Shades Of Red

From time to time, I would like to write about colleges and universities from the perspective of studying Rutgers University, my alma mater and school I know best. I have earned two degrees from Rutgers and formed successful professional relationships with university administrators.

According to the latest U.S. News America’s Best Colleges, Rutgers’ flagship campus in New Brunswick ranks tied for 20th among publicly-supported research universities. This is impressive, considering Rutgers ranks ahead of universities that have much larger endowments and longer histories as public institutions. I know alumni who are disappointed in Rutgers’ ranking; they believe Rutgers is closer to a private Ivy League school than a “Public Ivy” such as the University of Virginia or UC-Berkeley.

When I entered Rutgers in the fall of 1978, the university’s football schedule included Penn State, but also Colgate, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary and other schools that are part of the NCAA’s so-called “Championship Subdivision,” a silly name for programs with small stadiums (less than 40,000 seats) that play-off for a national championship. By my senior year, Rutgers had played not only Penn State, but also Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse; this was the only season we lost more games than we won while I was in college. I attended the last Rutgers-Princeton game play in “our house.” I still meet alumni who say they were at that game --and they miss the rivalry, which has been over for 27 years.

When I hear these comments I wonder who college football programs belong to: the students or the alumni. However, I also ask myself, are we really the equal of the schools we played? Having an Ivy League school on a football schedule didn’t grant us equal status by association. At the same time, Rutgers’ academic reputation has not fallen because our chief rivals in football are now Louisville and West Virginia.

Rutgers, like other large state universities, has its athletic boosters. However, it’s rare to see students, alumni and faculty organize an initiative to oppose them.

Rutgers professor William Dowling was an academic leader of the Rutgers 1000, a group dedicated to an ideal: that Rutgers drop scholarship football and invest in top-performing academic candidates, the high-SAT and academic achievers who would ordinarily choose an Ivy League school. The Rutgers 1000 campaigned for ten years, from January 1993 through December 2002.

It’s rare to see a group like the Rutgers 1000 within a state university community, and rarer still, for such a group to have had so much staying power. Student leaders graduate, alumni move on as work and family responsibilities dominate more of their lives. It’s safe for me say that faculty support and alumni memories kept the Rutgers 1000 going, but the Internet brought the news coverage necessary to advance their cause. Professor Dowling wrote Confessions of a Spoilsport, a recently released book chronicling Rutgers’ entry into major college football and the birth, rise and fall of the Rutgers 1000.

As a Rutgers alumnus, and a former board member of the business school’s alumni association, I was familiar with the Rutgers 1000. They made some valid points: football has no connection to the intellectual climate of a university; the sport is costly and rarely profitable, even for the major powers; and, the desire to win becomes a dangerous obsession when athletes, coaches, athletic directors and boosters run uncontrolled.

Dowling also mentions that the campus newspaper and alumni magazine suppressed the group; the magazine refused to accept an ad from them. I agree with Professor Dowling’s position here, too: dissenting opinions on college campuses must never be suppressed. Colleges exist to encourage people to think and form their own ideas, not tow a party line en masse.

However, the Rutgers 1000 shot themselves in the foot; they weakened their case, stating that big-time football would corrupt and degrade the university—because schools of lesser academic stature would be on our schedule. They used the University of Nebraska as an example of how Rutgers could be "lowered" to the academic standards of a "football school."

To be fair, I believe the Rutgers 1000 was quite concerned about the character and academic backgrounds of the athletes recruited by major college football programs. I do not believe that they meant to imply that the “bad apples” reflected badly on the academic reputation of another university.

However, someone in the Rutgers 1000 came up with the Hubie Cornpone Award, using a caricature of the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ mascot, to present to the sportswriter who was most likely to bring Rutgers down to the level of the University of Nebraska. That’s when things got out of hand, at least to me.

After reading Professor Dowling’s book, I got curious. I wanted to make some non-football comparisons between Rutgers and Nebraska. It was interesting on one level: both Rutgers and Nebraska have the same school colors, red and white, and fans wear red on game day. However, Rutgers says scarlet is the official color, while Nebraska says Big Red. Therefore, I’ll call this comparison The Shades of Red.

I went to published sources: the Yale Daily News College Guide, U.S. News and the Chronicles of Higher Education. Here’s what I found:

+ Endowment (university system): Nebraska $1.2 billion, Rutgers $550 million

+ In-state tuition (main campus): Nebraska $5,867, Rutgers $9,958

+ Out of State students (main campus): Nebraska 14%, Rutgers 7%

+ R&D Expenditures, Science and Engineering (university system): Nebraska $333 million, Rutgers $310 million

+ National Merit Scholars entering in 2006 (main campus): Nebraska 60, Rutgers less than 30

+ Yield rate (percentage of admitted freshman who accept offers of admission to the main campus): Nebraska 65%, Rutgers 33%

+ Number of undergraduate students (main campus): Nebraska 17,000, Rutgers 24,000

It appears that Nebraska fans bleed red on game day, but their university is fiscally speaking, less red than Rutgers.

In his book, Dowling ignores that in 1989, under former president Francis Lawrence, a man he consistently vilifies, Rutgers became a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The University of Nebraska had been a member for 80 years before Rutgers got the call!

These comparisons are remarkable, considering there are about 1.8 million people living in Nebraska versus 8.7 million in New Jersey. The Garden State has a much larger tax and corporate base to support a flagship state university than the Cornhusker State.

The Rutgers community has much to be proud of in their flagship university; very few research institutions attain top 20 rankings in football and academic performance at the same time. Rutgers is new to this lofty perch, but the university community must act like it belongs there, instead of ridiculing comparable institutions.

Otherwise, we fall further behind Nebraska in the games that really count.

Shades Of Red 9.4 of 10 on the basis of 3513 Review.