Monday, February 13, 2012

Maybe it IS about race...

Last week I posted about the battle that Rutgers University’s Camden branch, where I am a PhD candidate, is fighting for its existence.  New Jersey’s governor and other politicians have endorsed a plan (and I use that word loosely, because “plan” is defined as “a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something” and so far no details exist, only vague promises and grandiose statements) that would change the structure of public higher education in New Jersey.  This proposal would give Rutgers New Brunswick a medical school in exchange for our Camden campus, which would be taken over by Rowan University.  Many, many people have explained why this is a bad idea both educationally and fiscally for New Jersey residents and for people like me who cross the river to attend Rutgers.  

In that post I implied that I was taking a break from my usual topic of race to explain the Rutgers crisis.  What does this have to do with race? I asked.  Probably nothing, I said.  I hope nothing.  After further consideration, I take it back. Some of the stuff about Rutgers/Camden being floated out there contains veiled references to race.

Most obvious and offensive are the statements made by anonymous commenters to online articles/blogs about the takeover. One of these called us a “ghetto no-nothing [sic] campus.”  It’s not hard to see the reference to race there – “ghetto” is code for “unsafe, run-down place where a lot a black people live.”  Another person on another site commented, “Camden is not the real Rutgers anyway.”  What does that mean?  What makes a campus, or a place, “real”?  We have real classrooms, a real library, a real gym, real faculty and real students.  Reminds me of a certain politician’s statement about the “real” America.  Where is the real America, and is Camden not a part of it? Is “real” code for “white”? 

Of course, I admit that these are only a few random comments made by a few ignorant individuals.   More troubling is what’s being said about Rutgers/Camden by people who should know better. For example, last week the folks who wrote the proposal suggesting the takeover deal testified before New Jersey’s Senate Higher Education Committee.  Their leader, Sol Barer, who is a member of Rutgers Board of Trustees, used some very interesting language in referring to Rutgers/Camden.  While he referred to Rutgers/Newark as a “sister” campus to New Brunswick, he called us a “satellite” campus.  A satellite?  Nowhere on any of Rutgers’ websites or accreditation documents are we referred to as a satellite.  We are a branch of Rutgers University, period, and you would think that a member of our own Board of Trustees would know that.  But Mr. Barer’s description of us clearly places us in the same category of “not real” as the anonymous commenter noted above.  I know, Mr. Barer said nothing about race, but his word choice was meant to marginalize us as surely as if he had called us a ghetto.  A few days later, during an interview on WHYY, George Norcross, who has much to gain if the takeover becomes a reality, said that he attended Rutgers/Camden briefly 35 years ago, and that the campus hadn’t changed at all since then.  This, of course, is a flat out lie.  We have new and renovated buildings galore, but Mr. Norcross’s statement again evokes images of a “ghetto campus,” not a difficult accomplishment since that’s what some people visualize as soon as they hear the word “Camden” anyway. 

One more thing.  Over the last few weeks New Jersey Senator Steve Sweeney, who is in favor of the takeover, has referred to protesting Rutgers students and faculty, led by Wendell Pritchett, our African American Chancellor, as a “lynch mob.”  Ok, everyone slips up sometimes, but when given the opportunity to rephrase, Sweeney defiantly declared that he stood by his comment. So on the one hand we’re a run down ghetto that hasn’t changed in 35 years, but on the other hand we’re a lynch mob.  Talk about role reversal.  Many have suggested that Sweeney’s comment was racially insensitive.  I suggest something deeper.  Sweeney unknowingly illustrates a common discourse employed by some whites and noted by race scholars – the “whites as victim” motif.  That’s when whites claim that because of programs like affirmative action they are the new victims of discrimination. It’s a very commonly held argument. Sweeney, the white person, casts himself as the victim of a lynch mob led by the African American Chancellor of our campus.  Of course, I know that Sweeney did not intend to invoke racial images of any kind with his outrageous statement.  He only meant to question the motives and insult the intelligence of the entire Rutgers/Camden population.  Still, his choice of words bears scrutiny for its subliminal message about race.

Maybe this is all a stretch. Maybe I am reading racism into a situation that has nothing to do with race. I don’t know. I do know that when I mention that I go to school in Camden, eyebrows attached to white faces rise and an unsaid something passes between me and that person.  It’s the same unsaid something that underlies this whole merger/takeover debate, and the same unsaid something that positions Camden as an expendable part of the Rutgers University system.

Articles/blog about the proposal (be sure to read the comments, too):
Sign the petition to stop the takeover at

Sunday, February 5, 2012

R is for Rutgers!

Hear that crunching, crackling sound?  Hear that shattering glass and smashing steel?  That’s the sound of Rutgers/Camden being thrown under a bus by New Jersey politicians, and maybe by our own president and governing boards, in a proposal that would add a medical school to Rutgers New Brunswick at the expense of the Rutgers Camden campus, which would be taken over by the lesser-known Rowan University. 

This proposal is a study in magical thinking.  Rowan takes over, and magically Rutgers/Camden triples in size, creating a revitalization of Camden – no, not just a revitalization, a renaissance.  I’m not making this up – these are the terms being thrown around, and so far not a word has been spoken about where the money would come from to make this happen and how, specifically, two very different institutions could possibly become one.  This doesn’t surprise me, because politicians are known for engaging in magical thinking, or at least in magical speaking, as they spew forth vague, empty promises to get what they want.  That’s how they get elected. Vague promises, catchy little sound bites – it’s all part of the game. 

Politicians are also prone to “misspeaking” (a euphemism for “oops, I said what I really think”), as Gov. Christie did last week in his comments about the Civil Rights Movement, and as Romney did when he said that he “wasn’t worried about the very poor.”  And, just to be fair, if I had a nickel for every time Joe Biden “misspoke,” I’d donate the money and have a university named after me.  So, perhaps Christie misspoke when he justified the proposed takeover of the Rutgers Camden campus with his insulting statement that education in South Jersey is “good, not great,” although I’ve yet to hear an apology for that one. 

The problem with magical thinking is that it ignores the facts.  It’s time for a reality check.  The fact is that South Jersey already has a top-level research institution in Rutgers/Camden.  As a doctoral candidate in the only PhD program in Childhood Studies in North America, I’m proud to state that our Rutgers/Camden faculty is comprised of top scholars in the field who have drawn students from all over the world. I know that I’m only one student, but as a resident of PA I chose to pay the full, out-of-state tuition at Rutgers and to commute to Camden because I wanted the kind of rigorous education that I knew I’d receive at Rutgers. I’m proud to state that I have received a great, not good, education at Rutgers/Camden.  The scholars that I have had the privilege of studying under came to this area to be a part of Rutgers, and I fear they will leave if our Rutgers identity is stolen from us. Rather than triple in size, the Camden campus will shrink without the Rutgers name to attract faculty and students.

What does this have to do with my usual topic of race?  Probably nothing.  I hope nothing.  But if the takeover of the Rutgers/Camden campus becomes reality, the good work that Rutgers has done in the Camden community for decades will suffer.  As one sign at a recent rally stated, “If Rutgers leaves, Camden bleeds.”

Perhaps the most astonishing bit of magical thinking by the proponents of the takeover is the idea that the thousands of students, faculty, staff, administration and alumni of Rutgers/Camden will acquiesce and meekly give up their Rutgers identity.  Magical thinking has caused them to underestimate seriously our fierce attachment to our Rutgers identity and our ability to fight this plan with every legal means at our disposal. 

So, hear that roaring, thundering sound?  Hear those resolute voices and shouts?  That’s the sound of Rutgers/Camden students, faculty and staff stating in no uncertain terms, WE ARE RUTGERS, and Rutgers we intend to stay.

For more info on the proposal check out the facebook page at  Although this page consists of folks against the proposed takeover, many articles both pro and con have been posted there.

To join the fight against the takeover of Rutgers/Camden sign the petition at