Press Statement: June 30, 2020
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Unions at Rutgers University are welcoming new President Jonathan Holloway and looking forward to working with him toward a shared vision for public higher education.
“The Board of Governors chair Mark Angelson recently told us a new day is coming—we’ve been looking forward to that day for a long, long time,” said Todd Wolfson, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the union representing 5,000 full-time faculty and graduate workers at the university.
“We know that this is a moment when we can collaborate with the Rutgers president and build a new public university. Rutgers is at the forefront of reimagining public higher education in the 21st century, and we think the new president will center the core mission of the university: teaching, scholarship, and serving the community.”
President Holloway will face profound challenges when he takes office July 1, following a spring semester upended by the coronavirus pandemic and with Rutgers’ plans for the fall and beyond uncertain. The response of the previous administration, led by President Robert Barchi, to the twin health and economic crises it faced in its final months “caused those with the least to suffer the most,” according to Wolfson.
“Barchi’s administration chose layoffs and damaging cuts to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable,” Wolfson said, while rejecting an alternative approach developed by a coalition of Rutgers’ 19 unions that would have relied on federal government relief aid and the university’s substantial financial reserves, accumulated in large part from tuition increases, to protect students, staff, and faculty while ensuring Rutgers’ future. “That arrogance was symptomatic of the Barchi regime’s upside-down priorities,” Wolfson said.
Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT, which represents some 2,500 administrative staff, said: “For years, we’ve had a president who was a medical doctor and who supposedly had the best interests of patients and people in mind. We found that that wasn’t true at all, and he was interested in developing a more corporate-centered university. I hope Jonathan Holloway, as a historian, has a better understanding of the importance of people and their labor that is involved in the success of any institution.
President Holloway signaled a new direction in one of his few public comments about Rutgers before taking office. In a webinar on “Race Relations and the Making of the United States” sponsored by the United States Study Centre, he emphasized the “duty” of institutions like Rutgers to educate and serve the public in all its diversity.
Summing up his remarks, he said: “If we aren’t prepared to acknowledge all the workers at Rutgers, for instance—if we aren’t prepared to acknowledge the people who clean the restrooms and make the food or drive us around—we are perpetuating a problem that’s as old as the institution. And that part needs to change.”
That kind of attitude would be an important change from the past, according to Michael D. Lewis, business agent for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 68, which represents some of the maintenance, construction, and critical utility staff at Rutgers.
“It would be nice to see a focus on the people who don’t get as much recognition on a day-to-day basis when you think of Rutgers—the kind of people who help Rutgers shine but who, more often than not, get no recognition at all. I’d like to see Rutgers reflect the kind of institution it portrays itself to be.”
President Holloway is a contrast with the past in other ways. He is an eminent scholar of post-emancipation African American history, with multiple well-regarded books to his credit. He will be the first African American president of Rutgers. The university’s first campus was built by enslaved peoples, four decades before New Jersey’s initial tentative steps toward abolition and fully a century before the last enslaved person in the state was freed.
Donna Murch, a member of the Rutgers AAUP Executive Council and President Holloway’s colleague in the university’s History department, emphasized the importance of Rutgers taking concrete steps to address social justice issues, particularly in this current moment.
“We are living through one of the biggest upheavals in our history,” Murch said. “It is essential that the state university of New Jersey, with its campuses located in three majority minority cities, focus on questions of racial justice and social equality among our students, faculty, staff, and surrounding communities.”
“The challenges our institutions face today are enormous,” Wolfson said, “but they must be faced. That will require a bold people-centered vision, based on the values of compassion, solidarity, and democracy. We’re looking forward to sitting down with President Holloway to discuss how we work together toward that shared vision of Rutgers as an institution that cares about all of its 100,000 students and workers and every part of the communities that surround it.”