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Changing roles for a storied campus
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Changing roles for a storied campus

Rutgers officials and Jewish leaders recall a history of diversity

John Farmer, left, dean of Rutgers School of Law, and Steven Diner, chancellor of Rutgers Newark, explain their university’s heritage and diversity programs.
John Farmer, left, dean of Rutgers School of Law, and Steven Diner, chancellor of Rutgers Newark, explain their university’s heritage and diversity programs.

College officials and local Jewish leaders recalled the historic mission of Rutgers University’s Newark campus and its ongoing role in educating immigrant and minority communities.

Meeting with representatives of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ on Dec. 16, administrators described the campus as a national model for ethnic tolerance and diversity, one steeped in Jewish history.

“Rutgers Law School was a school of immigrants, in the early days, mostly Jewish, but of all nationalities,” said John Farmer, dean of Rutgers School of Law. “It gave people opportunities they would never have had otherwise. It is still that. The particular ethnic composition changes over time, but the mission remains the same.”

Farmer and Steven J. Diner, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark since July 2002, met with members of the CRC’s Newark Advisory Council in the law school’s conference room. Although neither saw a specific issue demanding the attention of Essex County’s largely suburban Jewish community, both sides said they appreciated the opportunity to discuss the state’s current and historic role.

“We brag that you can get the kind of education here you can’t get in most institutions because of the nature of the student body,” said Diner.

The campus began as a “streetcar university” — a merger of two law schools, a business school, and an undergraduate college that became the University of Newark.

In 1946, it merged again, this time with Rutgers, which was then a private institution. In the years after World War II, Rutgers Newark “was a heavily Jewish campus,” said Diner.

Records of board meetings from that era reveal a cynical ulterior motive for the merger: “They wanted to keep the Jews out” of Rutgers’ main campus in New Brunswick, he said. “It is in the minutes and they weren’t even embarrassed by it, but hopefully we’ve come a ways since then.”

Today, the campus’ mission remains “providing a great education at relatively low cost,” said the chancellor.

The school’s rapidly growing enrollment now stands at 11,500 students, and Diner expects it to reach 12,000 within a year.

In earlier years, he said, “white suburban parents — if not their kids — had fears” about commuting to Newark. “But we think we’ve overcome that,” said the chancellor.

Unrest and rebirth

Farmer and Diner recalled the troubled legacy of the 1960s, including the civil unrest in 1967 that left 26 people dead and hundreds injured in the nearby Central Ward. Two years later, some of the few African-American students then attending the school occupied a building and won sweeping changes in minority admission and faculty hiring programs.

“That was the turning point,” said Diner. “After that, it forced Rutgers overall and this campus in particular to really confront the issue of race.”

Turning to his right, the chancellor gestured across the conference table to Norman Samuels, the university’s former provost and currently a professor of political science.

“The word is, their adviser was a young assistant professor of political science named Samuels,” Diner said. Samuels, a member of the advisory council and past president of the NJ Jewish News, smiled.

Diner boasted that for the past 13 years, U.S. News and World Report has ranked his campus as number one in racial diversity.

Former CRC chair Merle Kalishman of Livingston asked whether “there have been issues on this campus that would concern us in the Jewish community.” Diner responded, “I can’t really think of anything,” then turned to Samuels.

“We’ve been remarkably free” of the kind of anti-Israel or anti-Semitic incidents seen at other schools around the nation, said Samuels. “There is a level of tolerance here because there has not been any predominant group. We have had speakers here who have run the gamut of the worst kind of radical thought, and we simply don’t make a fuss about it. When a student group invites them, we let them speak. We simply say, ‘Do what you want.’”

Diner and Samuels “showed us the contributions they and their university are making in Newark,” said CRC associate director Melanie Roth Gorelick. “It was great to see their enthusiasm and the pride they have in their school’s tolerance and diversity.”

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