Rutgers On The Move. RU, rah, rah…..

rutgersThis week’s Struming is about my undergraduate alma mater, Rutgers University. I am a “loyal son”, a 1974 graduate of Rutgers College, formerly the main campus of Rutgers University in New Brunwick.

My alma mater lost a football game to Pitt this past Saturday, 27-6. It was a disappointing loss on a snowy Saturday in Pittsburgh. It was particularly disappointing as Rutgers had previously been the 18th ranked team in the BCS standings. Regardless, Rutgers will, at worst, now share the Big East Championship, an extraordinary first-time accomplishment for the university. Furthermore, with a victory over Louisville in Piscataway this Thursday evening, Rutgers would be the sole Big East Champion and play in the Orange Bowl against the ACC Champion on New Year’s Day. Rutgers has never played in a BCS bowl.

Whether they reach the Orange Bowl or fall short, for the first time in many years I am excited about the overall direction of the university for several reasons:

1. Its new President, Dr. Robert Barchi, appears to be a leader with vision and a man of action.

Robert Barchi, who had previously been the President of Thomas Jefferson University, took over in September and his leadership is already apparent. He grew up in New Jersey, though he did not attend Rutgers, which I believe is an advantage as he can clearly see its strengths and weaknesses with no personal bias.

2. Rutgers has now agreed to take over most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)

However it did not need to give up its Southern New Jersey campus in Camden as part of the agreement. This restructuring was heavily debated and Rutgers appeared to be stronger as a result.

3. Under the leadership of Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti, Rutgers announced last week it will be leaving the Big East Conference and joining the highly regarded Big Ten in 2014.

The Big Ten is comprised largely of major state universities with excellent academic standards. Moreover, this is a significant leap in collegiate athletics as the Big Ten has long been a leading football conference and, as such, provides far greater revenue to its members. The University of Maryland, another excellent state university and a long-time member of the Athletic Coast Conference (ACC), also announced its move to the Big Ten at the same time.

But my increased pride in Rutgers is not merely associated with its athletic prowess. In fact, in the major sports of football and basketball, Rutgers has often been a disappointment for the majority of the past 40+ years. Athletics are important because they help connect a university’s alumni to their alma mater (and in so doing increase their contributions) and are a source of pride for current students. However, a university needn’t compete for national championships to build a strong connection with its alumni, nor does excellence in athletics necessarily correlate with excellence in academics. But to the extent that athletics can be self funding, which Rutgers move to the Big Ten might help accomplish, and still have competitive athletic programs, the net result will help to increase the pride in and prestige of Rutgers to virtually all of its stakeholders. I’m all for that.

I have fond memories of my days at Rutgers. I entered Rutgers as a freshman in the fall of 1970. I remember Van Morrison playing a free concert in “The Barn” (on College Ave) during freshman orientation. I also fondly remember playing basketball for hours in the Quad. (PS. Dr. Barchi –Put back up those hoops!). My passion for radio (see Why I Love Radio) came from working at WRSU, the Rutgers college radio station. Interestingly, though I grew up 20 miles from the New Brunswick campus in Springfield, NJ, I had never set foot on the campus prior to that freshman orientation. Unlike the marathon college trips we have done for our children (see The College Visit), I assumed I was going to Rutgers, applied and thankfully was admitted, and attended along with 10% of my high school class of males, as Rutgers was an all-male university in 1970. It would become a co-ed University in 1972 and I met my future wife, Beth Rosoff, a Rutgers student in 1974. I have several life long friends who also went to Rutgers. Moreover, the cost of my education was modest. The total cost of Rutgers– tuition, room and board- was $2000 annually. My dad had passed away during my sophomore year of high school and the VA Benefits had provided $2000 annually to each of his children for their college education. The math worked. Great value.

The main campus of Rutgers today is far different from the Rutgers College  of 1970. The old Rutgers University main campuses had a series of separate, distinct colleges—Rutgers, Livingston, Cook and Douglass. Each had separate departments and administrations—very inefficient. A few years ago these separate colleges were disbanded and the “new” Rutgers University was formed, with several residential campuses throughout the New Brunswick and Piscataway area. The town of New Brunswick is much improved from its downtrodden former self. Restaurants, stores, and shopping have replaced dilapidated buildings. Alas, the legendary Greasy Tony’s (“Where Extra Grease is Free”) is gone, though it exists in Arizona, but for the most part the town of New Brunswick is far nicer.

Rutgers has several issues however. Its “physical plant” particularly on College Avenue appears tired and is inferior to many other state universities. The geographic dispersion of the Livingston, Busch, College Avenue, Douglass, and Cook campuses in the New Brunswick/Piscataway area forces students to bus to the various campuses for classes. College Avenue in New Brunswick used to be the center of the university—now there is no real center—only equal parts. Beyond these issues, New Jersey’s financial issues make it difficult for the state to maintain a level of funding that its state university deserves. I also knew first hand what the “RU Screw” meant. I was often frustrated as a student in the 70s by what I will kindly now call “administrative inefficiency”. As with many New Jersey institutions, Rutgers is not as respected as its academics warrant. However, interestingly, the further the distance from Rutgers the better the image of the university. The university’s marketing has been weak and the connection of its alumni to their alma mater could be far stronger.

Yet to know Rutgers is to respect it. Its student body is large and diverse. Rutgers students are largely smart, high achievers from middle class New Jersey families. Disappointingly, our children did not choose to attend Rutgers despite being admitted. Even bribing them with an unlimited allowance for meals at Old Man Rafferty’s, with their world class tomato basil soup, could not swing their decision.

But I am glad I attended the university and proud to be an alum. Moreover, I am pleased with the current direction in athletics, academics, and overall structure. The future is bright for dear old Rutgers, at least I hope so.

Ooh rah, ooh rah, Rutgers, rah.

Epilogue: The loss to Louisville, a game that was within reach, stings. But my pride in Rutgers remains.

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