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Presidential Perspectives

presidential perspectives

Steven J. Diner

What Is an Urban University?
Steven J. Diner
Chancellor, Rutgers University-Newark
November 2008

After the riots of 1967, Newark, NJ became a national symbol of urban decay. Despite significant revitalization in the last decade, most Americans still see Newark as a city of poverty, crime and social pathology. So the leader of a university in downtown Newark is confronted immediately with the question, what do we say about our home city? When I arrived at Rutgers University-Newark over a decade ago, some of our faculty thought that the less we said about Newark the better. But many others, myself included, had a different view. I have long believed that great cities are the ideal locations for great universities. So I argued that we should embrace our location in downtown Newark and seek to become a great urban university.

Rutgers-Newark is an 11,000 student research university, with the full range of arts and sciences disciplines and professional schools of law, business, nursing, criminal justice and public administration. We award approximately sixty PhDs a year. The standards for appointment, tenure and promotion of faculty are the same on all three of Rutgers’ campuses, and place heavy emphasis on high quality research. So how can our location in downtown Newark support the core mission of a research university?

Discussions of urban universities tend to focus on service to and engagement with universities’ host cities. And cities provide ample opportunity for community service of all kinds, of which Rutgers-Newark is justly proud. In recent years, many urban universities have also worked closely with their communities and the city governments to revitalize neighborhoods adjacent to the campus. As we build residence halls and open stores in campus buildings, we are contributing significantly to the dynamic revitalization of downtown Newark.

Our core mission must be teaching and research, however. It is these core activities that benefit most from our location. Cities like Newark contain an extraordinary mix of institutions that provide rich resources for teaching and research in many fields. Our campus sits next door to the world-class Newark Museum and three blocks from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, one of the nation’s finest. Within a fifteen minute walk from campus are the headquarters of five major corporations and numerous small and mid-size companies; federal, state county and local government offices; the headquarters of the Newark public schools; the nation’s leading jazz public radio station; the offices of New Jersey’s largest newspaper; studios of New Jersey public television; one of the nation’s leading centers for the study of infectious disease; two major hospitals; several large law firms; and both federal, state and municipal courts. Moreover, our campus is adjacent to three other public institutions of higher education, including a technological institute and a medical university, enabling us to offer numerous joint degree programs that none of us could offer alone. Within a fifteen minute ride from campus is the port of Newark, the largest on the east coast, and Newark International Airport, one of the busiest in the country. Numerous social service, community development, criminal justice and law enforcement agencies are a short distance from campus. And, of course, our campus is a twenty minute train ride from midtown and lower Manhattan.

Numerous faculty have taken advantage of these resources in their teaching. As a result, our institution offers rigorous classroom instruction coupled with hands-on experiential learning and internships in the city. Our Law School has one of the oldest and most highly developed clinical programs in the nation, and law students have the opportunity to actually practice law through clinics that serve low-income Newark residents and nonprofit organizations. Our business school has established a Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and secured a million-dollar equity fund in support of small business development in Newark. As a result, we are attracting some of the nation’s leading scholars of urban entrepreneurship whose students work directly with prospective business owners seeking support from the fund. Our School of Criminal Justice works closely with law enforcement agencies to apply computer crime mapping and other crime-reduction techniques to neighborhoods in Newark, and several doctoral students have written dissertations from data collected while working on these projects. Our School of Public Affairs and Administration, the nation’s leader in the study of performance measurement in government, is working with public agencies like the city’s Housing Authority to develop quality-control systems. Many of our nursing faculty study health disparities in Newark. One faculty member examines high-risk sexual behavior among teenage girls in Newark, and has developed and tested a video designed to reduce risky sexual behaviors. And in response to a request from the new superintendent of Newark public schools, we are establishing a center that will engage scholars from many different disciplines in research on Newark’s public and charter schools.

The idea of connecting teaching and research to universities’ host cities is hardly new or radical. When the modern research university and the academic disciplines emerged in America in the late nineteenth century, they developed mostly in major cities, and their leaders insisted that their urban location was crucial to their success. Nicholas Murray Butler, who transformed Columbia from a traditional college into a modern university, wrote that “there is no doubt whatsoever as to the superiority of the city’s opportunities and environment as a place of graduate, professional and technical study.” Harry Pratt Judson, second president of the University of Chicago, declared that “the university should not be content with the discovery only of scientific truth… but should be especially industrious in the investigation and dissemination of such forms of truth as are directly related to the city.” This vision is even more appropriate today than it was a hundred and twenty years ago.

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