Published October 27, 2020
On October 14, 2020, the Rutgers University Alumni Association hosted a live conversation with Jonathan Holloway, 21st president of Rutgers University, and Nevin Kessler, Rutgers University Foundation President and Executive Vice President for Development and Alumni Engagement.
Watch the Video
Welcome and thank you for joining us. I hope all of you are safe and well. I am Nevin Kessler, executive vice president for development and alumni engagement, and on this date, seven years ago, I officially joined the Rutgers community. It has been the most rewarding professional experience of my lifetime.
I am excited to be talking today with Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University. Jonathan began his official tenure as president on July 1st of this year.
He comes to Rutgers having held high‑level posts at top American universities, including dean of Yale University and provost of Northwestern University.
In addition to his role as president of Rutgers, Jonathan also serves as a university professor and distinguished scholar.
In his writing and scholarship, he specializes in post‑emancipation U.S. history with a focus on social and intellectual history.
Over the past few months, Jonathan and I have talked a lot about holding conversations with the Rutgers alumni community.
As you might know, discussions are occurring across Rutgers about the university’s emerging priorities and direction. We both felt that it is vital to include Rutgers alumni in these ongoing conversations and to give alumni opportunities to share their thoughts and ideas. So, we are very excited to be with you today.
And with that, let me give a warm welcome to Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University.
Thank you for inviting me. This is not the presidency I expected.
And that isn’t a negative thing about Rutgers. This a worldwide phenomenon, of course. I felt sorry for myself for a day once the pandemic started making itself known in this country, but then I got over it pretty quickly. What helped me get over it is that Rutgers is an exciting place to be. In fact, when I was considering putting my name in the hat in the first place, I looked at what Rutgers is and what it could be.
And what I found that excited me and why I put my name in the hat is that Rutgers embodies a democratic ideal for a great university—an incredible history of opening its doors for people who were otherwise not considered a fit for great research universities: First‑generation students, low‑income students, students from families where English is not the primary language, underrepresented minority students.
Rutgers represented the idea that excellence could be found anywhere in this country and around the world. That we would cultivate that excellence here, and it could help translate people’s experience from this place to something much more exciting, and it could be transformative for their family.
This is what got me excited about Rutgers. This is why I put my name in the hat. And I was pleased on my first day to communicate that excitement. But then, as I said, this is not the presidency I expected.
When the pandemic hit about a month after I was named president, I saw my plans for elevating and accelerating the democratic impulse that I had talked about with such passion a moment ago; I saw those plans come under assault, not for lack of will, but just for the fact of a global pandemic, the nature of social unrest around the country–that’s really around the world—and the financial disarray that accompanied all of this.
Now, we are not out of the woods on any of these aspects, I know.
But it has meant that we need to refocus ourselves—certainly as the president, refocus myself on how we can get Rutgers back on its feet, get it ready for emergence after this—after we’re on the other side of this pandemic, and make sure that we return Rutgers to the place of excellence in as far as that democratic ideal.
And for me coming into the door, one of the ways I realized that Rutgers—I could help Rutgers in that regard is beyond just words—is by calling attention to one of its most exciting areas that speak at that democratic ideal, and that’s Scarlet Promise Grants.
These grants are sometimes small—sometimes larger—that lower the barriers for Rutgers students as they are trying to succeed as students. Scarlet Promise Grants are crucial to doing the work that helps people have this transformative experience.
Whether it’s emergency funds, whether it’s financial aid, this is a place where we can make quick interventions to help people realize the promise of Rutgers University.
So, my wife and I pledged money at the beginning of my presidency and launched a campaign to raise funds for Scarlet Promise Grants.
This to me is about bettering the world, frankly.
Now, when I think about my presidency in general, starting from the premise of my excitement about the democratic possibilities of Rutgers, talking materially about the importance of scarlet promise grants, I want to focus on three areas right now.
And I just shared these areas at my university senate address about ten days ago.
I want to make sure, under the Holloway administration, Rutgers is known as a place that is relentless in its pursuit of academic excellence.
It’s already an excellent place, but I want to do what I can to secure the funds and secure the will to make sure that we are moving as aggressively as possible to underscore how strong we already are in this area.
I want to make sure, of course, that we are doing work to simplify Rutgers. It is a very complex organization.
As alumni, I’m sure you have your stories to tell about navigating this incredibly complicated space.
Now, I was warned that it was complicated, of course, at the beginning.
And as a candidate, I was confused by the fact that Rutgers is one president, four chancellors, five provosts, several campuses, and I can go on and on and make fun of it.
Look, Rutgers is a really strong place. It is impressive in so many ways, especially impressive that it holds together so well in light of these complications.
But I’m sure that there are ways in which we can be strategic to reduce some of the complications built into the system for a whole variety of reasons, none with ill‑intent. That we can find ways to reduce the institution’s complexity so that we can be more successful in our pursuit of academic excellence and creating a transformational experience for our students: Developing greater clarity of mission, yes.
And then the last piece—and this is where I started in my introduction—when I introduced myself to Rutgers, and when I spoke to the Rutgers community on my first day, and this has been a steady drumbeat for me along the line: I want to pursue the ideal, of a beloved community.
Now, that may sound strange when you think about how large Rutgers is—over 100,000 people—and when you think about the complexity of Rutgers—when you think about all the independence that goes into making this place a vibrant academic community.
But I really think this is critical to Rutgers’ success.
When I think about a beloved community, I want to be clear. I’m not talking about a community where everybody gets along all the time. That’s a fantasy.
What I am talking about is a place where despite where we are at the university, despite what department we’re in, what job we have, where we are as a student, that we all recognize we share something in common with these diverse ideas.
And the more we recognize we share something in common, the nature of our disputes—of which there will be many—the nature of our disputes will be different.
That’s a beloved community because we recognize we share things in common, and we all should be part of making this great institution even better.
Another part of the beloved community is recognizing its diversity, diversity in any way you can conjugate that term.
And as I said at the very beginning, talking about Rutgers’ democratic ideal, a beloved community to me is a place that is quite diverse along any metric you can imagine. It recognizes that there is excellence found in that diversity. It is a strategic plus in the 21st century to recognize the diversity that drives an organization. Also, to recognize that you have an important role to play no matter where you work in the university.
I want to be very clear that not just as the president but as a human being walking on this planet, it’s important to recognize the humanitarian all around us—humanity all around us.
We are in a deficit right now in our country. Regardless of your political position, we all recognize this.
We all, I think, can do so much better in recognizing one another, recognizing our humanity, and recognizing that we will achieve really great things by doing things together. A beloved community is where we recognize that we share things in common, in light of and despite our differences. Through working together and recognizing one another, we can do amazing things. And this extends to you.
It is my fervent hope that alumni will play a role in achieving all three of these goals. And perhaps in the Q & A we’ll get into some of those details.
But I want you to recognize that you are as much a part of Rutgers as is the current matriculated student, that you are as much a part of Rutgers as the current faculty person, that you are as much a part of Rutgers as I am.
In fact, there’s more of Rutgers in you—I admit I’m only 110 days into my job. There’s more of Rutgers in you than I have. I just hope that you will grant me the grace to join you in that community and that working together we, do great things for the sake of this wonderful university, the state university of New Jersey.
Enough about me, though. Enough from me. I’d like to hear your questions. So I turn it over to Nevin.
I’ve got about eight questions. We’ll see how many of these we can get through in the time we have. Let’s start with a question from Meg from the class of 1964. There are two parts to this. One, she’d like you to talk about what’s been the biggest surprise since arriving at Rutgers. And two, she wants to know that you are welcomed, and she wishes you the best of luck. And she wants you to know that the alumni are counting on you.
I love the second part of that question.
[ LAUGHTER ]
All that’s important. Thank you. Thank you for that. Class of 64?
One of my favorite classes. I’ll say that about every class.
[ LAUGHTER ]
What surprised me the most? Well, as I told you at the beginning when I walked in the door, I saw Rutgers in a particular way that I was very excited about, then it shifted dramatically. Everywhere in the world, it shifted dramatically.
What was exciting to me as I returned to Northwestern to wrap up my duties there in February and March, as I was beginning to talk with different members of the presidency and leadership team, it became clear to me there was a kind of resolve about Rutgers—about COVID, excuse me—at this moment in time.
Now, recognize, in Illinois, we were not yet experiencing the incredible turmoil that was happening in New York and New Jersey.
It was more of an idea of something coming to us. So, when I say that I was impressed by the resilience and the resolve of the Rutgers community, I mean, this is a big deal. I recognized people were living in a moment that I didn’t—that I couldn’t grasp yet and didn’t have the sense of texture to it. And yet people I was talking to were saying, yeah, this will be really hard. We don’t know where this will land in terms of health issues, finances, or whatnot. But we’re going to get through it.
That was quite a different approach than I was experiencing at Northwestern. And it might have been because Northwestern is still an abstraction. I don’t want to be critical of my former institution. But I was impressed by this sort of grittiness and determination by the people I was getting to know at Rutgers. And since I’ve arrived physically on the campus, I’ve seen that time and time again. So that has to be one of the most pleasant surprises since I’ve gotten here.
Liam has a question for you. It’s kind of long, but I think it’s a really good one. So just hang for a minute or so. The discord and distrust evident in the current political climate are a testament to our nation’s growing diversity, not just race and culture but of views and perspectives.
Do you believe that Rutgers and other universities have a responsibility to facilitate more civil, more balanced, and ultimately more productive discourse?
Absolutely. Do you know what Liam’s year is?
Yes, he’s class of 2009.
One of my favorite years.
[ LAUGHTER ]
Thanks, Liam. It’s an excellent question. And I’ve addressed it a little bit in my talk about a beloved community, but let me be much more specific. I’m paraphrasing you now. ‘does Rutgers have a duty to address the noise and the discord at this time?’
Absolutely; I want to be unambiguous about this; Absolutely.
Universities are, in addition to the great libraries in our country, universities are the keepers of our national culture, our vibrancy, and our challenges. And if a university is doing its job right, it is a vessel that contains, through research and teaching, ideas that have been deemed to transcend time and circumstance.
Universities are also places, if they’re healthy, where those ideas are constantly being tested and challenged. To have an institution that’s holding both of these things in its hand at the same time is a really hard thing to do. That’s why universities are so important and so valuable; because they do that.
Now, Liam, you may certainly believe that they don’t do it very well. Fair enough, especially in this particular moment when we have all been taught and we’ve learned the lesson too well how to weaponize ideas when, for instance, Nevin, you disagree with me about something. We go at each other’s throats without looking for our common purpose. This is a national problem, dare say global one, certainly. And so universities, I think, have to step up in very important ways. And for me, one of the ways you have to step up is to ask tough questions of ourselves and as a professor to ask really tough questions of the students I’m teaching when I get to return to the classroom, as a president to ask tough questions of the entire university, and when the students feel emboldened, not emboldened—empowered enough to ask tough questions of the administration and me.
My hope is that they will do so in a fair way, and that speaks to how we want to do something together to make things better, because once we have that, once we find that common ground, we can do anything. But to get to your point specifically, I think universities have not just the historical burden to care about deepening and broadening our conversations where people can talk and be heard—that’s part of our moral purpose. And I use that term quite seriously.
If we don’t do that, what are we doing?
And that’s a rhetorical question.
[ LAUGHTER ]
That was a rhetorical question. That was a big, like, boom moment.
[ LAUGHTER ]
So, Patrick has, I think, an interesting question that we hear a lot about from our alumni. So Patrick, class of 2000.
One of my favorite classes.
I know, I’ll stop.
[ LAUGHTER ]
Rutgers provides a tremendous breadth of education to its students. How can this be better impressed upon New Jersians who demonstrate unparalleled willingness to invest far more than the cost of Rutgers to send their students to both private and out‑of‑state public colleges and universities?
Thank you. That’s an excellent question.
When I was tapped as the next president, but it was not public yet, I flew back with the governor of New Jersey three or four days later. Then I was introduced. The governor made it very clear about this phenomenon. I didn’t realize that this was the phenomenon that New Jersey has the highest—I forget the term—but basically exodus of 18 to 24 or 25‑year‑olds.
As a percentage of its population.
Highest in the country. And there are lots of different reasons for that. But the question gets to the heart of sort of a quandary, like, what is pushing people? What is it?
There’s a push factor. There’s a pull factor. There are all kinds of things. But when you get down to it, the answer is in the question.
Rutgers—and I know people will contest the affordability of Rutgers education. I deeply believe Rutgers is a very affordable education.
Now, it depends on how much money you have in the bank. I get that.
But when you think of the landscape of higher ed, we are an incredible bargain. And I want to raise money to make it more of a bargain for as many people as possible.
I haven’t yet figured out, to be honest, what it is in the DNA of the culture of the state or whatever it is—I don’t really know—where too many of our state residents look elsewhere instead of recognizing they have one of the nation’s great public research universities right here.
And that’s part of my job as president, to be the chief cheerleader of the university. And this is also a job for the alumni, frankly. And I will partner with you on these things where when we get past COVID. I want to be out there making the rounds, talking to all of you, and going to New Jersey’s communities to find ways to elevate Rutgers in everybody’s estimations. And regardless of their interests.
One of the things that’s so great about Rutgers is that it is a vast enterprise as far as opportunities for our young high school students to think about if they want to get into criminology, if they want to get into agricultural education, they want to get into the traditional liberal arts, you name it, you’ve got it, and we’re doing it at a very high level.
So this partly is about marketing, to be honest, and partly about finding ways at Rutgers to tell our story better, and I need to talk about the governor and the legislature—and this is what I talked to the governor about—to find ways of partnering with the state institutions to tell Rutgers’ story better.
The governor had a state of the state address where he says, “as Rutgers goes, so does the state of New Jersey.”
That’s a powerful statement for a governor to make.
The fact is that every dollar invested in Rutgers returns, I think, $4 or $5 to the state. We are an important economic engine. We have to get the story out there. We have to get it out there, and that’s part of my job.
I think one other idea would be to get parents to sign a pledge that they won’t show up on the doorsteps of their sons’ and daughters’ rooms because I think part of this out‑of‑state business, particularly on the public side, is all about putting enough distance between their parents.
[ LAUGHTER ]
You know, I wasn’t going to say it, but that is one of the push factors. We are a small state. Mom and dad can be very close, sometimes too close. That said, we can offer people a great education.
Yes. So Christine from the class of 1999—so the class of 1999 has two questions already. How does Rutgers plan to continue addressing the unfulfilled promise that “education is the great equalizer” in a world marked by stark inequities and social injustice?
Who asked that question? Oh, is there more? I’m sorry.
This is from Christine in the class of 1999. So what policies, research programs, education practices are priorities to move us forward, especially in the age of COVID?
Christine, this is a fabulous question, partly because it allows me to brag a little bit.
[ LAUGHTER ]
So as one of my quiet pieces of summer homework, I was given the opportunity to pitch a proposal to the Mellon Foundation for a transformative gift or grant, excuse me, that would put Rutgers on the map in a whole new way.
This was a tremendous opportunity for a new president. So I huddled quietly with a number of campus leaders and university leaders and came up with the proposal—it wasn’t mine alone, I want to be clear about that—and it was submitted by somebody else since I could not submit it and we got it funded. The Mellon Foundation is a foundation dedicated to the humanities and humanistic areas of inquiry.
We received a five‑year $15 million grant—a huge sum, I’m a historian, in my world—to create the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice.
This issue will highlight the amazing faculty we already have here, and we are very strong in these areas.
Again, this is not just my field, history, but English, creative writing, law, depending on how you work in sociology, philosophy, and public health even—all these different areas where we have scholars asking difficult and challenging questions about this particular moment, how we got to this moment, how we can get out of this moment.
How we can realize in so many ways the rhetorical ideals of this nation, which I think are astonishing but still aspirational, and the incredible possibilities of higher education, to that democratic ideal I talked about at the beginning of this conversation.
We received this tremendously large grant to create one institute with centers in Camden, New Brunswick, and Newark, so it is universitywide. And it will be led by our leading faculty in those respective areas, with resources to hire post‑doctoral fellows in these places to start to identify the next generation of talented scholars working on these issues with resources to keep our talent.
One of the things I want us to get Rutgers to a place across the board is already here in many places—across the board to have a faculty who are constantly–where universities are trying to poach our faculty.
It makes it much harder to run a place, but it means you’ve got the right faculty.
And so these resources from the Mellon Foundation are also dedicated to helping us retain our great faculty because people will come after us in the way that I want to try to steal our faculty.
So, this is an opportunity that is structural, that is strategic, and that is also aspirational for Rutgers to declare this is an area of great contemporary and historic concern and an area where we can be leaders and be recognized as leaders.
We already have leaders but aren’t recognized as leaders. And if we do our job right, people will start to recognize that Rutgers is a place that is asking very tough questions about all the inequities in our society right now and not just asking the question but pointing towards ways to address that.
That’s great ambition.
This grant is a way to highlight the work we’re already doing in that regard and accelerate it and spotlight Rutgers.
That’s a great thing to have done in the first 110 days of your tenure here.
So, this is a question from Gordon, class of 1992. ‘Can you define the role of Big Ten sports within the context of academics?’
And how can the Big Ten prevent a resurgence of COVID on the campus going forward? So really two different questions.
Two very different questions. And I’ll take the second one first, and if I lose track, you’ll remind me of the first one.
When it came to COVID, look, I, as well as everybody else, have real concerns about the virus just in general, of course, and you know the Big Ten initially declared no fall sports and then found a way to move forward.
I mean, that’s a very condensed version of how we got to where we are at this moment.
When it comes to COVID, we all know that every day brings a new set of challenges and discoveries.
Sometimes they are dispiriting, but sometimes they are also really positive.
So in the month or so that the Big Ten changed course when the presidents, chancellors changed course, what we know from a scientific front and our ability to test in that space changed quickly.
The price of tests plummeted, and our ability to have confidence in a regime of testing rose to the point where we could actually proceed in a safe way.
So, I actually feel that things had changed sufficiently between that first decision and the second decision when it came to testing in particular that we can have a clean field of play for practice and a clean field of play for the games.
Now, will COVID make itself known?
I suspect it will. And we have protocols in place so that we will shut down the practice facility and shut down the team basically if we reach certain thresholds.
I hope that doesn’t happen to anybody. But we’re seeing it happen in professional and amateur sports. Odds are it’s going to happen somewhere.
But I think even then that we had the protocols in place to ensure we are protecting and preserving the health of our athletes, staff, trainers, and the whole infrastructure surrounding that.
And in fact, since we started the testing protocol for the fall within Rutgers, we have had zero positive reports within that particular community.
So this is wonderful. In fact, on Rutgers‑New Brunswick’s campus, where housing is, we have a very small number of people here, but the positivity rate is extremely low.
In the populations where we can exercise control, I feel a lot of confidence about our ability through testing regimens to keep people healthy.
However, we’re talking about a population that averages 20 years of age, and 20‑year‑olds will do 20‑year‑old things, and 20‑year‑olds are built to socialize, and we’ve seen all the stories in the newspapers. So there’s a lot of concern there.
So we’re not out of the woods, but I think we have a plan in place—it’s not just about football but other fall sports and then going into winter and spring—where I think we can pull it off.
And I promise you that if it turns out we’re not pulling off—if athletes are getting sick—we will shut it down.
I expect every university would do the same thing. But I’m telling you for a fact that’s what Rutgers will do.
So the question is about the role of Big Ten athletics.
Yes. Oh, yes.
…in an academic community?
So you’re talking to somebody who played football in college and understands the tensions undergirding that kind of question.
I deeply believe that you can have high‑performing athletics and high‑performing athletics at the same institution. What must happen for that to be achieved is to have a coaching staff who understands a core ambition.
So when I spoke to some of the coaches—I haven’t spoken to all of the coaches yet—I made it clear from the very beginning that I want to win.
We all want to win. But I don’t want to win while sacrificing a commitment to academic excellence. I don’t want to win where we are bringing in athletes who are just athletes and not students. I don’t want to win by taking shortcuts. If that means that we’re going to be a 7‑3 team versus a 7‑4 team versus an 11‑0 team, then that’s what it means. We can’t sacrifice, we can’t cut corners there.
When they leave Rutgers with a degree, I want our athletes to have a real career lined up for themselves or at least a set of ideas about a career.
When it comes to the idea of Big Ten athletics and the academic enterprise of the big ten, again, I think they can be very commensurate. But, you have to be very vigilant because of all the enticements around the world of college athletics that are nervous‑making, frankly. And that’s sort of a daily challenge, especially in the world of athletics directors in particular.
For Rutgers to be in the Big Ten, aside from taking out sports, this is a little bit inside baseball, sports metaphor, but we accrue so many other benefits from being in the Big Ten. There is the Big Ten academic alliance, which is just about the country’s most powerful academic consortium.
Now, ivy league schools are very high‑powered in academic spaces. Of course, they are. I understand them intimately. But if you think about the scale of the Big Ten operation, we are massive. Northwestern, where I was, is tiny compared to the rest of the universities, and Rutgers is one of the larger ones.
We can provide academic services and resources at a whole different level being part of the Big Ten academic alliance than we could have otherwise. So there are lots of benefits to be accrued in this athletic and academic space.
I have a question here from Nathaniel from the class of 1985. As I’m sure you are intimately aware, Rutgers does not have the institutional wealth of Stanford, Yale, or Northwestern.’
Just to name three institutions that you are familiar with. What might be the first set of actions that need to be taken to secure a more sustainable financial future for Rutgers?’
It’s a great question. Rutgers has wealth. When you think of the institution’s size per capita, it doesn’t compare to the schools you mentioned. My job is to help change that numerator/denominator.
There are a number of things. One, the state provides 10 percent of our resources, our spendable funds, and 10 percent for our fringe benefits. That’s wonderful. They are our largest, most consistent donor.
My frank ambition—I’ve said this to every legislator I’ve spoken to—is to increase that percentage. This comes to my team and me to talk to the legislators to say we need your support. You all think Rutgers is great and it’s very important and you want Rutgers to be more accessible and affordable.
More resources from the state will get us a long way down that road. So really, it starts with me being the best lobbyist I can on Rutgers’ behalf with the governor and with the legislature. So that’s one place right there.
We need to provide the resources for our research scientists to make sure they can put in as many applications as possible for funds.
And this is one of the rationale to create the Rutgers biomedical health sciences 12 years ago because it would increase Rutgers researchers’ opportunity to secure grants for the university’s bottom line, another important place.
You, the alumni, I mean, we need to find ways to increase our engagement with the alumni community so that you can be more excited about the place and offer some of your treasure to the university.
We also need to do a better job in terms of looking for public‑private partnerships with corporate America, especially this incredible corridor running diagonally down route 1.
We have so many good institutions where we have good relationships, but we need to enhance those relationships. So we need to work in that place as well. So there’s no one way to raise the money.
But it is a full-court press on all fronts.
I think this is a really interesting question from Toby from the class of 1996. How do you foresee the landscape of higher education changing due to COVID ripple effects? And the second question is, how might Rutgers change as a result?
Both excellent questions.
This is sobering. Let me start with the good news. Rutgers is going to come out of this okay. Now, I didn’t say in amazing shape. We just don’t know quite yet. We’ll get to that in the second part of the answer. But the fact is, across the landscape of higher education, we’re going to see consolidation. People often think about private universities as being just wealthy. Most of them aren’t. Most of them are scratching for dollars. It’s just a handful; it’s a tale of our country. A small number of universities have a vast amount of wealth in terms of higher education. Names that we recognize.
But most private schools are really in a very precarious position, and we’re going to see a number of them close. We’ve already been seeing closures before COVID. The pace is going to pick up. I can’t predict when and where. But you’ll be seeing stories over the next five years. COVID is going to accelerate that. And it’s heartbreaking because that will have ripple effects in local communities, usually smaller communities.
I wish I had the answer to that problem. Rutgers, even though I wish we had greater appropriation from the state, the state will not abandon us.
We’re too important to the state. And so we’re going to come out okay, but what are we going to come out looking like? And we need to take this opportunity—I like to think of challenges and opportunities.
We need to take the challenge of COVID and turn it into an opportunity. We have had to learn very quickly how to become better at pedagogy in a virtual space.
Let’s take this accumulated knowledge and apply it to those places in the university—I can think of business school as a perfect example, and I’ve talked to the business school about it.
How can we find ways to offer miniature courses or lifelong learning courses, executive education courses, stackable certificates? You can see, in business, schools of engineering are doing this now so that we can reach out to communities that we have not yet connected with to the extent that we should be connected with them.
There are real opportunities to point to our Rutgers beam at Philadelphia, to point our Rutgers beam at New York City, with Camden and New York respectively, and tap into people looking for a new set of skills or maybe a new degree. Only they can do it at night, or they can only do it remotely.
This is an area of incredible growth opportunity for the university. And then I’m truly curious to see what extent we can enhance Rutgers’ global brand.
I think there’s just tremendous opportunity there. We are already in so many places internationally. But I’d like to know more about how we can tell a story about Rutgers to a global community more effectively.
This is, frankly, about how to make Rutgers better. I want to have more of the world here.
Going back to the idea of the diversity of a whole population, getting all these different world views and perspectives will only make us better. And I’m only interested in making us better.
So I have an interesting question, more related to this whole concept and idea of the Big Ideas process you’ve been part of since you arrived. So, Jeanne, from the class of ‘75, asked the question about climate change being the existential world issue from her perspective. Rutgers has outstanding expertise. Will you, please, make it a major priority for the state university?
[ LAUGHTER ]
So you got a plea there from Jeanne.
Yes. You don’t have to plead. This is something that is going to get attention in our future fundraising efforts, absolutely and is one of our major areas of fundraising interest. The science on this is established. I mean, this is not debatable for me, especially living in a coastal state.
And I know it’s more than just about New Jersey, but we need to do everything we can to be a good citizen of the state when it comes to local science in that regard but also the nation and the world. No argument from me.
It’s a question of how we can partner most quickly and efficiently and at the highest level with our students, staff, and faculty. Right now, commissioned under Bob Barchi, there was a climate task force—I probably have the name wrong, I confess, but they’re in the midst of doing the work.
I’m waiting for their final report. And this is all about partnership because I am on board. We must address these issues. Absolutely.
So, let me ask a question that I’ve heard you talk about since you arrived, and that is the sort of the issue of the “U.S. News & World Report” rankings.
You’ve had some very interesting observations that you’ve shared with senior management, and I’m assuming as well with the academic leadership.
I think our alumni would be very interested in sort of hearing your thoughts about that.
Sure. So, rankings are complicated. That’s my political answer.
But they are also incredibly important. They really are.
We know that high school students and their parents are focused on this, and we know that the reputation boost you get from a high-ranking affects so many other aspects of the university enterprise.
This affects fundraising also.
My notion of Rutgers when I was in graduate school, climbing the academic ladder, was as a powerhouse in my area. It’s still incredibly strong. My notion of Rutgers is like a great research university—one of the best. I was shocked then when I saw as a candidate that we were ranked 22nd of public universities. I thought that’s not true. Flat out. It’s not a matter of giving me all the data you want. Rutgers’ reputation lags behind its excellence. And this is one of the big things I’m trying to understand why. Now, one can work through all the different algorithms related to rankings, and we will do this to make sure that we are more appropriately ranked.
When I asked the board of governors about this issue during my interviews, one of them said, well, honestly—I think this was very admirable—we’ve not paid much attention to it because it’s so complicated and messy.
Like, that’s great. But we have to be pragmatic too. We’ve got to pay closer attention to it. Bob Barchi took this up before me, and you saw some changes in Rutgers’ rankings then. I want to accelerate that.
Frankly, I think Rutgers, as a public research university, is around, let’s say 10, 11, or 12 in terms of where I think it belongs, and I want to see it higher than that.
Now, a quick story about this. A couple of weeks ago “U.S. news & world “ report came out, and we were ranked, I believe, 63 in terms of public and private universities across the country. And I was meeting with an individual that day who congratulated me on this.
And it was very nice. I accept that.
But part of me got very frustrated or even angry. Like, I don’t want to be congratulated on being in the top 100. Maybe I’ll want to be congratulated on being in the top 50, public and private. I will absolutely accept congratulations from being in the top 25 in public and private. That’s where Rutgers belongs. And you may think little of me for saying this.
I would not have come here if I didn’t think Rutgers belonged in the top 25 public and private research universities. So, I want to see reality reflected in that. I want to see my notion of Rutgers’ reflected in these ranking systems. That will take work. This will not happen overnight. This is the work of my presidency. I don’t want to be a slave to those rankings, but we deserve to be acknowledged for what we are already, and that is a great research university, one of the best in the country, if not the world.
That’s great. Jonathan, we’ve talked a lot about Rutgers. But I know you’re a family man.
And do you want to spend a couple of minutes telling everybody a little bit more about you as a person and as a family man?
Absolutely. So, I’m very happily married. My wife, Aisling Colón—sorry. There’s a bug here.
[ LAUGHTER ]
We’ve been married for 22 years this, as of later this month.
We’re high school sweethearts who went our separate ways, found each other—it’s like a hallmark story.
[ LAUGHTER ]
We found each other later, and I count my blessings every day. We are very lucky to have two children: our daughter, Emerson, who’s 20 years old, and at a liberal arts college in the midwest, and our son, Ellison, who is 17 and in high school. Given the fact that he is a high school senior, we didn’t want to move him for his senior year.
So, my wife and our son, Ellison, are living in an apartment in Evanston, Illinois, so that he can have his senior‑year experience. That means that I’m in the president’s house, holding it down for the family. Keeping me company are two big dogs, two yellow labs, and two cats of some making—I have no idea.
[ LAUGHTER ]
And if you ever happen to be on a zoom call with me from home, where I am most often because of COVID, don’t be surprised if a head pops up over my shoulder—it’s one of our cats—or if you see a yellow lab walking in on the lower part of the zoom screen wagging a tail, requiring me to lean over deeply to pet him so he won’t start nudging me the whole time. So that’s the family life. And I’m grateful for it every day.
That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. So this has been a great experience. I’m really glad we had the opportunity to do this. I wish we could spend more time doing this.
But we’ve reached the end of our program. I do have one final question, Jonathan.
What everybody loves about your presidency so far is your ambition and vision for where Rutgers belongs and your commitment to getting us there.
How can our alumni help you and the university realize this to its fullest potential?
Thanks for that. Look, I am only interested in excellence. And say what you will about that, but I’m not interested in good enough. I only want excellence. I would not have come to Rutgers if I didn’t already believe it was here.
My goal is to find ways to heighten that excellence and heighten the understanding or spread the understanding across so many other communities that we have something very special here. This is specifically where the alumni can come into play.
Look, I was hired to be an external‑facing president. I was hired to be hitting the road in New Jersey and going everywhere possible to connect with all of you.
This was supposed to be the spring and summer of shaking hands and kissing babies in the old politician’s way of thinking about it. None of that could happen, of course. So we do this virtually. And I’m so thrilled that hundreds of you, many hundreds of you, showed up to spend some time with me and get to know me better.
My ask of all of you is that you have in your hands an incredible jewel, and that is Rutgers’ history, Rutgers’ legacy. Yeah, you’ve got some stories about more complicated aspects of Rutgers’ experiences, but every college alum has those kinds of stories. I want you to look at that special thing in your hand, that Rutgers’ experience and I want you to tell that story too.
I’ve been here 110‑odd days. I hope my enthusiasm for the place is already palpable, my commitment to the place is there, my embrace of excellence, seeing it already here and wanting to spread it, I hope that translates through the screen.
I want you to do the same thing.
And when I finally get to the place where I can leave my house, to travel around the state of New Jersey, travel around the nation and the world, I hope that you’ll join me in telling those stories, that when I come to an event that you will be there, that we will be hyping each other up about how great Rutgers is, and that we will be evangelical in talking about what great place this is and how it transformed your life.
My ask is that when I come to your neighborhood, when I come to your door, open it. Together, I am certain that we can do amazing things for this university, for the state of New Jersey, for the nation, and for the world.
[ LAUGHTER ]
I got so excited. I wrapped it up beautifully, but I want…live TV, folks.
[ LAUGHTER ]
One of the things that I wanted to talk to you about…egg on my face. We are all human beings.
[ LAUGHTER ]
At the beginning of my comments, I talked about one of the things that I thought was so important about Rutgers was this commitment to excellence as expressed through the Scarlet Promise Grant. So I’m hoping that you could help people navigate to the place. If they are excited about what I was talking about today, they can navigate to the place where they can show their support for the Scarlet Promise Grant program.
Jonathan, it is very easy to support the Scarlet Promise Grants fundraising campaign. This is a $10 million campaign that Jonathan kicked off on his first day, committing a personal gift from him and his wife and then securing a commitment from a very small strategic investment fund. So all gifts matter a great deal. Aggregated together, they have the power to transform the lives of hundreds of students. And so you can visit the Rutgers University Foundation website at support.Rutgers.edu. And you can follow the button that will get you to the scarlet promise grants opportunity.
Thanks, Nevin. I’m so sorry. I almost blew the one thing I was supposed to do. What did I almost mess up?
My setup. Where was my setup?
I hope you have more successful conclusions to your evening. Thank you all so much.
Yes, let me just thank everyone for being with us. Jonathan, thanks for taking the time. And please stay safe and healthy.