Creating a Ruckus at Rutgers (Again)

Reconstituted group of students, faculty and alumni says it has familiar targets and goals: Stopping university administrators from emphasizing football over academics.
November 21, 2007

At its peak in 2002, the membership of the group known as Rutgers 1000 included more than 200 professors, hundreds of students, and scores of alumni of Rutgers University. The group had created a ruckus by winning a highly publicized legal battle after the university's alumni magazine rejected an advertisement that urged the university to abandon "professionalized" college athletics. Late in 2002, having had a hand in bringing about the resignation of a president whom it perceived to be too infatuated with turning the university into a bastion of big-time football, the group disbanded, its leaders convinced, as Professor William C. Dowling wrote this year in a memoir, "that it was the hour of victory," and that the university was on the path to putting big-time sports in its proper place.

That did not happen. Although President Francis L. Lawrence left, his successor, Richard McCormick, has shown no signs of abandoning big-time sports, which are hardly on the decline at Rutgers -- far from it. The university has poured resources into its football program under Coach Greg Schiano, and last year, the Rutgers football team had its best season since the 1970s. The program -- once a perennial loser in the Big East -- is now a contender. Last Saturday's home game was a 10th-straight sellout, and with more than 9,000 people reportedly on a waiting list for season tickets, the university is contemplating a $100 million-plus renovation and expansion of its football stadium, to add seats and luxury boxes. Although university officials say the stadium project will be "self-supporting," there has been talk of the state contributing $30 million in financial support.

All of which is galling to some faculty members and students, given that Rutgers is still feeling the pain of a $50 million cut in its budget last year necessitated by a reduction in state funds. Course sections were eliminated and faculty jobs left unfilled, and the financial impact extended to the sports program as well, leading to the elimination of six teams. The idea that the university could seek, and the state could pony up, tens of millions of dollars now to help finance a football stadium was enough to prompt students and faculty members to resuscitate Rutgers 1000, which reappeared in an advertisement, an open letter to President Richard McCormick, in The Daily Targum, the student newspaper, last week.

"While the [Board of Governors] is fast-tracking the football stadium expansion, the university is suffering from savage budgetary cutbacks," the ad said. "400 courses have been eliminated. Hundreds of staff positions have been abolished. Key projects have been put on hold. Teams in Olympic and participatory sports have been eliminated. Rome is burning, Mr. President. How long shall the BOG be allowed its fiddling?"

A group calling itself the Rutgers 1000 Student Steering Committee placed the ad, which it paid for with help from alumni concerned about the drift of New Jersey's flagship public university, says Niti Bagchi, a senior classics and English major and member of the steering committee. "A lot of us have been feeling resentment over the years, but the announcement of the stadium expansion was the straw that broke the camel's back," she says. "The idea that six months after budget cuts, $30 million that the state supposedly didn't have for academics supposedly materializes for athletics is wrong."

Bagchi says that the placing of the advertisement prompted an outpouring of support from dozens of students asking to join the resuscitated Rutgers 1000. She admits that most students have little sense of the group's history -- which she grudgingly acknowledges could be seen as a "noble failure" -- but says that they know enough to believe that they are pursuing a worthy cause. "The approach is slightly different, the enemy is slightly different, but the overall goal is the same: We insist that the Board of Governors and President McCormick switch their loyalties and priorities from Schiano’s football franchise to Rutgers University's real students," she says.

Rutgers officials, who fought the last iteration of Rutgers 1000 tooth and nail, are taking a more measured approach this time around -- at least so far, with the group in its fledgling state. "Rutgers is a large, very diverse community, and there are many student, faculty and alumni groups like Rutgers 1000 who voice their opinions on any and all university issues," says E.J. Miranda, a university spokesman. "We recognize and encourage input from the Rutgers community."

Miranda, though, challenges some of the group's assertions about the stadium project, which he notes "has been studied and discussed by the administration and the appropriate committees of the governing board and awaits review and approval by the Board of Governors at a December 6 meeting. "President McCormick has made it very clear that if the expansion is approved, the project will have no effect on tuition or academic programs," and that "there will be no impact on non-athletic administrative programs or on any planned academic construction," Miranda says. "The project would be totally self supporting in that it would be paid for by ticket sales, fund raising and other new revenue generating opportunities."

In addition, the spokesman said, "the university is moving forward with other plans to upgrade Rutgers's facilities," noting that McCormick unveiled a plan to commit $15 million over three years to renovate classrooms, and that a renovation of the student center and construction of a new dining facility have already been approved.

That seems like a drop in the bucket given the university's $500 million in deferred maintenance, says Richard Gundy, a statistics professor who has agreed to head the faculty council of the reconstituted Rutgers 1000.

Gundy, who has been at Rutgers since 1965 and saw the original Rutgers 1000 come and go, believes in its mission but is perhaps less sanguine than its student members about its likely impact.

"I think this Rutgers 1000 will continue to make noise, just like the other one did," Gundy says. "I saw what happened last time, where we worked for 12 years and ultimately failed to change things. This time, too, the administration and the board will probably just go on their merry way."

He adds: "I'm pessimistic about whether it'll change much, but it's worth the effort."

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