety of activities to identify future Rutgers students in Newark. Despite all we have done, many Newark students still perceive Rutgers-Newark as a distant institution where they would not fit in, and we are going to do everything we can to correct that misconception.

Our E.O.F. experience has proved that the supposed predictors of academic success -- especially the S.A.T. -- are badly flawed, and that there are better ways to predict success. Students who have not had advantages, such as S.A.T. prep courses, can and do rise to the very top. We must take what we have learned about predicting academic success from the E.O.F. experience, and apply it to our overall approach to undergraduate admission. We need to come up with more sophisticated ways of understanding the predictors of success and develop measures that are not as biased as the measures that are commonly used today.

The job is not done, and we need to continue to build on the legacy left us by the courageous students who took over Conklin Hall.
 

Steven J. Diner, Provost