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Fix Rutgersfest instead of canceling it

The following message was sent out en masse via the Rutgers listserv today.

Members of the Rutgers Community:

With regret for the loss of a longstanding Rutgers tradition, and with admiration for the students who worked hard to plan and run the concert this year, I have decided that the university can no longer continue to hold Rutgersfest.

As you may know, the concert this past Friday, April 15, drew tens of thousands of people to the Busch campus in Piscataway. These included not only Rutgers students but also many individuals and groups not affiliated with Rutgers, who learned about Rutgersfest through various social media channels beyond the university’s control. A large crowd descended on New Brunswick’s 5th and 6th wards after the concert for a night of partying. Anticipating this, the University had worked with the City of New Brunswick in advance to plan for the possibility of disruptive behavior. Among other steps, we provided for several dozen additional New Brunswick and Rutgers police officers.

However, even this additional police presence did not contain the disorder that occurred Friday night and early Saturday morning. Many streets were congested with people and there were multiple reports of disruptive conduct. Near the College Avenue campus there were many rowdy student house parties, incidents of public intoxication, littering, and vandalism, and several altercations among students and other individuals. Most disturbing to report, four non-Rutgers people were shot in three incidents during the course of the evening. The fact that none of these shootings resulted in life-threatening injuries does not diminish their violence, and I am gravely concerned about the danger to our students and our neighbors.

I understand that the decision to end Rutgersfest will disappoint many, and I want to thank the students and administrators who organized the concert, working hard to promote responsible behavior and to make it a safe and enjoyable experience. But the safety of our university community, and that of our neighbors, is paramount, and we cannot risk further danger or the possible loss of life. The problems that occur following Rutgersfest have grown beyond our capacity to manage them, and the only responsible course of action is to cancel the event.

Richard L. McCormick
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Rutgers president Richard McCormick may have been understandably concerned about the school's image following Friday's annual Rutgersfest event. A large influx of individuals lacking any affiliation with Rutgers wrecked havoc in Piscataway and New Brunswick, culminating later that night in multiple disturbing off-campus incidents. Unfortunately, the school administration's response does not include any of the numerous steps suggested by members of the university community in an effort to curtail future mischief. In fact, there is no attempt to engage in constructive dialogue whatsoever, only rule by decree. Rather, as of today all future Rutgersfests are canceled, punishing the largely blameless students who behaved properly. They now suffer for the misdeeds of others.

If McCormick and/or any school administrator were looking to preserve the university's reputation as a result of this capitulation, they have failed in all facets. No one will ever associate Rutgers University with violence or disorder, but that was because there was no connection to begin with outside of this purely isolated incident. This myopic response will only cement the school administration's image as having limited empathy for the concerns of the broader community of students and alumni, and being completely unfamiliar with any concept of fairness or proportionality. If they think Rutgersfest 2011 hurt the school's image, one can only imagine the unprecedented damage certain to stem from canceling all future events.

For once Rutgers needs to stop giving knee-jerk responses to external pressure, and start being mindful of trying to produce the best possible outcomes. The Rutgers University Programming Association clearly has not given enough heed to the consequences of their bookings, and has a responsibility to plan events that are both of interest to and in the interests of the student body. No one needed a crystal ball to anticipate that booking Snooki would turn the university into a national punchline. The Rutgersfest lineup was clearly inadequate on multiple levels. Friday's fiasco offers plenty of blame to go around, but RUPA bears causal responsibility. Their actions will negatively impact all future students, and accordingly a housecleaning should be in order.

There is simply no need to destroy Rutgersfest proper. A more measured response would be to create sufficient safeguards for ensuring that the event goes off without a hitch. There does happen to be a football stadium on campus with over fifty thousand seats. They should hold a concert next year at the stadium, call it "Rutgersfest," and limit admission to current RU-NB students and a designated number of guests. This would not fully prevent non-students from descending on off campus parties afterwards, but they would have far less incentive to make the trek out without the pull of a free concert. RU can always reach out to the fraternities for further accommodations. The school administration may well be effectively planning to do something along these lines, but abandoning the "Rutgersfest" name would be an inappropriate stigmatization of three decades of history.

Any readers concerned about the cancellation should contact Pres. McCormick via this online form. Please remain cordial and polite at all times in spite of your feelings on this matter. Rutgers students behaved well on Friday, and any other members of the university community would do well to follow in their example in a manner representative of the high standards befitting New Jersey and a Rutgers education. Please also feel free to pass along any pro-Rutgersfest petitions or social media campaigns in the comments section below.