At our first commencement in 1774, Jacob Hardenbergh, the Dutch minister who became our first president, declared that “men of learning are of absolute necessity and extensive advantages to society.” At the 250th Anniversary Commencement in May, President Barack Obama spoke of the long line of Rutgers graduates “whose energy and intellect have lifted this university to heights its founders could not have imagined.” And somewhere in between, as was found in our university archives, a proud grad sent his children a postcard of the Old Queens campus with a simple handwritten note that read: “Here’s where your Dad’s massive brain was developed long years ago.”

As I look back at Rutgers’ history—unique in many respects and yet reflecting the progress of American education and society—it has been impossible to ignore how much we have changed in these 250 years. 

  • A college that held its first classes in a former tavern in New Brunswick is now a comprehensive public research university with a statewide footprint and a national presence.
  • What for much of our history remained a small, men’s-only college has become one of the most richly diverse major universities in the nation. 
  • What once fit all its students and faculty members into the Old Queens building now offers semesters in South America, conducts research in Antarctica, supports an alumni club in South Asia, sends business students to study in South Africa, and trains theater majors at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. 
  • Whereas our first graduating “class” in 1774 consisted of one student—Matthew Leydt—this year’s graduating class numbered more than 17,000, including 162 named Matthew.

Although we have grown and expanded in so many ways, Rutgers’ most fundamental mission remains the same: educating individuals for lives of meaning and purpose. We continue to prepare students to become active and engaged citizens who contribute to the betterment of their own families, their communities, and the larger human family. Men and women of learning are still, to echo Hardenbergh, “of absolute necessity and extensive advantages to society.” And as we conclude this remarkable year of anniversary celebrations, I am proud to say that Rutgers today is producing graduates of exceptional ability who are contributing—and succeeding—in every realm of human endeavor. 

Happy 250th birthday, Rutgers!

Robert Barchi is the 20th president of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.