Drive-Through College and Its Urban Mission

Rutgers Newark is celebrating its centennial this year, with its proud mission of serving an underprivileged urban population. It began in October 1908, when Richard Currier started New Jersey Law School in the Prudential Insurance building. He believed that education is “a most potent factor in the progress of human development towards the ideal in the individual and the state.” Then, in those University of Newark years, buses and trolleys carried mostly working class and new immigrant students to their classes. Among the commuting professors, the world renowned Frankfurt philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote his famous jazz essays, not without the Newark influence. In 1947, Rutgers University absorbed the struggling University of Newark to extend its influence, as well as to keep Eastern European Jewish and minority students out of the its New Brunswick campus. Since the rapid suburbanization in the 1950’s, the school population has further changed to create the most racially diverse, but the most commuting, student body in the country.
To turn the shallow commuter experience into an intellectually and socially more stimulating education, Chancellor Steve Diner, since the beginning of his tenure in 2002, has declared the university’s transformative effort for an urban residential college. However, a cultural revolution, that is, demands some deeply rooted structural changes. Despite a new 650-bed dormitory building, the “drive-through” college is still mostly quiet for at least three days a week, far from a 24-7 culture. Obviously, students’ financial constraint is not solely to be blamed for the commuter culture. Most college students have to pay for their own room and board some where anyway, in addition to expensive automobile commuting costs. A simple survey of where the university’s leaders live might provide some insight. Among a total of 36 top administrators, with titles of chancellor, vice chancellors, deans, and associate and assistant deans (from Nursing, Criminal Justice, Law, Public Administration, Graduate School), only one new vice chancellor might have a permanent Newark address. The rest are busy driving in and out of Newark, in some cases, for over 80 miles one-way. Campus parking has been a headache to almost all universities. However, Rutgers Newark might be among a very few in the nation where the planning priority of creating parking has been through destroying its own historic neighborhood. Students readily accept the inferior drive-through experience created by the very university leaders and professors who have paid only lip-service to a residential college and urban revitalization.

Interestingly, in his own dissertation three decades ago, Dr. Diner studied an urban residential college with its cosmopolitan faculty devoted to the home city’s progressive future. University of Chicago, Dr, Diner’s alma mater, has a proud tradition of an urban residential community. President William Harper and President Robert Hutchins dedicated many years of their lives living on the sometimes not-so-peaceful campus and fighting for the university and its place in the city and the world. Its professors are known for their loyalty toward their intellectual home, their students, and their city. I remembered the occasion of admiring Professor Edward Shils’ huge home library near the campus. The old scholar cut a distinctive figure on the streets of Hyde Park with his walking stick, his suit jacket, and hat. I am sure that Dr. Diner’s own experience in Chicago must have influenced his determination for a residential culture in Newark.

Under the leadership of Judith Rodin, within ten years, the University of Pennsylvania changed its campus, as well as the surrounding crime-ridden urban environment. Dr. Rodin not only lived on campus as the president, but also grew up in the neighborhood with her life-long affection toward the area. Buildings were developed, or renovated, to turn outward to the streets and the city, leading to collaboration with the community revitalization in University City and West Philadelphia. The university even established the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School and other partnership schools for children of local residents and university staff. Rodin convinced the university community that a viable residential college cannot survive without a residential faculty in a viable neighborhood and its city.

One might point out that the two elite universities have a different student population and a far superior financial strength, which a poor urban college lacks. Rutgers Newark’s own history, however, argues differently. From 1963 to 1974, Malcolm Talbott, Rutgers’ Vice President in charge of the Newark Campus, was in the forefront of the city’s revitalization and the modern campus’ creation. During his long distinguished service to the university, he always lived in Newark. Many active participants of the black student protest movement in 1969 vividly remember their insightful discussions in Mr. Talbott’s home on Mt. Prospect Avenue. Some of them, such as Vicki Donaldson, the spokesperson for the Black Organization of Students, maintained their friendship with Talbot to the last moment of his life, long after his ouster by New Brunswick for his out-spoken promotion of Newark’s interests. Many of Talbott’s colleagues lived around the campus, forming an intellectual home for many underprivileged students.

When becoming the President of NJIT in 2002, Dr. Robert Altenkirch was told to live away from the battled city. Soon, he realized that “the easy thing to do would have been to sit back in Maplewood,” knowing nothing about the lay of the land, focusing only on the campus, and ignoring the neighborhood. He said, “I have never pursued the easy over the right.” He happily moved to Newark and took responsibility as the chair of the Downtown Core Development, which includes the Prudential Arena. Following UPenn’s model, but with very limited recourses, NJIT developed a creative vision for the community around the campus and a seamless transition between “town and gown.” Starting his day on campus at 6:30 every morning, often including Saturdays, Dr. Altenkirch knows not only all university staff, but also many students by their first names and their future career pursuits. The sole purpose of the NJIT Gateway Project is to enhance the students’ residential life through creating viable mixed-use streets for the community and the city. Along the tradition of John Cotton Dana and Malcolm Talbott, Dr. Altenkirch has argued forcefully that only a hometown university, not a satellite drive-through campus, can be the engine and pillar of our city. As simple as that!

Author: Ken Walker

Husband, Father, Newarker, PCA Elder, Business Analyst. In a glass case of emotion since 1978.

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