Rutgers Must Embrace Its Identity, Stakeholders

Rutgers

“Who do you talk to down there? It’s everyone out for themselves.” – Senator Dick Codey. Last week’s brouhaha at Rutgers was about much more then hiring a football coach. This fracas was not just about rehiring Greg Schiano to once again resurrect a failing Rutgers athletic program. The real issue was whether or not university leadership was willing to embrace Rutgers identity as a large public land grant university and make the requisite investments to support our membership in the Big 10 (BIG) while fully engaging with university stakeholders.

Successful athletics and strong academics are not mutually exclusive. We just need to look at our brethren in the BIG conference, in particular The University of Michigan and The University of Wisconsin. Or we can look south, where many from New Jersey vacation or send their kids to college, at the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina. Let’s look westward where Rutgers has a large successful alumni base towards UCLA and the University of California at Berkeley or to the University of Washington where a former Rutgers president led the school. These are all top-ranked, large public universities who are leaders in innovation and research. They also happen to boast successful athletic programs and see no distinction between academic excellence and success in athletics. Like these universities, Rutgers is public and large. There are 70,876 students enrolled at Rutgers across all three campuses, with 50,254 students at New Brunswick, the university’s flagship Big Ten campus, alone. Of these students, 36,039 are undergraduates. This puts Rutgers New Brunswick undergraduate student enrollment right in line with the University of Michigan (30,318), the University of Wisconsin, (31,185), Michigan State (39,423), and Penn State (40,363).

A complex identity

While Rutgers is large and public, it has a very complex identity. Founded in 1766, it is one of only nine colleges to be founded with a Royal Charter before The American Revolution. In 1864, Rutgers became a land grant university with the founding of the NJ Agricultural Experiment Station (later Cook College). Land grant colleges were founded in the waning days of the American Civil War to advance industry, manufacturing, and agriculture in their respective states. Today those land grant responsibilities are filled through the Rutgers cooperative extension program which has a presence in all New Jersey’s 21 counties. In a series of contracts with the state between 1946 and 1956, Rutgers became New Jersey’s state university and incorporated The University of Newark (Rutgers-Newark) and the College and Law School of South Jersey (Rutgers-Camden) into the university.

For a long-time Douglas College played a role as the largest women’s college in the United States and in 1969, Livingston College was founded both as a response to the urban challenges of the late 1960s and to develop and advance the social sciences at Rutgers. In 2007 then President McCormick merged all the separate undergraduate colleges to create a unified undergraduate experience at the New Brunswick campus. In 2013 Rutgers absorbed most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and created the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences division.

All these different identities mix with one another and often come into conflict with one another. One of the unresolved challenges at Rutgers is a unified vision and strategy for Rutgers role as a very large public land grant university. Athletics and the University’s membership in the Big Ten and its associated academic consortium, The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) can play a significant role in the unification of a vision and strategy for Rutgers in the 21st century. That is what the outcry about the initial decision to not rehire Greg Schiano as the new football coach was all about.

Schiano brings more to Rutgers then just the ability to run a football team. During his 11 years on the banks, he created the Block R logo which is the primary brand identification at Rutgers, and played a significant role in helping to create common identity systems and branding across the university. Schiano and his players were active in the community and built on Bob Reasso’s legacy of getting kids connected to Rutgers sports at all ages. Schiano has the message discipline, and the operational and leadership skills that are sorely lacking at Rutgers. This resulted in his teams leading the nation in academic performance and a significant upgrade to athletic facilities during his time on the banks. His 5-1 bowl record and 56-33 overall record in his final seven seasons with Rutgers is the best performance at Rutgers since the late 1970s. The drastic turnaround put Rutgers Football on the map and is one of the key factors contributing to Rutgers Big Ten invitation in 2012.

However, Rutgers has never fully embraced its identity as a large public university. Three of the last four Rutgers presidents have come from small private colleges and universities. Places like Bennington College, Tulane, and Thomas Jefferson University. The one leader at Rutgers with significant Big Ten experience as a faculty member and university executive, Deba Dutta, held the post for only one year before publicly resigning. He had previously built a career at three different Big Ten Universities, as Provost and Executive Vice President at Purdue University, and on the faculty and in leadership positions at Michigan and Illinois. This lack of experience with, and understanding of, what it means to be a Big Ten university has been in full public view over the last week as the initial search for a new football coach failed in dramatic fashion.

A failure to engage stakeholders

This initial failure of the coaching search is a typical result of Rutgers leadership’s failure to engage with and listen seriously to university stakeholders. Whether it’s a search for a new football coach, union negotiations, discussions with faculty and staff about new administrative processes and IT systems, or course scheduling decisions, the university consistently fails to take seriously the input of students, faculty, front-line staff, alumni, elected officials, and New Jersey leaders in business and nonprofits again and again. And again and again the university finds itself in a firestorm created through arrogance and a my way or the highway attitude. State Senator Codey put it best last week, “who do you talk to down there? Everyone’s out for themselves.”  This latest saga ended only when key Rutgers stakeholders finally revolted. Big and small donors alike began to pull donations, season ticket holders stopped renewing their tickets, a strong subset of Rutgers 400,000+ living alumni began continual contact with Rutgers leadership, Governor Murphy, and state legislators to voice their shock and amazement at yet another failure of Rutgers leadership resulting in yet another national embarrassment.

The current search for a new Rutgers president highlights this issue in detail and is cause for concern. There are no external members on the search committee.  No executives from important New Jersey businesses or nonprofits, no leaders from any of the 17 Rutgers unions, no distinguished public servants such as former Senator Bill Bradley or former Governor Tom Kean, no external member from a Big Ten university or state, despite this being our first presidential search since Rutgers joined the Big Ten. In short no way to short circuit group think and provide broader perspective on the role, image, and needs of Rutgers going into the 3rd decade of the 21st century.

This stakeholder revolt at Rutgers was about way more than just hiring a football coach. Once again, Head Coach Greg Schiano, someone who was born and raised in New Jersey and who has a diverse range of national experience at top-flight institutions, has pointed out the holes in the university’s infrastructure, systems, and image. He has presented a plan to fix these issues. Let’s hope we’re all wise enough this time to put our egos and pet interests aside and work to help Rutgers take its rightful place as an elite public university with outstanding athletics, outstanding academics, and a first-rate reputation for excellence, achievement, and leadership in all its endeavors.

Jack Harris has a PhD in Communication and a B.A. in History from Rutgers, where he was both a Governor’s Executive Fellow and undergraduate associate at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. Harris is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a Post-Doc Faculty Affiliate at Northwestern University’s (A Big Ten School) Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact.

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