By Walton R. Johnson
In January, 2019, Rutgers kicked off a year of celebrations to mark 100 years since the graduation of our famous alum, Paul Robeson. Yet, despite the hoopla, the university continues to neglect the needs of African-Americans in our state in a manner that is openly contemptuous of Robeson’s core ideas.
In the past generation, there has been a precipitous decline in enrollment of African-Americans. In 1979, there were 5,683 African-American students at Rutgers. That constituted 11.5 percent of the undergraduate student body and approximated the proportion of African-Americans (10.7 percent) in the New Jersey population. Although African-Americans constitute 14 percent of New Jersey’s population today, there are only 3,811 African-American students and they comprise only 7.2 percent of the Rutgers student body.
Rutgers had great success in the 1970s and early 1980s in enrolling and graduating students of color. Admissions officers aggressively sought out talented students while they were still in high school and encouraged them to apply to Rutgers. These efforts meant that the State University of New Jersey eventually ranked first in African-American enrollment and third in Latinx enrollment among its peers in the Association of American Universities (AAU). In fact, during this period, Rutgers-New Brunswick ranked second in the nation among predominantly White universities in awarding baccalaureate degrees to African-Americans.
The same declining trend has been true in faculty hiring. In 1976 there were 175 African-Americans on the faculty. We aggressively recruited and retained faculty of color by giving rewards to departments that hired them, trying to short-circuit the ‘old boy networks’, appointing a powerful officer to oversee hiring and by mentoring young faculty.
These policies were successful. At one point, Rutgers ranked first in the AAU in the percentage of full-time African American faculty and seventh in the percentage of full-time Latinx faculty. But today, despite growth in the student body and well over 2000 faculty, there are only 93 African American and 88 Latinx tenure track faculty at our university.
There is a long and disgraceful pattern here. Rutgers President Robert Barchi has made this worse not only by adopting previous administrations’ policies of flagrantly subordinating the interests and well-being of Latinx and African-Americans, but by redefining diversity so broadly that a White man hired in a department with majority White women counts as ‘diversity.’ Paul Robeson would be calling out for action if he were around to see how far Rutgers has retrogressed.
The sad truth is that Rutgers’ successful policies of the 1970s came about only as a result of external compulsion. A 1974 federal consent decree meant that Rutgers was required to work towards equal representation throughout the university in order to retain its eligibility for federal dollars. This court order began the period in which Rutgers administrations took seriously the recruitment and retention of African-Americans and Latinx faculty and students.
In the 1980s, however, after Ronald Reagan rescinded the government’s stringent EEOC requirements, our leaders methodically dismantled the effective policies and reverted to practices that impede Latinx and African-Americans to this day.
At the present time, the university administration rejects practices that have proven to increase enrollments from our Latinx and African-American communities.
Moreover, in the 2018 contract negotiations, our faculty union advanced a proposal for increasing the numbers of African-American and Latinx faculty. The union has proposed a Paul Robeson Hiring Initiative that focuses on hiring historically under-represented faculty as well as Robeson fellowships for graduate students. Lessons learned from the 1970s were cited. Unfortunately, the response from the administration was similar: “No thanks, we are not interested in doing that kind of thing again.”
To respectfully embrace Paul Robeson, our university administration must eliminate its deep-seated hostility to African-Americans and Latinx and begin to implement appropriate measures for student enrollment and faculty hiring. It must accept our union’s proposals. Otherwise, Paul Robeson will become merely an opportunistic marketing tool for an institution that actually spurns what the great man represented.
Dr. Walton R. Johnson is a professor of Africana studies and anthropology at Rutgers University and former dean at Livingston College.