Remarks at Commemoration of Conklin Hall Takeover

Richard L. McCormick, President
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

(Free Windows Media Player Required)

Good morning and welcome. We are glad to have you here with us. I offer a special welcome to Joe Browne and all the BOS alumni and veterans of that era who are here today. I am also pleased that Norman Samuels is here and commend him on the role he played as a faculty member during those important and historic days for Rutgers and for New Jersey.

It is my honor to be accompanied by my father, Richard P. McCormick, who chronicled the Conklin Hall takeover in his book on the black student protest movement at Rutgers. And it is good that current students such as BOS president Carolyn Matthews are here to bring this history forward.

Today we honor the courageous men and women, then students at Rutgers–Newark, who expressed their outrage and their determination to change a racist institution by occupying Conklin Hall 35 years ago today. Rutgers had not caused the fundamental racial and economic inequalities that characterized American life, but prior to February 24, 1969, neither had Rutgers done very much to address those inequalities. These young men and women wanted Rutgers to serve them and their communities, too, and they were right.

Although the Rutgers Board of Governors, faculty, and administration ultimately got the message, it is fitting today to offer, on behalf of the institution, an apology to the students of Liberation Hall and those who came before them. It should not have required a building takeover, and all the risks involved in that, to make Rutgers recognize its responsibility to the African American community in this city and throughout the state.

It is not hard to identify the changes, within and beyond Rutgers, that followed the occupation of Conklin Hall and the other notable student protests in New Brunswick and Camden. These included new policies of recruitment, admissions, and financial aid; a significantly more diverse student body and faculty; and relevant programs of study.

These changes, and more, brought about as dramatic a transition as any that occurred in the history of this university. Today, Rutgers–Newark is one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, and Camden and New Brunswick/Piscataway are not far behind. What a lesser institution we would be today if not for the actions of February 24, 1969, and the results that followed.

And yet, despite the bravery of the participants on that day and the good will of thousands of Rutgers men and women during the intervening decades, the changes have still fallen far short of what was wanted then or what is needed today. We still face daunting problems in recruiting black males. Retention and graduation rates remain too low. Not enough African American faculty teach here. Our university climate is sometimes less than welcoming and supportive. Just as was the case in 1969, these Rutgers failings are elements of fundamental American failings – a heritage of racism, impoverished inner cities, and schools lacking in quality. We cannot be satisfied as long as these deficiencies remain.

But the goals of 1969 are still our goals.

We celebrate the goal of diversity on our campuses because social justice demands it and academic excellence depends upon it. We value the goal of community empowerment, so fundamental to the Conklin Hall occupiers. Rutgers is not simply located in Newark, Camden, and New Brunswick; we also must be a vital source of strength and support for our home towns. On a larger scale, our goal must be to honor our responsibility as New Jersey’s state university, addressing today’s failings and challenges in our teaching, our research, and our service.

Thirty-five years ago this building was temporarily given a new name: Liberation Hall.

Let us keep the spirit of Liberation Hall. Let us never fail to explain why the diversity of Rutgers is so important and truly work with our students to nurture that diversity. Let us make Rutgers a more welcoming community for people of every culture and background.

Let us commit more fully than ever to addressing today’s problems in collaboration with schools, communities, churches, employers, and government. Let us lend strength to the revitalization of our three home cities and work more closely with K-12 schools to expand opportunity. And through vehicles such as the New Jersey Public Policy Research Institute, let our best research find solutions to the state’s most pressing community problems.

Today we celebrate an event of historic importance … and recognize that honoring the actions and the values of the Conklin Hall occupiers is not enough. Only by facing the very major problems that persist – on our Rutgers campuses and beyond – will we give them the honor, and the thanks, that they deserve.