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.