Just minutes after being named to the post, the man who will lead Rutgers starting this summer stepped to a podium emblazoned with the school name against a scarlet background, and jumped right into the fray.
Come July, Dr. Jonathan Holloway, 52, will become the first black president in the 200-plus year history of Rutgers. But the one-time dean at Yale sought to downplay the significance of that fact.
“I’m honored to have the position,” he said. “I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘It’s great to be a black person getting out of bed this morning.’ It’s just great to be waking up and getting out of bed, frankly.”
“That’s not to dismiss the importance of my racial identity, which I hold with great pride,” he continued. “But the fact is, we are still living in an era of ‘firsts,’ and that comes with an awesome responsibility, which is exciting and also very flattering, and also shameful.”
Currently the provost of Northwestern University, Holloway was officially named Rutgers’ 21 president in a joint meeting of the boards of governors and directors at Rutgers, an academic community encompassing 70,000 students and 8,500 educators that’s spread over three campuses. He replaces Robert Barchi, who’s retiring after eight years at the helm.
At a wide-ranging press conference after the joint meeting, Holloway stood up in favor of free speech as an important element of academic freedom.
“There will be moments at Rutgers where people are going to be saying unpopular things. That is the cost of doing business at a great university,” he said. “That does not mean it’s OK to say these things, and that’s where a president can speak up and offer a sense of moral value.”
“The fact is, I’ll protect the right of people to say unpopular things,” he said. “That’s critical to the job. It’s critical to the whole scholarly enterprise.”
Mark Angelson, who chairs the board of governors and led the search committee, said Holloway was the best choice out of 250 applicants for the job.
“Jonathan Holloway is an extraordinarily distinguished scholar with an outstanding record as an academic administrator at Northwestern and Yale,” he said in a statement. “He is thoughtful, visionary, inclusive and decisive. He leads with remarkable integrity, and is just the right person to build upon Rutgers’ long tradition as an academic and research powerhouse.”
During his two decades at Yale, Holloway served as a professor of history, with a focus on post-emancipation United States history. Among those on hand in New Brunswick on Tuesday was Gov. Phil Murphy, who stopped in briefly to endorse the selection.
Among the more contentious issues during Barchi’s tenure was the decision to join the Big Ten, which placed Rutgers athletics under a microscope, especially about the spending on the school’s perennially losing football team.
In his remarks Tuesday, Holloway endorsed the benefit of big time sports to a university.
“You’ve heard this before: A great football team, a great basketball team, they’re kind of the front porch of the university,” he said. “It feels a little bit like a trite phrase, but I actually believe it’s true. It coheres community in a great way.”
A graduate of Stanford, Holloway said he was just a scrub on the same football team as Sen. Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat who just recently suspended his bid for his party’s presidential nomination.
Holloway is married with two children. He is a cousin of the late Newark powerbroker Gus Heningburg.
The student body at Rutgers is now 65% people of color. On Tuesday, students said it was exciting to have a black president at their school.
“I think that’s great,” said sophomore Awais Chaudhry. “More diversity. It just shows times are changing and more inclusion.”
“I think it’s amazing. I think it’s really progressive,” said Navroop Mondair, a freshman. “It’s something that I feel like should have happened sooner, but it’s great.”