Remarks on Appointment as Rutgers’ 20th President

April 11, 2012

Thank you so very much. Ralph, thank you for that warm and generous, perhaps over-generous, introduction. And I want to thank the entire Rutgers Board of Governors for the honor and the privilege of being named the 20th president of this truly outstanding institution. I also want to thank you for the collegiality and the warmth that you extended to my wife, Francis, and me during the past few frantic weeks of discussion. My personal thanks also to Greg Brown and Linda Stamato and the entire search committee for your courteous and thoughtful treatment of me during that process. But I do want to take a moment, on behalf of the university, to thank this entire search committee for the tremendous effort that you’ve put into this process, most of which occurs behind closed doors and in confidence and is never recognized by the rest of the community. We need to take a moment and thank you all for the process that you’ve gone through, which is so important for any institution in a change of leadership.

I would particularly like to thank the Board of Trustees and its chair Ken Schmidt, the Board of Governors, and the Rutgers faculty for the singular honor of appointing me as a Rutgers University Professor. This is perhaps as meaningful to me as any administrative leadership role. Any great university is only great because of its faculty. Rutgers is a great university, and there’s no question it has an outstanding faculty that makes it so. That’s been the case since it was founded in 1766 through the time of Selman Waksman in the 40s and continuous to today when you have in your midst faculty like Endre Szemeredi who basically has won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Prize in Mathematics. And I have to tell you, I don’t understand why I don’t see that on the front page of the New York Times. It’s something we have to do something about.

My commitment to this faculty, as a faculty member, is that we will not forget the critical role played by the community of scholars in the shared governance of this university. 

Now, I do want to mention a few things that I see on the horizon that are particularly challenging for this institution but are also particular opportunities for Rutgers. It’s a time of change and a time of challenges for universities and colleges across the country. The dialogue about public benefit and private inurement for higher education, about who pays and who benefits from that, is ongoing against a backdrop of reduced state funds and cuts in state support for higher education. That dialogue has uncovered a very clear fact, and that is that the business plan for higher education that we have all lived with for the last 50 years simply will not sustain us for the next 50 years. We need a fundamental change in the way we teach, the way we do research, and the way we finance those entities as we move forward. We need innovative, constructive movement in that direction. 

That change and those solutions are not going to come from the large private universities where there are multibillion dollar endowments that buffer them from the financial realities and their missions that span the globe as much as they focus on their regions. The solutions to these problems are going to come from the land-grant state universities who have an explicit mission to educate the citizens in their area to become the informed population that’s the bedrock of a civil democracy, to train the leaders of commerce for their states and their regions, to produce the new intellectual information that will eventually drive the economy of those states. And in fact, the solutions aren’t going to come from the weaker state schools, they’re going to come from the state schools that have already positioned themselves by paying attention to their finances, by focusing on their academic mission, by improving the quality of their research. And folks, that’s Rutgers. That’s what makes this such an exciting job. 

People ask me why would you want to do this? Haven’t you done this enough? My wife asks me that all the time [Laughter]. The answer is exactly this. It is a remarkable time of challenge and opportunity, and that opportunity is going to be grasped by the schools that are positioned to do so. It’s the right time. It’s the right place. It’s Rutgers’ opportunity to do that. And that’s what makes this so exciting for you and for me and for everyone else. 

But let me tell you that we can’t become complacent. If we see the pendulum of state support swinging from a far right position—or far left, depending on your politics—maybe a little bit back towards the center as the recession recedes, we cannot be complacent. Rutgers has to be proactive in defining its own destiny and it has to do that by increasing its emphasis on funded research, particularly in the area of the life sciences, which is where so much of the spending in this country is going; on partnerships with major industries and small businesses that populate this great state; on novel educational products that move beyond the simple degree-granting entities that we have now; on transforming our intellectual property into economic benefit, both for the state and for the institution; and particularly on private philanthropy. In short, what we have to do here is to create a new concept of higher education at the state university level that is a public/private hybrid. At the same time we must not lose focus on our principal role as the flagship university for the state of New Jersey. 

We’re very proud here at Rutgers of our membership in the AAU, and the AAU spends a lot of time quantifying grant hours, quantifying graduate education. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are first and foremost an educator of undergraduates and that undergraduate education is the cornerstone of our mission and the cornerstone of our plan going forward. You’ve done some remarkable things with President McCormick and the faculty in the last five or six years reorganizing undergraduate education, streamlining it, making it accessible to the students, rationalizing it. We have to build together on what President McCormick started and continue the focus on providing an undergraduate education experience that is the best in the state of New Jersey. And beyond that, we’ll be the best possible value and attraction for the best and brightest students in the states that surround us. We have to be an importer of intellect, not an exporter of intellect. We have to be the best at the undergraduate education business, not just a player. 

When I say undergraduate I’m not talking about Rutgers–New Brunswick. I’m talking about Rutgers as a university and that includes Rutgers–Camden and it includes Rutgers–Newark.

I want to make it very clear now I’m not taking a political position here, I’m stating a fact, and that is that we are a single university. Our three campuses all contribute to what makes this institution great. The undergraduate experiences in Newark and in Camden are not necessarily synonymous with New Brunswick but add their own value and their own set of perspectives to what we have to offer, and we have to be very clear about resourcing those parts of our organization, about the governance that they should be entitled to as we move forward. And keep in mind that they were part of this institution for a half century and before Rutgers officially became the state university of New Jersey in 1956.

And one other aspect of that we don’t talk enough about perhaps is diversity. I have been, throughout my academic career, absolutely committed to diversity. I have said over and over again in speeches that I’ve made before that our student body must reflect in its ethnicity and its socioeconomic stratification the diversity of the population into which our students will find themselves after their graduation, and I will not back away from that commitment. 

That commitment obviously extends to my staff and to our faculty. Positions in the faculty are the role of the faculty. But you can be assured that I will work very closely with them to do the best that we can to assure diversity all the way up the ladder from the president’s office to the freshman class.

I know Rutgers well and, as you’ll find in a few minutes, I’ve been in this area my entire life. But we have a little bit of a W.C. Fields issue here. If I look around and see what we have here, we have dozens of programs in the top 20 nationally. We have programs here that are among the very best in the world. We have programs like philosophy, which are the best in the world. If I go to England and look at their ranking system, they’ll tell you that Rutgers ranks in the top 15 in the world in its arts and sciences program. Why don’t I hear that? Why don’t I hear that in the newspapers here when they’re discussing all the other issues that are certainly important and certainly critical? Why are we not proud enough of what this institution has accomplished and where it’s going to make sure that everyone knows about that? Not just in this room, not just in this state, but regionally and nationally as well. It’s time for Rutgers to assume the position of leadership to which it is rightfully entitled. And one of my goals will be to make sure we get that message out there across the country, in Washington, and to all the media that need to hear about it.

When somebody calls for a quote, they should be calling Rutgers. When somebody calls for an example of excellence, they should be calling Rutgers. And I’m going to be looking to the help of everyone on the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors. You are our ambassadors, as are the 400,000 alumni who I know are proud of this institution but now have to turn that pride outward and get the message to their friends and colleagues and move things forward. 

Now just a little bit of personal background here about why Rutgers might be particularly interesting to me. When my grandfather immigrated to the United States from Italy with basically a grammar school education around 1910, he brought his family to settle in Raritan, just a few miles from here to the west. He went on to set up a little machine shop in Philadelphia and I was born a few blocks from that in North Philadelphia, but we very rapidly moved back to New Jersey. And from the time I was a toddler to the time I was past my first year of high school, we lived in Westfield, New Jersey, just 15 miles from here. My dad worked in Perth Amboy and his job eventually transferred to Trenton. They moved their home to the Trenton area where they remained until they died. 

So what I found, to my surprise, when I came back and started discussions here at Rutgers, this feels like coming home. I know these places. I lived here. I traveled by them all. I used to go to the Jersey Shore, sometimes with my parents’ permission, sometimes without. [Laughter] I went to Boy Scout camp in the Watchung Mountains. I went through the Pine Barrens of South Jersey in kayaks. This is very much my home, as the Delaware Valley has been for my entire life. So in many ways it is a homecoming, and we are really looking forward to being back with you. 

Now I just want to conclude by saying there’s a double-edged sword in your progress. In the last decade or so Rutgers has made incredible progress. But because you’ve made so much progress, we are going to be expected to do an awful lot more in the next five years. Because you’ve set the bar so high for your academic standards and your research productivity and your integrity, folks are going to expect us to set the bar even higher in the next five years. That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news. There is no question at all that this institution has the strength, it has the characteristics, it has the people, it has the faculty to achieve all those stretch goals and not break a sweat. And that’s what we’re going to do. 

Francis and I look forward to meeting as many of you as we can in the next few hours, certainly over the next few months, and to hitting the ground running in September. We’re looking forward with great excitement and anticipation to joining this Rutgers team. Thank you.