Long and illustrious as is its history, Rutgers has never been more academically distinguished than it is today. Nor has it ever enjoyed more exhilarating opportunities for future excellence than it possesses at the present moment. The integration of the health science disciplines, both in New Brunswick and in Newark; the explosive growth of Rutgers research across the disciplines; our significant recent progress in strengthening undergraduate education; the construction of beautiful new facilities for teaching and discovery; and, yes, our membership in the Big Ten, aligning us with many of the very best public universities in America, not just athletically but academically, too—all these developments, and more, affirm that this is an auspicious moment for Rutgers, a time to rejoice in our institution’s 250 years and to reflect on how Rutgers got where it is today. It got here by a singular pathway—some of whose milestones are relatively ancient, while others are quite recent. 

In almost every respect, Rutgers looks like a large and very good state university, similar to others in the top ranks of such institutions. It has more than 65,000 students; three main campuses well distributed around the state; almost 1,000 buildings; a full array of highly regarded professional schools; distinguished faculty who garner more than $700 million annually to support their research; membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities; and a big football stadium. The governor of New Jersey appoints a majority of the members of the university’s principal governing board, and the state provides about 20 percent of the institution’s total annual budget, now about $4 billion dollars. An informed and attentive observer would readily compare Rutgers to the best of its counterparts around the country. And that comparison would be accurate. 

State University? A Long Time Coming
But Rutgers is also different from its peers. Alone among them, it was founded before the American Revolution (as a private institution called Queen's College), and alone among them, it was almost 180 years old before finally being designated as the state university, an obligation it is still learning fully to discharge. That history helps explain why large swaths of what is now Rutgers—including the recently acquired health science schools—originated as something else, outside the bounds of the university, and had to be cobbled together within it, usually through difficulties of one kind or another. That job of cobbling has confronted virtually every Rutgers president, including me and my successor, Robert Barchi, and is still a work in progress. By and large, the results have been extremely positive; indeed, Rutgers would not look nearly as much like a highly ranked state university without these painfully won accretions. But they have made for a tumultuous history. 

Compare Rutgers in your mind’s eye to practically any other top-tier public university. That university, whichever one you are imagining, surely has many components, but almost every one of them was originally established within the institution itself. That university and its constituent parts grew and matured together. Rutgers is not like that. Many big and important pieces of what is now Rutgers originated as something else entirely—including Rutgers University–Newark and Rutgers University–Camden and all the health science schools that make up Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. Even within Rutgers University–New Brunswick, until less than a decade ago there were four separate liberal arts colleges, none with its own faculty, but each with its own students, admissions standards, graduation requirements, honors programs, and all the rest. 

Each of those colleges represented proud, prized themes in the university’s long history. Rutgers College symbolized our institution’s founding before the Revolution and its commitment to undergraduate education of the highest quality. Douglass College represented the university’s enduring obligation to provide equal educational opportunities for women. Livingston College stood for cultural and economic diversity and for educating men and women regardless of their heritage or economic status. University College epitomized our long-standing promise to nontraditional students, whose work or family responsibilities precluded them from full-time college attendance, but who deserved and cherished a chance to earn a Rutgers degree. No one was proposing that Rutgers should walk away from any of these values and commitments; indeed, all of them were now embedded throughout the university, not just in the colleges that had pioneered them. But the unique histories of the four colleges explain why they had never really been integrated into a single university and why bringing them together and creating the School of Arts and Sciences, just a few short years ago, was so momentous and controversial.   

Upward Mobility for Its Students
Rutgers is unique in other ways, too. While its elite neighbors like Princeton and Columbia attracted choice students from around the nation and the world, and while America’s most renowned public universities increasingly became destinations for affluent and well-prepared young men and women from within their respective states, Rutgers took a third pathway in composing its student body. Beginning early on, Rutgers offered an avenue of upward mobility for economically disadvantaged students, for those whose parents never attended college, for the children of immigrants, and for those who could study only part time because they were already supporting their families. These are somewhat unusual characteristics for the student body of a flagship state university, but Rutgers retains them today at Rutgers–New Brunswick, Rutgers–Newark, and Rutgers–Camden. Eighty percent of the university’s undergraduates depend upon some form of financial aid, more than a third qualify for federal Pell grants (which means they come from families that are truly disadvantaged economically), 30 percent are the first in their families to attend college, and more than half identify themselves as racial or ethnic minorities (a subject to which I will return). 

For decades after its founding by the Dutch Reformed church in 1766, Queen's College struggled even to survive. It shut down for 12 years beginning in 1795 and again for nine years commencing in 1816. Finally, in the mid-1820s, the college attained some stability and a new name, thanks to a gift from Colonel Henry Rutgers, a Revolutionary War hero and philanthropist who bestowed upon the college $5,000 and a bronze bell. Hoping to receive much more from their benefactor, the college’s trustees renamed the institution for Henry Rutgers. Alas, they were disappointed: nothing more was forthcoming. By now, almost two centuries later, we have blown through the $5,000 but still have the bell. It is rung on ceremonial occasions from its perch in the tower of beautiful Old Queens.  

Rutgers caught a big break in the 1860s when the New Jersey legislature designated us as the state’s Land Grant university. Land Grant institutions were, and still are, expected to advance the economies of their states, especially through agricultural education and research and what were then called the mechanic arts, now engineering. Truth be told, however, the legislature’s designation of Rutgers as the Land Grant university was less of a lucky break than it was the product of hard-ball politics, 19th-century style. Led by George H. Cook, a faculty member in chemistry and also the New Jersey State Geologist, Rutgers lobbied hard for the Land Grant designation and, with it, the money that would come from the sale of land given to New Jersey by the federal government. Princeton also competed hard for the honor and the dollars, but evidently not hard enough.

Applying the Elbow Grease of Persuasion
“Don’t let our folks think that talking and writing will accomplish much,” wrote one advocate for Rutgers. “Of course they are necessary,” he continued, “but . . .  the main thing is to secure the votes of the members of the legislature: and this can only be done by personal and indefatigable effort.” Just what exactly those efforts entailed has not come down through history, but when the fight was over a haughty Princetonian reflected on his institution’s loss to Rutgers. Princeton, he sniffed, “could not condescend from her high moral position to the questionable practices” by which Rutgers had prevailed. Whatever exactly our guys did, I wish I had tried the same thing when I was lobbying the legislature.

New Jersey drove a hard bargain for the Land Grant designation it had bestowed upon Rutgers.  In return for approximately $6,900 a year, not a princely sum even then, Rutgers was expected to maintain such courses of instruction as were called for by the federal government’s Morrill Act and to furnish the additional buildings required by these new educational obligations and to purchase land for and establish an experimental farm and to provide free scholarships for 40 students a year and to submit to the oversight of a 10-member Board of Visitors appointed by the governor of New Jersey.

Even as the state’s Land Grant university, Rutgers remained but little connected to New Jersey. Compared, say, to the great public universities in the Midwest or the South, Rutgers and its home state did not really grow up together, each committed to the well-being of the other. The university was still governed by a private, self-perpetuating Board of Trustees, no longer composed of Dutch Reformed ministers, but still quite independent from the state. New Jersey recognized no responsibility for supporting the institution until early in the 20th century, and even then that support was grudging and minimal. 

“In 1945, at the end of World War II,” as professor Paul G.E. Clemens observes in his fine new book on the university’s recent history, Rutgers Since 1945: A History of the State University of New Jersey (Rutgers University Press, 2015) “Rutgers’ consisted of two small, elite liberal arts colleges in New Brunswick [Rutgers College and the New Jersey College for Women, soon to be called Douglass], both still clinging to their status as private schools, plus some half-developed professional schools,” including one in agriculture and another in engineering. Within little more than a decade thereafter, three important developments changed Rutgers and gave it the appearance, at least, of greater similarity to other American universities than it had ever had before.  

Three Big Changes at Rutgers
First, in a two-step process, Rutgers became, at last, New Jersey’s state university. It gained official recognition as the state university in in 1945, and then 11 years later, in an elaborate bargain with the state legislature, the historic Board of Trustees relinquished most of its authority to a newly created Board of Governors, a (bare) majority of whose 11 members (now 15) would be appointed by the governor of New Jersey. In return, Rutgers obtained promises of adequate financial support from the state. One hundred and ninety years after its founding as a private colonial college, Rutgers acquired a system of governance that was appropriate to its newfound public status

Second, among the post-war developments, Rutgers acquired schools in Newark in 1946 and in Camden in 1950. Composed of existing institutions, including a law school in each city and a business school in Newark—professional fields that were formerly unrepresented within Rutgers—what became Rutgers–Newark and Rutgers–Camden enabled the university to extend not only its geographic reach, but also its educational breadth. 

Third, Rutgers shared in the national trends affecting higher education following World War II. Beginning with the GI Bill, the federal government began to provide financial aid for students, and, over the decades, that aid grew into the robust programs of assistance we know today. At around the same time, the national government increased significantly its support of university-based scientific research, support that now reaches tens of billions of dollars each year. Rutgers benefited, to a degree, from both of these developments.   

Yet even after becoming the state university, even after adding Rutgers–Newark and Rutgers–Camden, and even after experiencing the initial impacts of post-war federal policies, Rutgers remained relatively unchanged, still on its singular pathway. In the 1960s, Rutgers was not terribly different from what it had been decades earlier and looked hardly at all like it does today. At Rutgers–New Brunswick, there were fewer than 10,000 undergraduate students, all of them segregated by gender, the men at Rutgers College and the women at Douglass, and virtually all of them white. Except for a few outposts of academic distinction and a handful of nationally recognized scholars, research was not a central activity at Rutgers. When the American Council on Education prepared a mid-1960s national survey of academic quality and graduate education, Rutgers barely figured; only microbiology, Selman Waksman’s stomping ground, got even a mention. As late as 1972, the university’s annual expenditures for research totaled only $21 million, of which less than $10 million came from the federal government. Professional education was largely undistinguished, and except for a pharmacy program at Rutgers–Newark and a fledgling medical school at Rutgers–New Brunswick, soon to be taken from the university, the health sciences were virtually non-existent.    

The Period of Huge Growth
Then, over the course of the next half of a century—approximately from its 200th year in 1966 until its 250th year in 2016—Rutgers grew and changed far more than it ever had. There are many elements of this story, but three developments stand out from the rest: 

• First was the late 1960s protest movement of African-American students that compelled Rutgers to acknowledge deeply engrained institutional racism and to begin a hard-won journey toward becoming one of the most diverse universities in the world;

• Second was the drive for distinction in research that Rutgers’ finest president, Edward J. Bloustein, launched in the 1980s and that continues today;

• Third was the university’s acquisition of the health science schools that were part of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), a quest that took a decade, followed by the integration of those disciplines into Rutgers, a massive academic project that is still underway.

Many of the people who are reading this article know enough about Rutgers to have their own list of the developments that mattered most; this is my list.

Paul Robeson enrolled at Rutgers a century ago, and became, as everyone knows, an extraordinary student, athlete, actor, and citizen of the world. It is commonplace to say that Robeson is Rutgers’ greatest graduate of all time, and I’ll hazard a guess that when Rutgers celebrates its 350th anniversary, Paul Robeson will still be so regarded.    

But for many years, hardly any black students followed Robeson to Rutgers. The institution’s first black graduate was James Dickson Carr in 1892, Robeson became its third in 1919, and by the 1940s only about 20 African Americans altogether had attained Rutgers degrees. Even thereafter, while the numbers increased to perhaps a couple hundred who had graduated by the late 1960s, African Americans remained a tiny minority. At Rutgers College in 1968, they made up well under two percent of the student body; across town at Douglass, their numbers were only a little larger. No other minorities were represented at all—no Asians, no Puerto Ricans, no Muslims.   

Last November, Rutgers250 sponsored an extraordinary conference called “Black on the Banks” centering on African Americans who had been students at Rutgers-New Brunswick in the 1960s. The first panel was composed of women and men who had enrolled early in that decade, each of whom poignantly described the smothering loneliness and isolation they experienced at Rutgers. Largely ignored by their faculty and by fellow students, they were, as Ralph Ellison wrote, “invisible.” Needless to say, there were no black faculty, much less courses and programs that covered the black experience.  

Then change came, thanks to brave black students universitywide who demanded that Rutgers admit and educate more black men and women, appoint black faculty, and provide educational offerings related to black history and black lives. The fateful moment was April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated—an event whose shocking impact speaker after speaker described at the conference—and the critical year was 1969, when black students engaged in disciplined direct action—throwing their trays on the floors of the dining halls, marching through the campuses, occupying buildings, issuing demands, and, through it all, compelling Rutgers to acknowledge its heritage of racism and to live up to its promises of equality and opportunity. 

The Benefits of Diversity
No one would claim, to this day, that those promises have been entirely fulfilled, but the changes were dramatic—especially in the composition of the student body and the contents of the curriculum. The faculty, too, became more diverse, but vastly more progress is still needed in that area. Not just the students of 1969, but subsequent generations of Rutgers men and women have made diversity, in all its racial, ethnic, religious, lifestyle, and economic dimensions, one of the university’s signature values. Each year, when our graduating students are surveyed and asked to say what they most liked and disliked about Rutgers, they single out the university’s diversity as among its most important and valuable characteristics, essential to their education and their growth to adulthood. National and international statistics indicate that—by dint of hard work over almost half a century, but beginning unmistakably with the black students of the 1960s—Rutgers now stands among the most diverse universities of the world.    

Compared to institutions that are now its peers, Rutgers came late to a research mission. When the federal government began supporting scientific and social scientific research in the 1940s, Rutgers was not a major recipient of the largesse. Slowly, however, a few Rutgers programs—led in every case by truly talented faculty—began to carry on significant research, to develop graduate programs, and to win competitively awarded federal grants. Microbiology and physics were perhaps the first to bust through the barriers, and then there were others, including ceramics and mathematics. Beyond the sciences, English, history, and later philosophy also became outstanding. Over the years, other Rutgers disciplines followed. 

The big breakthrough came during the 1980s. Led by President Bloustein and executive vice president Alec Pond, and by key deans and faculty leaders, Rutgers made a series of strategic decisions to enhance the university’s research profile. External reviews guided the allocation of resources to targeted disciplines; centers, bureaus, institutes were established in fields deemed most promising; faculty tenure and promotion came to depend on research productivity. These efforts were contested and contentious, as culture-changing practices inevitably are, but they prevailed. Faculty stars arrived from other institutions, younger faculty members were hired with keen eyes upon their potential for outstanding research, and handsome new facilities were constructed to support their work. In all of this, perhaps for the first time in its long history, Rutgers had the unstinting support of the state of New Jersey, now led by a remarkable governor, Thomas Kean, whose partnership with Bloustein laid the foundation for Rutgers as we know it today. 

Rutgers, Under President Bloustein, Enters the AAU
In 1981, through an immense and controversial campus reorganization, the previously separate college-based faculties in the arts and sciences disciplines were unified in New Brunswick-wide departments. Suddenly Rutgers had sizeable, critical masses of faculty in all the core academic fields, and national recognition followed—for individuals, for their departments, and for the university as a whole. In 1989, the last year of Bloustein’s life, Rutgers gained precisely the honor that he had long sought: an invitation to membership in the AAU, the Association of American Universities, the organization of the top 60 research universities in America. 

Judging by the amount of research dollars received annually from the federal government, the single number that conveys more than any other measure about a university’s success in research, Rutgers has continued to build upon the achievements of the 1980s. For the decade from 2002 through 2012, Rutgers increased its federal research support by 230 percent, more than any other AAU public university and more than all but one of the AAU private schools. And that was before the health science disciplines became part of Rutgers—which brings me to the third and last of the great developments on my list. 

Ever since 1970, when the barely established Rutgers Medical School was torn from the university by sheer political force, Rutgers had felt the absence of a full array of health sciences. To be sure, the School of Pharmacy thrived in its new home on the Busch Campus at Rutgers–New Brunswick, while the School of Nursing grew apace in Newark. But life science faculty and graduate students keenly regretted not having medical and most other health science collaborators within their own university. The State of New Jersey also suffered from having its three medical schools cordoned off in a bloated, bureaucratic health sciences university, UMDNJ. So much that could have been accomplished in teaching, research, health care, and economic growth went undone for decades.

From the fall of 2002, when New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey unveiled a visionary but startlingly flawed report authored by Roy Vagelos, the former CEO of Merck, until June of 2012, when the state legislature enacted major legislation restructuring medical and health science education in New Jersey, Rutgers and its allies fought hard to reclaim the discipline of medicine—and we did. At the end, the key players included faculty members at both Rutgers and UMDNJ, the historic but still lively Rutgers Board of Trustees, and, from the world of politics, former Governor Kean and Governor Chris Christie. Along the way the struggle got nasty, as things sometimes do in New Jersey, but with the creation of what is formally called Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in 2013, it all became worthwhile. With the addition of the health science schools to Rutgers, New Jersey gained opportunities in education, research, and economic development that it had never enjoyed. And with those additions, Rutgers acquired the disciplines it needed to join at last the ranks of the nation’s very best public research universities. That’s where Rutgers is today, having arrived there in unusual ways that were, and are, truly our own.

Who can say what Rutgers’ next great development will be? The next big thing that is comparable in impact and longevity to the brilliant, brave actions of black students in the 1960s, to the transformational achievements of Rutgers research leaders in the 1980s, and to the bold accomplishments of our health scientists today? Probably none of us knows what that development will be. But I feel confident in predicting that whatever mighty transformation next comes to Rutgers will have these characteristics: it will arrive in response to truly significant human challenges and opportunities, and it will be controversial; it will be achieved universitywide (and, of course, on the internet) through the hard work of smart, determined, and farsighted Rutgers men and women; and it will succeed in taking Rutgers yet further along its singular pathway to excellence. That much, at least, we know from history.