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The Legacy of an Anchor Institution: Reclaiming the University of Newark
“Our alumni are testimony to [Rutgers University–Newark’s] legacy and strength as a gateway to opportunity and excellence for our graduates, and we seek them as collaborators to further manifest RU–N’s longstanding identity as a university that is of Newark (not simply ‘in’ Newark).”
—Rutgers University–Newark: Where Opportunity Meets Excellence, Spring 2017 Update to the university’s
2014 strategic plan
In 2014, following the arrival of Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Rutgers University–Newark (RU–N) publicly embraced our role as an anchor institution—one with deep connections to our city. We enshrined this anchor institution identity, as well as our commitment to providing educational access to a diverse student body, in our 2014 strategic plan, developed through an expansive listening and visioning process that included the full spectrum of RU–N stakeholder groups (students, staff, faculty, alumni, neighbors, and community partners).
Our campus is one of several in the Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey system. RU–N is located in Newark, a city that presents opportunities for engaged learning and scholarship. The university is directing its resources toward place-based initiatives—including research, teaching, student projects, service learning, and cocurricular activities—that will help us listen and contribute to the aspirations of those living and working in Newark. The fact that many of our students come from the city of Newark and the surrounding areas further underscores our shared destiny with our community.
Over the past two years, we have started to explore ways to transform our relationship with alumni, inspired by the national Citizen Alum movement. In the process, we have discovered that our efforts to engage our alumni and community rest on telling the RU–N story and reclaiming our institution’s forgotten legacies. As we claim our institutional identity as a university that is of Newark, not simply in it, we are examining the roots of our institutional culture by tracing our university’s history back to the days when it was called the University of Newark, before it joined the Rutgers system in 1946.
A Vision for Alumni Engagement
In 2016, RU–N began deliberately examining our engagement with alumni through Citizen Alum Newark. Our senior leadership—specifically Chancellor Cantor, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jerome D. Williams, and Vice Chancellor for Development Irene O’Brien—has invested in exploring Citizen Alum as a theory of change for higher education that aligns with our institution’s priorities outlined in our strategic plan (Rutgers University–Newark 2014). Citizen Alum presents a vision in which alumni help fulfill the democratic purpose of their alma maters, join in transforming higher education, and participate as engaged citizens in the public work of a democratic society within their occupations and communities. This vision gave RU–N new perspectives on the alumni relationship, which have helped us reflect on our identity as an anchor institution.
My role since 2016 has been to investigate and recommend strategies for transforming our institution’s relationship with alumni. I work through the Office of the Chancellor, supported by a graduate fellow and in partnership with the RU–N advancement team. Our goal is to engage alumni as allies as we reenergize our public mission and prepare our students to become engaged citizens. We have incorporated this alumni engagement approach into the spring 2017 update to our strategic plan (Rutgers University–Newark 2017).
RU–N is emphasizing our anchor institution identity as we build relationships with and tell our story to current and future alumni. Four years ago, RU–N created commencement exercises more aligned with our identity by including more schools and programs, illustrating our anchor institution mission through video stories of graduating students, and selecting commencement speakers that reflect RU–N’s identity (such as 2018 speaker Dana Owens, known professionally as Queen Latifah, who grew up in the Newark area).
In addition, RU–N held its first annual convocation to welcome incoming students in fall 2017. This new tradition presents an opportunity for RU–N to introduce future alumni to our identity and history.
In fall 2018, RU–N will formally open its Alumni House, located a block from the main campus. The center is RU–N’s concrete pledge to maintain relationships with our students after graduation. It provides spaces for alumni living in, working in, or visiting the Newark/New York City area to reconnect and participate in advancing the RU–N story and legacies.
Reclaiming Our History
Recognizing our institution’s pre-Rutgers history and identity as the University of Newark provides relevance to the transformations Citizen Alum aims to spark. We are reclaiming the University of Newark’s legacy of serving nontraditional students from the city and preparing students for civic life after graduation. Connecting this legacy to RU–N’s current mission and identity inspires public dialogue about RU–N as a space where academic and city life intersect intellectually, practically, and aspirationally.
The early twentieth century was a bustling period for industry, art, and culture in Newark, and new colleges and professional schools emerged to serve its local populations. Five of these institutions combined to form the University of Newark in 1936. The university aimed to develop an active citizenry and educated electorate for the state of New Jersey, create civic leaders and professionals for the city of Newark from its own population, and supply “opportunity, without regard to race, creed, or color, for young men and women from the lower and middle income levels” (Women’s Committee of the University of Newark Development Fund Campaign 1938, 14).
Education historian Harold S. Wechsler (2010) depicted the University of Newark as an institution where academic life regularly intersected with the life of the city, through its students, faculty, and administrators. Students were predominantly from Newark and surrounding areas in northern New Jersey, including students that some even today would call “nontraditional.” Many held jobs and paid for their own education while supporting themselves or their families. Students traveled to their day or evening classes from work or home. Many were children of immigrants. The student population was religiously diverse; about 40 percent were Jewish, with the balance being Protestant and Catholic (Wechsler 2010).
Most of today’s Newark residents and Rutgers University students, faculty, staff, and alumni have never heard of the University of Newark, yet seven decades after its merger with Rutgers, its successor institution Rutgers University–Newark continues to emphasize educational access in its mission. The RU–N student population is nontraditional for a research university. More than 80 percent of students are commuters, and only about half of undergraduates are first-time, full-time students. Being a first-generation American or a first-generation college student is common across our student body. RU-N has no racial-ethnic majority; Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latino, and non-Hispanic White students each make up less than 30 percent of the student population. U.S. News and World Report (2018) has ranked our university as the nation’s most ethnically diverse for many years.
RU–N’s fundamental identity—as an anchor institution of Newark, committed to educating a diverse student population—has deeper historical roots than is commonly known. This identity was forged decades ago; it is not a new branding strategy. These legacies have nearly faded from public memory, due to lapses in reintroducing the complete RU–N origin story to successive generations. Remarkably, the ethos of the University of Newark’s identity endures in RU–N’s culture of educational access. RU–N will include future, new, and existing alumni in rediscovering the university’s “lost” legacy and will collaborate with them to transform the alumni culture of our anchor institution.
Rutgers University–Newark. 2014. Rutgers University–Newark: Where Opportunity Meets Excellence, Strategic Plan 2014. Newark, NJ: Rutgers University–Newark. https://law.rutgers.edu/sites/law/files/attachments/rutgers_strategic_plan.pdf.
Rutgers University–Newark. 2017. “Deep Dive: Alumni Engagement—Citizen Alum.” In Rutgers University–Newark: Where Opportunity Meets Excellence, Spring 2017 Update, 57. Newark, NJ: Rutgers University–Newark. https://www.newark.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/ru-n_strategic_plan_update_spring_2017_w-appendices.pdf.
U.S. News and World Report. 2018. “Campus Ethnic Diversity: National Universities.” U.S. News and World Report. https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities/campus-ethnic-diversity.
Wechsler, Harold S. 2010. “Brewing Bachelors: The History of the University of Newark.” Paedagogica Historica 46 (1–2): 229–49.
Women's Committee of the University of Newark Development Fund Campaign. 1938. Facts about the University of Newark and Its Development Plans. Newark, NJ: University of Newark.
Quintus R. Jett is Citizen Alum Director at Rutgers University–Newark.