A newly formed committee at Rutgers University is charged with exploring “enslaved and disenfranchised populations” in the university’s 249-year history.
Rutgers, the three-campus state university of New Jersey, is one of nine colonial colleges that existed before the American Revolution. Founded in New Brunswick on November 10, 1766, the institution was chartered as Queen’s College, a private school affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church. It was renamed Rutgers in 1825.
But the university, which recently kicked off a year-long celebration leading up to its 250th anniversary, has not yet reconciled the darker sides of its history. Along with an estimated 150 individual events planned for the next year—with most focusing on Rutgers’ “revolutionary pursuit of teaching, research and service”—the university also has launched an investigation into its past.
“We must acknowledge that our history also includes some facts that we have ignored for too long, such as that our campus is built on land taken from the Lenni-Lenape and that a number of our founders and early benefactors were slave holders,” Richard Edwards, chancellor of Rutgers-New Brunswick, wrote in an email this week that also announced the formation of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History.
“Given our history as a colonial college, these are facts not unique to Rutgers, but it is time that we begin to recognize the role that disadvantaged populations such as African Americans and Native tribes played in the university’s development,” Edwards wrote. The committee, composed of faculty, staff and students, will examine the “role that the people of these disadvantaged groups played in the founding and development of Rutgers University” and make recommendations on how to best acknowledge the past.
Announcement of the committee comes as grassroots student groups have called for better accountability of Rutgers’ past and recognition of the issues faced by contemporary Native students. Of the 65,000 undergraduate and graduate students attending school on Rutgers’ three campuses, only 60 are Native. On the university’s flagship campus in New Brunswick, there are only 21 Native students, according to the most recent demographic data.
Those students, bonded together in the student-run Rutgers Native American Cultural Association, want to see a handful of demands met by this time next year. When the university celebrates the 250th anniversary of its charter, the Native community wants to see establishment of a Native American Cultural Center on campus, a scholarship program for Native students and funding to help recruit more Native students, specifically from New Jersey’s three state-recognized tribes: the Lenni-Lenape, Ramapough Lenape and Powhatan.
“I would like the university to acknowledge that there’s a Native American presence on campus, that we exist, that we’re here,” said Denajahh Hoffman, a 20-year-old junior on the New Brunswick campus, majoring in cultural anthropology and Africana studies. Hoffman, who is Ramapough Lenape and Penobscot, said she was shocked to learn there was no Native American Cultural Center on campus.
“You’re on Native American land and you don’t acknowledge that we exist at all,” she said. “I want the university to do more than acknowledge us, but give us the opportunity to participate on campus, to be included as a cultural group.”
Rutgers supports four officially recognized cultural centers: the Asian American Cultural Center, the Center for Latino Arts and Culture, the Paul Robeson Cultural Center (for the African American student population) and the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
Native students belong to the “invisible fifth cultural center,” said Monica Torres, a junior on the New Brunswick campus and a Ronald E. McNair scholar. Torres, who is Dominican, Puerto Rican and Chinese, has embarked on a research study into Rutgers’ shifting relationship with Native students.
According to her research, Rutgers currently has its lowest Native student population in nearly three decades. Yet the university in the mid-1990s had one of the finest Native American Studies programs in the country—and its highest-ever Native student population. The program was dismantled when its founder left the university.
Torres believes the dwindling presence of Native students at Rutgers is “intimately related to the erasure of Native American histories in the United States.” And the university’s failure to acknowledge its presence on Native land or to recognize and fund a Native American cultural center is part of the “ideological silencing and bodily disappearance” of Natives, she said.
To demonstrate this silencing, Torres led a student protest November 10 during the kickoff event for Rutgers’ year-long celebration. A group of about 30 students put tape over their mouths and held signs calling for representation on campus.
“We go to college on Native land, in buildings named after slaveholders,” Torres said. “We need reconciliation. We need a pendulum to start moving. There are lives that matter and that aren’t being accounted for.”
As Rutgers launches an investigation into its sometimes-uncomfortable history, it joins the ranks with other universities that have made amends centuries after being founded. Brown University, founded in 1764, formed a similar committee to examine its ties to the slave trade.
In a joint effort completed last year, Northwestern University and the University of Denver explored their connection to John Evans, a railroad tycoon who founded both institutions but who also was partly responsible for the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, an incident that left many Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians dead.
In his email, Rutgers Chancellor Edwards asked the committee for the same “vigorous pursuit of the truth.”