The way forward: remaking Rutgers in 2013 and beyond

Andrew Burton

2012 was a momentous year for Rutgers. Now is not the time to rest on our laurels.

Warning: not really an athletics post, and also super, ultra, mega long.

2012 will easily go down as the best year for Rutgers University in some time. Let's recount the accomplishments:

  • New Jersey approved a merger between Rutgers and UMDNJ, which should vastly increase the combined institution's eligibility for life sciences research funding, as well as provide for greater collaboration between the medical school and sciences programs.
  • New Jersey voters approved a long-delayed higher education bond in overwhelming numbers. While the bond proposal was an extremely flawed piece of legislation, it still will provide a critical piece of capital funding towards new and essential projects.
  • The dramatic revitalization of New Brunswick continued with two landmark projects opening up within walking distance of the New Brunswick train station: the Gateway Center mixed-use (commercial and luxury residential condos) project, which provides a signature landmark building for the New Brunswick, and the Wellness Center (combination upscale grocery store and fitness center.) The former now anchors the New Brunswick skyline, while the latter makes the city a truly livable for young professionals in a way that it previously had not been. The pace of gentrification and redevelopment downtown is likely to accelerate and quickly now that these two lynch pins are in place.
  • Lastly, Rutgers athletics received a lifeline to join the Big Ten conference. Joining will provide significant financial benefits that will allow the university to lessen if not eliminate its general fund support of university athletics, which had increased over the past decade in a push for greater relevance. Membership in the Big Ten guarantees that the Knights conceivably have access to major bowl games in football, and at minimum will consistently visit half-decent ones. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation research consortium also provides increased opportunities for academic collaboration with top public research peer institutions in the midwest, as well as greater access to federal research funding.

This is primarily a web site that covers Rutgers athletics, but the preceding bullet points were ranked in their importance to the future health and well-being of the university and university community. The Big Ten is fantastic, a remarkable achievement, but athletics is ultimately a rounding error in the budget. More money is better than less, but when you're talking about the medical school merger, that is a move that is ultimately going to mean billions of dollars, making perspective important.

Even the construction boom in New Brunswick is far more critical. The best current projections have New Jersey and its residents increasingly abandoning their traditional suburban model in coming decades in favor of the transit-oriented development paradigm best exemplified by Hoboken and Jersey City. New Brunswick does not match their proximity to New York City, but it sports other geographic advantages as the regional transportation hub for rail and most major roadways, and being so close to research innovation centers in Rutgers and Princeton. Life sciences, high technology, and the burgeoning information sector are going to increasingly abandon office parks for these transit hubs, leaving New Brunswick well-positioned to reap the benefits after the Hudson County behemoths take their fill.

That being said, in a year of such tremendous accomplishment, the biggest possibly mistake would be to declare victory and count our spoils. No, far more is needed, with these successes only whetting an appetite for further gains. The time for timidity has passed. There's finally momentum, and Rutgers has to take the opportunity to make the most of it. The time has come to drag Rutgers kicking and screaming into the twenty first century. Instead of accepting underachieving and settling for compromises, we have to demand higher standards in all facets. From one perspective, here is an accounting of what still needs to be done.

Step 1: Increase student selectivity. Take a look at these enrollment statistics. The total number of full-time, combined undergraduate and graduate students on the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus has increased by over 6,000 in the past decade. Even taking into account the corresponding drop in part-time students, that is an enormous increase. I have argued in the past that this increase was caused by a massive drop in state support for higher education (see below), which in turn has placed an enormous strain on campus infrastructure and resources. The state cuts were made up with tuition bumps and rapidly increasing headcounts. There are already plans in the work to cap enrollment, but these need to be accelerated and made more ambitious. If the New Brunswick campus could merely roll back its enrollment to 2002 numbers without a corresponding drop in funding, that would greatly help with this problem.

Rutgers should already see a bump in academic prestige in the coming years from the UMDNJ merger and joining the Big Ten (on multiple fronts for both.) Massively increasing student selectivity and improving the graduation rate, while at the same decreasing class sizes will have a gigantic, quantifiable effect in metrics like U.S. News rankings. Yes, they're complete rubbish, but unfortunately people listen to them, which turns them into a self-fulfilling prophecy over time. Another help on this front would be Rutgers putting more efforts into general student recruiting (again, see below), which a great many schools do simply to the effect over lowering their acceptance rates, and in turn increasing their perceived prestige.

Step 2: Increase out of state admissions. This will have a strong effect on step 1. as well. New Jersey is one of the best (if not the best) states in terms of producing elite high school scholars, but the in-state perception of Rutgers is disproportionately low compared to its academic strength. Increasing scarcity will have a strong effect on prestige, akin to how admission to Rutgers College was strongly prized before the 2007 university merger. More importantly, getting the state to relax the existing out-of-state enrollment cap would allow Rutgers to charge these out of state students far more in tuition. Not only would Rutgers be significantly lowering enrollment, but in-state spots would be decreasing further with the relaxing of the cap.

As of 2009, reportedly only 10% of Rutgers students came from out of state (officially reported figures from that OIRAP report linked above are much lower), amidst plans to increase that figure to 25% over time, comparable to top public universities across the country. If we want to aspire to that level, we have to adopt their funding strategies. If New Jersey legislators remain unwilling to adequately fund higher education in the state, this solution remains a likely compromise given the specter of complete university privatization. (As are increased research collaborations with the private sector.) The question then becomes how to sell this to the legislature and the public, who in the face of increasing private school tuition, believe that their tax dollars entitle their children to a subsidized education. If you're wondering, non-New Jersey residents pay approximately twice as much in tuition.

Step 3: Build up Newark and Camden. This seems unintuitive given the strong and deserved emphasis on the flagship campus, but could have the effect of solving the revenue problem AND the need for increased in-state enrollment overall. There's an increasing demand for subsidized tuition, and those students who are now no longer able to attend New Brunswick need to attend somewhere. At the same time, state political bosses like George Norcross have been (as evidenced by the drama surrounding this summer's UMDNJ merger), have been eying higher education as an economic panacea and cash cow for their local communities. That's... debatable (even with the possibility of heavy state subsidies, the prospect of transforming Rowan from a teachers' college into a research university will be a significant undertaking), but hey, if they're up for it, we might be able to leverage their greed to our advantage and get the political cover for these moves. Rutgers already is investing in Camden to some extent.

Note1: for those who want to consolidate the two law schools in New Brunswick - while that is a fantastic idea, there is less than zero political capital for that to ever happen. It is simply a non-starter. The best we can hope for is that the rumored merger between the schools (their existing campuses would stay in place) has an effect on the horrifically low admissions standards.

Note2: This also leaves aside the prospect for a merger with NJIT in Newark, which would offer both positives and negatives on various fronts. It's certainly an idea worth considering, but absolutely nothing should happen without the interest, consent, and cooperation of both parties.

Step 4. Get more support from the state legislature. New Jersey politics, unfortunately, represent a plethora of regional fiefdoms that have little concern for the state's overall welfare. Essex and Camden counties remain resentful of New Brunswick being the undisputed flagship campus of the Rutgers system, and that will not and cannot possibly change. However, these two big voting blocs in the state legislature could be convinced that they actually have some skin in the game, then suddenly you can start putting together a coalition that would support higher education. You have those blocs, the Middlesex and Somerset delegations, other Democrats who would ordinarily be behind this sort of funding, and depend on Christie to round up the Republicans who aren't too averse to spending. That should be more than enough to overcome any conservative opposition, and any remaining provincial delegations who treat the budget solely as a zero sum game.

Speaking of which, we DO need more from the Middlesex and Somerset delegations, who have not been as forceful as they need to be on these issues in the past, and are already prone to infighting and disunity. Compare that to, say, Mercer County, which is dwarfed by Middlesex in population. However, they were able to block New Brunswick from getting an arena to protect the Sun Center, and fought hard for resources that helped turn obscure Trenton State College into prestigious TCNJ. We need legislators who fight for Rutgers not just in the school's backyard but on a statewide level, not clowns like Ron Rice and Stephen Sweeney who disparage the university at every opportunity. The Rutgers community needs to be flexing its political muscles at the level of the equivalent of a special interest colossus like the NJEA or the state Chamber of Commerce, capable of rent-seeking and public sector lobbying with the best of them. With the UMDNJ merger consolidating power and resources in New Brunswick as one of the state's largest public sector employers, that could well be in the midst of happening.

Another critical factor will be getting the higher ed unions on board, who have up until now been content to blame Rutgers for cuts in state funding in lieu of actually doing dirty work in Trenton. That of course will require some level of success at the funding and fundraising levels. In turn, Rutgers will need President Barchi to stand up as an effective voice in the statehouse. Francis Lawrence was an outsider with a very poor understanding of the state, university, and their respective cultures, while Richard McCormick (who on the whole isn't given nearly enough credit) quickly destroyed his credibility with a series of embarrassing public gaffes.

Step 5. Revitalizing the campus and broader New Brunswick. Upgrading Livingston was just the start. The long-neglected College Avenue campus certainly has its charm when it comes to Old Queens and Vorhees Mall, but the rest of the campus needs an external facelift (the greening isn't happening, but some more gardening and fresh coats of paint would be nice), the classroom infrastructure is currently far from adequate, and right now the campus makes an extraordinarily bad use of its available land. That is set to change, with the first efforts being redeveloping the seminary site (smack dab in the middle of campus, and currently a total eyesore) and the grease truck lots (boo hoo, they'll still exist, and a one-level lot is possibly the worst imaginable use for that prime real estate near the train station.) Everyone affiliated with Rutgers pretty much can nominate their own pet project for demolition (nearly all of old Livingston, Hickman and the parking deck on Cook, a better CAC student center and dining hall, the River Dorms, Records Hall and most of north CAC outside of the Library and SCILS, etc...) There's a lot of work to do, and it's time to get the ball rolling. Those tax credits better be approved...

At the same time, now that DEVCO has defied the endless skeptics, and taken care of the hard steps with the Heldrich/Rockoff on George, and Gateway/Wellness by Easton, they should have a far easier time attracting private capital moving forward. (An improving economy helps too.) That's good, because there is at minimum one gigantic project left for downtown New Brunswick: the Ferren Mall site, an ugly, 1970's style monstrosity with parking that remains a blemish on an otherwise fledging commercial district. Gateway and Wellness added replacement parking, and now the plan is to tear Ferren down for something better. This will be the most important project in the history of DEVCO, underscoring the absolute importance of doing this one right.

Hit a home run here, and the possibilities are endless. You could bulldoze the old C-Town and work towards fixing the ugly stretch of George from Morris to Commercial. Even denser development on George, 27, and Easton is a given. Heck, it wouldn't be the craziest idea in the world to try to revitalize Livingston Avenue. A strong New Brunswick means a strong Rutgers, and vice versa, and all of these changes and proposals will have the cumulative effect of further enhancing the school's draw. What once was Rutgers's greatest detriment is slowly but surely transforming into a powerful asset. It won't be a traditional college town, but it will be somewhere that teenage students, top graduate talent, and middle-aged professors want to live and stick around. For the longest time, you could not say that with sincerity.

None of this will be easy. Rutgers has went through a period of enormous change over the past decade, a process which has at times been overwhelming, and put a continual strain on all parties involved. And yet, all of this hard work has put the university on the precipice of reclaiming its status as an elite public research institution that has slowly faded over the past two decades of neglect and disrepair. Merging the colleges and regaining a med school were like pulling teeth, and the impulse of wanting to lay low for a while from future undertakings is certainly understandable, but fundamentally misguided. Those two took forever and were so difficult because they were the biggest, highest priority steps, serving as fundamental building blocks for everything else yet to come.

They were gigantic accomplishments in and of themselves, but will ultimately be for naught if they are not in turn utilized as catalysts for everything still to come. That would be an enormous debacle, and one that everyone in the Rutgers community must not and can not allow to happen. We have come far, far too long a way to be deterred now. I do not think that they will, and can only hope the joy of all of this hard work finally coming to fruition in this calendar year will serve as inspiration for the challenges and travails yet to come.

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