Rutgers still recovering from political storm

NEWARK — Newark -- IN THE WAKE of Francis Lawrence's unfortunate remark that African-American students at Rutgers University do not have the "genetic, hereditary background" to do well in college, there has been a torrent of conflicting assertions about academic life at Rutgers. Many Americans must be wondering: "What is going on at Rutgers?"

As a faculty member at the school's Newark campus, I would advise anyone concerned to look at all such assertions quite skeptically. What has occurred in recent months is that some individuals have seized upon a very sad situation to promote their own political agendas. In the process, reality has been distorted.


Those on the right opposed to affirmative action are eager to suggest that large numbers of unqualified students are being admitted to Rutgers. It is dismaying to hear Rush Limbaugh hyperventilating about events at Rutgers since the erstwhile talk-radio host has neither knowledge of nor experience with Rutgers students.

Rutgers does accept many students, both whites and blacks, who do not have high Scholastic Assessment Test scores. Some of these students do well and graduate, while others do less well. SATs are not necessarily accurate predictors of academic success. Much more work needs to be done in developing better criteria for determining academic success.


One of Rutgers' major missions as an institution is precisely to take those students who have had poor backgrounds -- but are capable of mastering college material -- and give them the opportunity to do so. Students do poorly on SATs for a variety of reasons, not just because of a lack of intellectual ability.

Everyone should understand that quality education is taking place at Rutgers. Significant numbers of minority students are graduating and going on to lead productive adult lives. Independent rankings of colleges, such as one which appeared in U.S. News and World Report, rank Rutgers relatively highly among state universities.

On numerous occasions, I see alumni returning to renew acquaintances with faculty and staff. I always ask them if they feel they were as well prepared for their jobs as their co-workers were. Almost unanimously, they express satisfaction with their Rutgers education.

Of course, it is not just conservatives who are engaging in inflammatory rhetoric. Benjamin Chavis Jr., the ousted NAACP executive director, has appeared at several rallies demanding Mr. Lawrence's resignation as president of Rutgers. In a recent appearance here, Mr. Chavis called the embattled president "an avowed racist."

Whatever moral flaws Francis Lawrence may have, he is not an avowed racist. He has explicitly renounced and repeatedly disavowed his admittedly racist remark. Such intemperate language unfairly demeans President Lawrence.

Mr. Chavis has also brought Jews into the controversy. In at least two speeches he argued that "if President Lawrence [had] made an anti-Semitic remark, he would not be president. He would be gone."

Since no college president has recently been publicly accused of making anti-Semitic remarks, such sentiments are speculative at best.

As part of their campaign to oust Mr. Lawrence, some African-American students have made considerable mention of institutional racism at Rutgers. University public relations staff members have distributed a wealth of statistics indicating how well Rutgers is doing in the recruitment and retention of racial minorities, especially as compared to other institutions.


The reality is, once again, somewhere between both extreme portrayals. If the situation were so bad, why weren't students protesting well before this incident? If, on the other hand, so much progress has been made, why hasn't this been appreciated by minority students?

It would be foolish to suggest that every trace of racism has been eradicated at Rutgers. The university is composed of human beings, and therefore reflects their frailties as well. What is equally foolish, however, is to interpret every decision which adversely affects African-Americans as being racist in origin.

Unfortunately, recent student demands, such as a sharp cut in tuition and total abandonment of the use of SAT scores, are out LTC of touch with reality. Even more unfortunately, outside "activists", such as Mr. Chavis, promote these extremists demands as part of a campaign against what they perceive is the racist nature of the broader American society.

Indeed, the unwillingness of many African-Americans to accept Mr. Lawrence's profuse apologies would appear to be based on the perception that his remark is reflective of innate racism in American society. To accept Mr. Lawrence's regrets would be tantamount to acquiescing to such prejudice.

In the aftermath of the Lawrence incident, the Board of Governors has charged the administration with developing "a blueprint, both short term and long term, on multicultural life."

Such a program may make sense at New Brunswick (Rutgers' main campus), but will be of little value at Newark, a commuter campus. Moreover, most of the difficulties faced by minority students are not related to student life.


Far more important than improving "multicultural" student life (whatever that term means) is careful study of why some students from poor backgrounds succeed while others fail. Can we find more perceptive criteria for predicting future academic success than SATs, and are there programs that should be expanded that might help minorities (and other students) do well at Rutgers?

What also needs to be done is for open discussions to be held to investigate what areas of prejudice do exist on campus and to see what steps can be taken to reduce, if not eliminate, them. How this can be done without having the meetings deteriorate into shouting matches filled with denunciations and maximalist demands is not clear.

It is also far from clear what role President Lawrence will play in all of this. By all outward appearances, Mr. Lawrence has weathered the immediate uproar. Wide-spread student disturbances have ceased and the school's Board of Governors has reaffirmed its confidence in his leadership.

For the long-term, however, Mr. Lawrence's position is far from secure. Many minority students are still calling for his resignation. Much will depend upon whether Mr. Lawrence will be able to demonstrate that he is still able to represent Rutgers effectively with important constituencies such as state legislators, minority students and alumni.

A time of crisis often also represents a time of opportunity for improvement. At Rutgers, it would be nice to hope that individuals of goodwill from all political perspectives will get together, exchange views and find ways to calm emotions and improve educational opportunities for all.

If the overheated rhetoric emanating from many quarters is any indication, however, that may not occur. Politics, it seems, is more important than progress.


Edward S. Boylan is an associate professor of math and computer science at Rutgers.