Rutgers-Newark 1969-1972

by Carlos de Zayas


We converged on the concrete slab with four buildings on it from varied surroundings, in hand-me-down cars of questionable reliability; on the great sooty pea-green-and-white Public Service bus fleet, and on a streetcar named the Subway.

We were wary. The riots had happened the summer before, and this was the Central Ward of Newark, a place our parents feared. Of course, we'd rather have been partying unsupervised in dorms in New Brunswick, but that was out of our families' financial reach. Here, the diplomas still said Rutgers, and the tuition while living at home was cheaper than dirt. We could make do, even if it felt like a family shopping trip to Hahne's or Bamberger's and there was no football.

But there were indeed parties. It wasn't totally un-campus-like. It was a creditable imitation. Greek-letter fraternities and sororities had taken over about a score of decrepit houses surrounding the slab. The beer came in kegs and nobody carded us. For those who didn't fit that particular subculture, there were activities in the Campus Center before they named it after Paul Robeson. After class, where our professors with exotic accents taught us to express ideas in proper English and that the world was a lot bigger than our North Jersey oyster, we would go party with the Greeks, whether or not we were members, or in the Campus Center. It was more than a commuter school.

In 1969 change came. Some of our African-American classmates locked themselves into Conklin Hall. The signs said that Rutgers-Newark was a "white oasis." They wanted educational opportunities for Newark's minorities. We felt little empathy and worried about what would happen to the Rut's reputation at grad school admission time if it went "open admissions."

Fortunately, the University didn't agree with us. The powers that be recognized the imperative to educate those in need of it, and initiated a special admissions program that included remedial coursework to prepare the admittees for college level work. A few years later, when we got to the Law School, we saw first-hand what many of those special admittees were capable of when given a chance. Some of us even personally benefited from the law school's own minority outreach.

The lesson was unforgettable. A large number of us went on to success, unhindered and even helped by those men and women who locked themselves in Conklin Hall. Today, the Rut is the most diverse campus in the nation. It feeds a steady stream of multi-colored graduates into private enterprise, graduate school and public service. The Greek houses are by and large gone, but the mission is much more comprehensive than a campus party. There are even dorms now. I am proud to have been there when the change came, the mission was recognized, and Rutgers put its policies where its mouth had been, regardless of how long it took me to understand it.


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