NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Five days into his tenure as president of New Jersey’s flagship university, Jonathan Holloway was clear on one thing: Rutgers stays.
“We are not going to change the name of the university,” said Holloway, who on Wednesday became the first Black president of a school named for Col. Henry Rutgers, a Revolutionary War hero and slaveowner. “Names have value that exceeds someone’s existence.”
Holloway has had quite a first week at work, with weighty decisions about running Rutgers amid COVID-19, financial woes, and a national racial reckoning prompted by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
But Holloway, who will soon turn 53, is uniquely positioned to handle the job.
As a Black man and as a historian, Holloway said, he very much wants to talk about the complicated history of the state’s largest public university. Rutgers first opened as Queen’s College in 1766, but the Rutgers name is very different from a Confederate flag, he said, and any university as old as it is was bound to have some associations with people who earned “blood money” through owning slaves.
Holloway’s scholarly background is in African American history and Black protest movements, and he has pledged “concrete actions” to advance the causes of racial justice. He said it was too soon to say what those might be, though some announcements will happen this summer.
“The era of simply saying, ‘You have my thoughts and prayers’ is over,” said Holloway. “It’s important to be empathetic, but that’s not enough anymore.”
That he now leads an institution named for a slaveholder is not personally painful to him, Holloway said.
“If I were to walk around feeling bludgeoned by every name that I see that has a connection to racial slavery, I couldn’t get out of bed,” he said. “My existence, my humanity, my complexity cannot be reduced by the fact that Rutgers was a slaveowner. That’s his problem. That’s not mine.”
Being the first Black person in a rarefied position is not new to Holloway, who was the first Black dean of Yale College and the first Black provost at Northwestern. He’s proud of the distinction of being Rutgers’ first Black president, but he said it shouldn’t have taken 254 years to get there.
“I think that’s an indictment of the ability of our society to imagine excellence,” said Holloway. Recognizing excellence in many forms will be a theme of his presidency, he said.
So new to campus that he said he made it there without relying on GPS only for the first time on Monday, Holloway said the start to his presidency was extraordinary.
“This is not the presidency I expected,” he said. “No surprise there.”
Holloway announced Monday that most Rutgers classes will be held remotely in the fall, and that dorm capacity will be severely restricted as the country copes with the continued effects of the coronavirus.
Rutgers University had tentatively made those plans weeks ago, but held off on the announcement until Holloway officially assumed the presidency.
“I’m actually grateful that we delayed the announcement, as we’ve seen this really terrifying surge across the country,” Holloway said at a news conference on campus. “This makes the decision much more sensible.”
Under the plan, certain classes — likely some performance, engineering, and science classes, and clinical classes that require hands-on instruction — will be held in Rutgers buildings, with strict social distancing and hygiene protocols in place. And only roughly 25% of university dorms will be open to students, with priority given to international students and housing-insecure students.
Specific decisions about which courses will operate in person and which students will be allowed to live on campus will be made by the chancellors of the individual campuses — which besides New Brunswick include Newark and Camden.
On-campus events have been canceled throughout the fall, and decisions about athletics, including football, are forthcoming and will be made in concert with athletic conferences, following state requirements. Holloway said he expected more clarity around athletics in about two weeks, but said a spring football season was a possibility.
No decisions have yet been made about spring instruction.
Holloway said he was glad that Rutgers was not among the crop of universities nationwide that pledged early in the coronavirus outbreak that students would return to campus in the fall, no matter what. Student health is paramount, he said, but faculty and staff health is, too.
“By and large, the students are going to be OK,” said Holloway. “It’s the staff and the faculty who are at much greater risk.” Though he did not have numbers, he said more and more staff and faculty are expressing reservations about in-person teaching.
COVID-19 has and will continue to have an impact on the university’s finances, said Holloway, who announced he would take a 10% pay cut in his base salary of $780,000. New Jersey’s finances have suffered, and Rutgers enrollment is down by about 3% so far, but he realizes that will likely change with Monday’s announcement.
“There’s a very serious shortfall coming down the line,” said Holloway. Rutgers tuition, which had been set to rise, was frozen at last year’s levels, but Holloway said discounting the tuition price was not an option. How the university will cope with that shortfall is still up in the air.
The immediate concern is providing a robust experience for students in the coming semester, the president said. He pledged that remote instruction will be smoother than it was in the spring, when the coronavirus forced everyone online with very little notice.