A couple of weeks ago, I spent five days on a bus touring New Jersey with about 30 other new faculty members at Rutgers University. The annual trip is the brainchild of our recently hired president, Richard McCormick. It has several purposes. One purpose is to acquaint new faculty at Rutgers with the state, where 91 percent of our undergraduates were raised. Another purpose is to provide opportunities to link our research with issues of relevance for people of New Jersey, from community based organizations to for-profit commerce. A third purpose is to advertise to the people of New Jersey the fact that they have at their disposal, for a fraction of the cost of a private university, the resources of an outstanding research university.
The third purpose was particularly important this year, given Gov. Corzine's recently proposed budget. In it, Corzine recommends cutting $169 million dollars from the budget for higher education in New Jersey, which would result in the largest budget cuts ever to Rutgers University. Given the positive correlation between the presence of a university in an area and the existence of high-paying jobs, Corzine's budget proposal is fantastically short-sighted, and suggests to me that his interest lies more in pursuing national office than in the long-term health of the state. That such a maneuever is politically possible shows that Rutgers needs to do more to advertise its value to the people of New Jersey.
During the trip, the proper identity of a public university was a constant theme of discussion. Given that we are supported by the taxpayers of New Jersey, is our primary obligation to serve our citizens by supporting the commerce and industry of the state with our research and teaching? Is it to provide job skills for its citizenry so that they can enter the professional workforce? Obviously, there is no single answer here; a land-grant institution such as Rutgers has multiple identities. Nevertheless, I found myself repeatedly arguing that our core mission should be to provide access to a first-rate education to those who otherwise would not be able to afford it.
As income inequality has broadened in the United States, we have developed daunting socio-economic divisions. Universities have had considerable moral culpability in this development. Acceptance to boutique universities is for the most part only possible if one has attended the kind of school that grooms its students in the right way, with SAT prep classes and expensive college coaches. Having a child at Harvard has the same cultural status as having a second home in the Hamptons. Possessing a boutique university degree is a sign of high socio-economic class. In short, boutique universities have played a central role in fostering, perpetuating, and heightening socio-economic class divisions in the United States.
The function of the university in American life should not be to deepen social divisions. Rutgers, in contrast, represents the core values of higher education in a democracy in which equality is central to its self-conception. Our mission is to provide an outstanding, affordable education to the people of New Jersey. In an earlier era, the City University of New York trained a generation of future academics by taking advantage of the talents of a wave of immigrants who were not able to access the boutique educational experiences available to the wealthy classes. As the flagship state university in a highly educated state with extraordinary public schools and a huge immigrant population, Rutgers could be the CUNY of the 21st century.
In my two years at Rutgers, I have had the privilege of teaching some of the best undergraduate students I have ever taught. Perhaps we don't get the children of Harvard MBA investment bankers who vacation in Switzerland. But we do get the children of Indian immigrants from Edison, who work part-time to support their education while double-majoring in math and philosophy. We get people who are the first in their family to attend college, and we get young people who were frankly a little too burdened with personality in high school to spend all of their spare time burnishing their credentials for possible admittance to the upper classes. We will always have trouble recruiting faculty who wish to leverage their academic positions into exclusive invitations at the European chalets of the parents of their students. But, as long as we have the support of the state of New Jersey, we will have the upper-hand in recruiting faculty who wish to share their research with our uniquely inspiring undergraduate community, without sacrificing the kinds of salaries and graduate departments available to them at the boutiques.
Having leading departments at Rutgers has allowed middle-class and poor citizens of New Jersey access to the best post-undergraduate opportunities in academia, medicine, and law. Already, we can offer many of the very same opportunities afforded by the boutiques; by continuing support to Rutgers, the state can broaden access to these opportunities for its citizens even further, at a fraction of the cost. In so doing, the state could also be a national leader in revitalizing the mission of the university as a provider of opportunities to all citizens, rather than just its wealthiest. Or the politicians in New Jersey could decide to reduce our budget drastically, forcing us to raise our tuition sharply, and destroy the momentum we have built towards our goal of recruiting an outstanding faculty interested in providing an education to students, regardless of their socio-economic background.