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Rutgers’ president on the medical school merger, that vote of no confidence, and the faculty strike

“I very much believe in the direction we are going as an institution,” said Jonathan Holloway.

Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway talks with with students after hosting a seminar called "Citizenship, Institutions, and the Public" at Rutgers–New Brunswick.
Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway talks with with students after hosting a seminar called "Citizenship, Institutions, and the Public" at Rutgers–New Brunswick.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

Since Jonathan Holloway became president of Rutgers University in July 2020, he’s had to contend with a pandemic, a faculty strike, and last month a vote of no confidence from the university senate.

He’s made some unpopular decisions, including the planned merger of Rutgers’ two medical schools and the non-renewal of Newark chancellor Nancy Cantor’s contract, all while continuing to have the ardent support of the school’s board of governors.

We sat down with Holloway, 56, a U.S. historian and Rutgers’ first Black president, to talk about the challenges he’s faced, the decisions he’s made, and his path forward at the school with more than 67,000 students at three campuses.

» READ MORE: As free speech issues rage on campuses, Rutgers’ president is joining the national movement to promote civil exchange

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The university senate voted no confidence in you last month. What was your reaction and is it going to change your course at all?

It’s not going to change my course... I very much believe in the direction we are going as an institution.

When I arrived here, I was committed to taking the university senate very seriously as a deliberative body, as an advisory body of faculty, staff, students and alumni. It represents Rutgers in many of ways.

» READ MORE: Rutgers University senate votes no confidence in the school’s president after faculty strike and controversial changes

For reasons I never quite understood, a dynamic developed where the same group of people would be asking the same questions [at university senate meetings] every single time and they were increasingly hostile. September of last year, it was almost exactly this time last year, I gave a senate address during which a member of the senate called me a liar.

I was like, wow, this is not a constructive way to engage. They don’t have to like my ideas but I have never lied to them.

Things were devolving and then they got very ugly during the strike. I had hoped for a quieter academic year, but then it’s been reanimated, that kind of tension, because of the merger of the medical schools.

» READ MORE: Rutgers faculty ratify new contracts, after a one-week strike and marathon bargaining

You are the first African American president here. Is any of this driven by race?

Absolutely... I can’t help but look at my predecessors, some of whom had really antagonistic opinions or viewpoints toward the same bodies, and they didn’t find themselves in this situation.

So what are the various factors? COVID has psychologically exhausted everybody. That’s part of it. There’s no doubt. The political moment is such... it’s in vogue to go after people. Social media has completely fractured our sense of polity.

Part of it is that people from underrepresented groups... are supposed to stay in line. And I don’t think I’m supposed to be OK personally being told I’m a liar and not respond.

In the spring... I was under 24/7 protection for two weeks by campus police. And I know they monitor social media. They didn’t go into why.

My house was blocked off for two weeks by a cruiser. I wasn’t allowed to drive myself to campus... And I couldn’t enter the front of the building.

So something is going on.

I have other friends in higher ed... They happen to be Black men and encountered pretty bad stuff in the social media space. One person wasn’t allowed in his premise for six weeks.

So we see patterns.

You’ve received pushback on the planned merger of the medical schools in New Brunswick and Newark, which would take five years. Why move forward?

We have two medical schools we are quite proud of, but if you look at the national landscape of how do you improve the reputation of an institution, how do you improve research dollars, how do you create efficiencies that will put more resources where they should be, instead of in a back office somewhere, merging makes sense.

We can’t offer certain clinical areas of care. We can’t hire people to do the research in [neurology, for example] because we don’t have enough each in our New Brunswick community and our Newark community.

» READ MORE: Rutgers-Camden professors say they are paid less than their main campus counterparts, a pattern perpetuated by the school

If we bring these medical schools together, we can hire clinician researchers doing this work because that person now has two different pools of patients.

Why didn’t you renew Nancy Cantor’s contract as chancellor of New Brunswick?

Nancy was known for being invested in the university as an anchor institution, a way to really connect the academic enterprise with local communities...

There’s a natural tension between a president and any chancellor of ‘I want to run my shop; — the chancellor would say this — and the president saying, ‘OK, but we need to go in this direction.’

I love the work that Nancy has been doing in terms of an anchor institution … I think that we can continue that work...

But I also want to build my cabinet in the way that I feel we are really aligned in this work.

There have been concerns about inequities among Rutgers’ three campuses, with Camden employees feeling they haven’t always received fair resources and attention. Are there inequities?

There’s no simple answer. Rutgers is hyper-complex... New Brunswick is... massive, significant residential base. 16,000 of our 19,000 beds are in New Brunswick. They are at full capacity... [He noted that New Brunswick is a Research I university, indicating very high research activity, where Camden and Newark are Research II.]

The result was that Newark and Camden felt like, what is it called the redheaded... stepchild. That’s part of the history.

I was told don’t just come to Camden or Newark to cut a ribbon. Come there more often... We started moving the cabinet to different campuses ...and bringing the whole administration to Camden for meetings.

That is part of the signaling that this past way of thinking about things needs to change.

You had a faculty strike last spring. How do you work on repairing those relationships?

We have 22 unions. We work beautifully with 17 of them... I know we are living in a moment of heightened union power... We’re also in an era of heightened vitriol everywhere in our society... So the work of repair is really challenging. We’re all human.

That’s going to be a work in progress. I’m certainly committed to it.

What accomplishments during your tenure here are you most proud of?

When I saw New Brunswick was ranked 22 [in U.S. News and World Report’s list of public universities] and I looked at schools ahead of it, I was like we are not behind these institutions... We really haven’t paid much attention to these rankings... I actually respect that we don’t want to play the game, but I also know our applicants are playing the game and their parents are playing the game.

I told the board — we just were not giving U.S. News proper data. We’re not going to change our daily practices, but we’re going to get organized, which is a radical change for Rutgers actually, and you’re going to start seeing us move up.

We were 23, then 19. Now 15. I think our natural landing spot is around 10. [Newark and Camden campuses also climbed.]

The other thing I really believe in [is] service... I published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for mandatory national service... That was the birthing moment for the Rutgers Scarlet Service initiative, [which offers up to 150 sophomores and juniors paid summer internships in public service, working for nonprofit organizations.]

In a community of 100,000 people, we are talking 250 [scholars]. Is that changing everything overnight? No, but it’s starting.

What are your major goals this year?

One is talking about civic discourse on campus. Growing [the scholars program]... Are there ways to get civic engagement built into more courses?

We have to find a way for financial sustainability. The long tail of COVID, now that the federal funds are gone, how do we get back into the black? We are really handcuffed until we get to that place.

Despite financial limitations, how do we get to the place where we can continue to accelerate on our path with our research? In about two years, if we do this right, we will cross the billion-dollar threshold in annual research dollars. It would be nice to join that club.

And then I’m launching the capital campaign... We are trying to increase our donor engagement base. Only 6% of alums [give]. We want to double that.

We already raise a quarter-billion on a running basis. We want to build up the capacity so we’re more at $350 million to $400 million a year.