The Sky's the Limit: New Initiatives for Rutgers Undergraduates

Richard L. McCormick, President
As submitted; published in the Trenton Times May 10, 2007

One of the great ironies in American higher education is that undergraduate students at many of the nation’s best-known universities often feel slighted.

In general, big research universities are organized to support faculty research and graduate study. Even though undergraduates make up the great majority of the student body, many wonder if they are the top priority on their own campuses.

This is a challenge that higher education leaders recognize we must address. It has prompted studies at Harvard and the University of Michigan; over the past three years, Rutgers has confronted this challenge as well. We discussed and debated the recommendations of a faculty-led task force charged to tackle this issue before the Rutgers Board of Governors approved last spring the most sweeping transformation of undergraduate education in the university’s 240-year history.

While the changes will affect virtually every aspect of student life at Rutgers, two initiatives clearly demonstrate our commitment to provide undergraduates the full benefit of working in close collaboration with our outstanding faculty and expanded opportunities to conduct original research. These initiatives – first-year seminars and the Aresty Research Center for Undergraduates – are generating excitement among current and prospective Rutgers students as well as some of our most generous donors.

This fall, incoming students will be able to choose from more than 100 first-year seminars. These small courses, with no more than 20 students each, are being developed and will be taught by senior faculty. They cover such topics as “Modern Plagues,” “The Ecology of the Jersey Shore,” “Witnessing War in the 21st Century,” and my own first-year seminar on the challenges faced by modern higher education.

Studies show students who complete first-year seminars are more likely to interact with faculty beyond the classroom and to be satisfied with their institutions.

Since we announced these seminars, Rutgers alumni have pledged more than $2.5 million to fund this program. When I meet with these donors, they describe their own life-changing experiences with outstanding professors when they were undergraduates.

A growing number of Rutgers undergraduates also are participating in a program that would not exist without generous private support—the Aresty Research Center.

Since the center’s creation from a generous donation by longtime Rutgers supporters Jerome and Lorraine Aresty in 2004, more than 250 Rutgers students have received grants to conduct original research in the sciences, the humanities, and public policy. Each undergraduate works one-on-one or in a small group with a Rutgers professor.

Current research projects address a wide array of vital topics, including autism, ovarian cancer, and the politics of modern slavery. Donor support enables students to expand their research activities beyond classrooms and laboratories to rural communities, urban neighborhoods, and foreign lands.

For most undergraduates, this research represents their first contribution to the creation of new knowledge that is a primary mission of great research universities like Rutgers. Not only are they learning in new ways, but these students also tell us that their research projects are among the most rewarding experiences of their college careers.

By implementing these programs and additional undergraduate initiatives, we are, in effect, creating a new and better Rutgers—a comprehensive research university that is building on our rich history and academic strengths to do a better job for our undergraduate students, the future leaders of our state, our nation, and our world. At a university as complex as Rutgers these changes are not easily implemented, but they are worth every step.

From their first day on campus through graduation, Rutgers students will be able to immerse themselves in an environment that combines the university’s diversity with access to nearly 150 undergraduate majors—everything from history and philosophy to marine sciences and women’s and gender studies. They also will have the opportunity to establish close connections with many of our finest professors as soon as they arrive.

Rutgers undergraduates will work side-by-side with world-renowned neuroscientist Wise Young, take a seminar on Victorian London from New Jersey professor of the year Barry Qualls, and participate in learning communities like the Middle East Coexistence House founded by Rutgers student Danielle Josephs.

The benefits of these new initiatives in undergraduate education, to our students and to New Jersey, are substantial.

As the state’s largest public university, more than 35,000 of Rutgers’ 50,000 students are undergraduates; 90 percent are New Jersey residents. Every degree they earn from Rutgers represents opportunity—for these students to shape their future, to be well-informed citizens and productive participants in the world economy. Students who choose to attend Rutgers will be able to take full advantage of the only public research university in the state with virtually limitless educational opportunities for undergraduates.