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Cause for Drama at New Jersey’s State University

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We got (more) problems. Why though?

I’m gonna go over some Rutgers history you won’t get at the Visitor Center.

Holy where to begin.

So prompting all of this is that New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy wants Amy Towers—a wealthy philanthropist who, with her husband, has given millions to Rutgers Athletics—on the Board of Governors.

Of course, this is not without controversy, particularly from the academics side of Rutgers. Amy Towers is interesting because in spite of the magnitude of her donations and involvement with the school; she surprisingly has no association with Rutgers outside of these donations and living in New Jersey. She is not an Alumna, and I’m not sure if she is even from New Jersey (edit** I’ve learned that Amy Towers is a University of Wisconsin graduate from the midwest).

For whatever reasons, though, she and her very rich husband—Jeff Towers, who is actually a University of Nebraska product—have taken the State University of New Jersey under their caring wing and have become some of the school’s greatest mega-donors in its history, and for that, most Rutgers associated people are grateful.

So I’m not here to talk about whether or not you can buy your way into the Board of Governors for a major university system, whether or not you need academic qualifications vs. passion for the school, etc.

I will share that I, personally, think Towers for the BOG is fine. Fine. It’s a state-controlled board and the state controls who’s on it and given the kind of state New Jersey is there are tons of far more awful people that could be recommended for the position. I also genuinely believe that Gov. Murphy is leagues more supportive of Rutgers and its goals to become great(er) for the state of New Jersey than Chris Christie EVER was.

Anyway, I’m here to first talk about what the Tweets shown below made by a prominent Rutgers chemical biologist represent as far as the precarious and tense nature between Rutgers academics and athletics. I will then delve into the history of this relationship, how that connects with New Jersey having some major cultural issues, and what this means for the future of Rutgers Athletics.

Okay so. The second Tweet is what riled up the Rutgers fanbase in a very particular way I’ve never seen before.

This is understandable: You have a Rutgers faculty member in an incredibly high position resorting to insulting a woman on social media—a woman who has done a lot for the university (and tons of other philanthropic things) and was recommended to be on the BOG at his institution. You can look at the response Tweets yourself, but to summarize it essentially became a one sided battle ground for the age-old Rutgers war of Athletics vs. Academics.

Dr. Ebright did not directly respond to any of the Tweets, but the response Tweets ranged from comments along the lines of, “Rutgers Athletics can grow to support itself and academics, it’s good for the University as a whole!” and, “Athletics is a good way for the alumni to feel connected to the school,” to “I can’t believe you are associated with the university, you should be fired!” and “you academic elitist in your little microbiology lab.” But all the Tweets tipped towards 100% disagreement of his insults and in favor of Amy Towers on the BOG. Seriously, all of the replies and tons more Retweets not shown were in uniform agreement against him which is a rare sight on any social media.

But so I’m not here writing to specifically disagree with Dr. Ebright or his critics. I’m here to ask and try to answer some “why’s?” based on this latest major happening in this great historical war between university athletics and academics which for various reasons is particularly intense at Rutgers. My pal Steve Politi at NJ.com kind of did this article concept first today and I highly encourage that read where Dr. Ebright provides his more thorough response to the outrage for his Tweet. I also encourage the read because Steve gives a brief history of the numerous recent battles in Rutgers Athletics vs Academics. However, I’m delving in a little bit of a different and deeper direction. This writing was prompted by a quote in Steve's article from former Rutgers Athletic Director, Bob Mulcahy, who was AD from 1998 to 2009, right smack dab during the time when Rutgers really dug into its pursuit for big time college athletics.

Are conflicts like this normal at other places? Bob Mulcahy, the former Rutgers athletics director who faced his own resistance while building the football program in Piscataway, doesn’t think so.

“You don’t read about this crap with a lot of the other Big Ten universities,” Mulcahy said. “It’s like a lot of things with New Jersey. We seem to tear down a lot of our institutions.”

I read these two paragraphs and sat and pondered them for a long moment, particularly the last two lines.

Rutgers Academics vs Athletics, vs other universities.

It is absolutely true that when you compare Rutgers to other, not just Big Ten universities, but any big athletics and high ranking academic institution it’s like knight and day (pun). I’m at USC now (the real one in California) and I know plenty of faculty and graduate students that have season tickets and go to football games. They have football schedule posters up in their offices, and they say “how about that game?” in a lecture the week after one.

I don’t think I really saw that at Rutgers. I remember one of the faculty in my department was a big supporter of Rutgers Women’s Basketball. There was a poster up in front of their office, but RU women’s basketball is a pretty consistent bright spot for Rutgers Athletics, so that’s not a good gauge. So again, I didn’t really know of more than a handful of faculty who were actually big supporters of the big-time, money sports that all eyes are on at Rutgers (Football and Basketball).

Why? Surely at least some these faculty went through and have peers in big AAU schools whose athletics and academics bolster each other up. Also, look at this absurd page from the “Rutgers 1000,” which are “friends of Rutgers Academics,” a coalition of anti-athletics Rutgers alumni and faculty. Here’s the blurb at the top of the page.

UNTIL RUTGERS IS SET FREE FROM COMMERCIALIZED DIV IA ATHLETICS

We will not excuse. We will not equivocate. We will not retreat a single step. And we will be heard.

Are there any other major institutions which have such a thing?

What makes Rutgers different in terms of its total lack of cohesion between Athletics and Academics? I think the problem might be threefold.

1. Old School Culture.

I know people always give Rutgers sh*t for saying this, but Rutgers’ original culture is a pre-colonial/post-colonial, Ivy League-esque school. That is how Rutgers started, and the Ivies and other small colonial era schools were the only schools it had to compare itself to and emulate for decades. That old school culture and identity honestly followed Rutgers until like the 1950’s. I’m actually going to cite information on the famous cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, created in 1949, to assist in supporting this concept.

Mr. Magoo is an alumnus of Rutgers University, Class of 1928. The reason behind this is that his creators wanted him to be “a college alumnus who was still fired up with the old school spirit [and they felt] Rutgers was the embodiment of the ‘old school tie’ in America.” — Mr. Magoo Wikipedia page

Yes, we were. Even after playing in the first College Football game in 1869, Rutgers still tried to keep that old school feel for so long. Rutgers is the oldest school in the Big Ten and that matters in terms of its path and ability or lack thereof to become exactly like a Big Ten school who all started much differently than Rutgers did.

Additionally, Rutgers is unique in that it is the only school in the United States that is a colonial chartered college (1766), a land-grant institution (1864), and a state university (1945/1956). Look at those timelines. It is clear RU has an identity problem with academics, the old Rutgers, and now academics with athletics, the new Rutgers, which were drawn into war because of this identity problem.

2. Academics Forgotten

I will be the first to say that even though I’m a big Rutgers athletics fan, I won’t excuse Rutgers or try to lie and say that academics hasn’t gotten screwed over and forgotten in the past. Not just by the university, but also by the state (also affecting athletics) which has its own plentiful bureaucratic issues.

In my senior year I worked in a research lab that studies the ancient environment and is associated with two excellent, nationally and globally recognized academic departments at Rutgers. The research topics of the lab are a pretty big deal, and some major publications have come out of it. Surely, this was a high tech state of the art building with all the appropriate technologies. Nope. This building was like 100 years old and it SHOWED. It was rundown and dilapidated with bad plumbing, paint peeling, no elevator, and no A/C. Don’t even get me started on the “temporary classroom buildings,” just dropped on a beautiful green campus, which actually became the Cook/Douglass Lecture Hall. This building is literally a larger version of one of those cheaply built gray buildings you see at long term construction sites with plumbing and classrooms.

Additionally, there’s a whole manner of wage and contract issues that Rutgers faculty and staff face which I won’t get into, but you can read about here. Meanwhile, it seemed that the stadium and athletics facilities were getting million dollar+ upgrades each year.

So I fully understand how certain areas in academia would feel about this and I hope that even the staunchest pro-athletics Rutgers supporters can empathize with them. Not all academics and non-athletics areas at Rutgers are forgotten though. Beautiful new student buildings, dorms, and lecture halls, have gone up. Genetics, Chemistry, Engineering, Food Science, the Medical School, Music School, and more all have some new state of the art of buildings and facilities, but a lot of those are driven by external donations and directly supported by the state. The programs which cannot generate their own massive support from either get kind of slighted by the university.

Luckily, in spite of everything, Rutgers is still a top-tier research institution, in the Top 25 public schools in the country. So imagine what it could be with a self-sufficient and revenue generating athletics program? This is the cause for a weird disconnect that doesn’t really make logical sense to me between Academics and Athletics. Perhaps it’s that the academic side has been so screwed over the years as Rutgers pursued big time athletics and went into debt, that maybe there’s some dissonant wariness over the future. However, the fact is that Rutgers is in the Big Ten now, the wealthiest conference in the country. The full share of money is coming no matter what and sooner rather than later. After that, Rutgers will have the ability to run, financially, like all other Big Ten schools, where the Athletics pays for itself and more, and most of the endowment can go to the academics side maintaining a highly respected academic institution.

In spite of this reality which can literally be seen in 11 other prestigious Big Ten schools (Maryland is at our financial level for now, and sorry, kicked out of the AAU, Nebraska), Rutgers faculty have become even angrier over recent years and as Steve Politi pointed out in his article (link again) they have pounced on every negative RU Athletics headline, and offered an angry public rebuke of the athletic department’s massive deficit in March 2017, even demanding an outside review. Rutgers’ current AD, Pat Hobbs, actually had to step in and ask that they stop given how detrimental it is to the Rutgers Athletics image which was already not in the best shape. And quite frankly, it’s incredibly hypocritical of the main vocal faculty members who wish for Rutgers’ overall mission and public perception of the university to be academically positive, but then actively work to knock Rutgers in the press with their anti-athletics sentiment which drags the entire university down. They act as though the public reads these negative articles and thinks, “man that Rutgers Athletic Department. Dragging that school’s great academics down.” NO. People read it and go, “Wow Rutgers University has got issues.”

So why? Why is there this war between Rutgers Academics and Athletics? There has to be more to this. Yeah, Rutgers has a historically ingrained academics culture and only for about the last 50 years or so of its 252 year history has it shifted and began modeling after its fellow big state schools in pursuit of big time athletics. That’s a big one. Yeah, much of the academics have been overshadowed in these years while Rutgers began sinking in a massive sea of debt, but then was thrown a literal life raft with invitation into the Big Ten. Yeah, Rutgers Athletics has done some embarrassing things over the years.

Some of you by now are probably like, “umm I think that’ll do it.” However, it’s more than that. Thinking back to Bob Mulcahy’s last line: “It’s like a lot of things with New Jersey. We seem to tear down a lot of our institutions.”

3. New Jersey has a Culture Problem

New Jersey hates itself. You might laugh, but this is a very real issue. I’ve had dozens of conversations on the topic. First off, I will thwart any comments on this by saying that obviously not all New Jerseyans are like what I describe below, but I’m confident many would agree that a huge overwhelming portion are. I’m not going to try to sociologically analyze the reasons behind this. And I don’t mean things that are prompted from absurdly high taxes or crappy infrastructure, I mean deeper social stuff. Do we hate ourselves because others hate us? Is that North vs. Central vs. South Jersey divide more intense than it should be? Is Taylor Ham vs. Pork Roll the hill worth dying on like so many seem to think it is? Does being in between two major U.S. cities suck our identity away from us? Does being in between two major cities lead to a slightly ingrained inferiority complex? I don’t know, but I certainly think it’s a good project for someone.

All I DO know is that New Jerseyans, while we seem love our state, we do a really good job of tearing down Jersey things. Rutgers is no exception. It has struggled for years with people not wanting to attend it (I myself once included in that bunch), the brunt of a huge manner of insults and invention of ridiculous false rumors about the school, and complete lack of support for all RU sports teams. And then of course New Jerseyans give a weird amount of support to out of state schools near and far (Penn State and Michigan are big ones) even though Rutgers, as the state university system, supports the residents of the state of New Jersey in so many direct and measurable ways. I don’t see this in other states. Yes, every school has its out of staters, but I know for a fact that a majority of people in Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, etc. feel far more positively about their state school systems than Jerseyans do about Rutgers. Sometimes I wonder if the anti-Rutgers sentiment coming from the state would be solved by just being called “New Jersey State University” or the “University of New Jersey.” Surely New Jerseyans wouldn’t so viciously hate the university system with the state’s name front and center. But they totally would because that’s who New Jerseyans are.

So this NJ cultural problem of hating ourselves has of course seeped into the fabric of Rutgers itself, a state made and molded in and by New Jersey. It has seeped into the academics, the athletics, and the students. Even the Rutgers meme Facebook page is filled to the brim with dank, self-deprecating memes made by students on the many flaws of Rutgers. There’s rarely anything positive unless it’s in ironically positive meme style. Tons of student-made memes are on the concept of the university draining money into sports vs. academic stuff. I’d say many Rutgers students also have this weird lack of passion, disconnect and misinformation on athletics and academics the same way the faculty do. It’s just bizarre and having attended two other big schools (Virginia Tech and University of Southern California), I can confidently say that these institutions don’t have this the way Rutgers does, and they absolutely still have their flaws.

So now you take this self-hatred and eagerness to tear down NJ institutions, even one that you work for, and combine it with the actual negative experience the academics side has faced at Rutgers, and the history of the school... well... you get this Academics vs Athletics war at possibly the worst level it can be at an institution. I don’t know if Rutgers will ever be like a normal Big Ten university where there’s just this overall kinship and connection between both aspects of the school. Even if Rutgers started making tons of money. Even if Rutgers became 100% scandal free. Even if Rutgers started to win National Championships. Even if Rutgers Academic rankings continue to rise.

There will be no harmony between the two unless Rutgers and New Jersey acknowledge and accept its cultural problem and try to help it. That’s a massive undertaking.


Zuzu is a 2016 Alumna of Rutgers University. She loves her alma mater incredibly, athletics and academics, and all of her criticisms are out of love for and belief that Rutgers is the greatest place on Earth and can become greater.