A Two-Part Tale: Life at Rutgers College

Paul J. Sundermier

This is a two-part tale of life at Rutgers College in 1964-65 and life there in 1968-70.

In 1964 we were not yet into the “60’s” as people remember that decade; it was much more like the 50s. Rutgers is unique in that it was a former colonial college (Queen’s College, 1766), a Land Grant College (1864), and a state university (1946). “Staid” would have been an understatement. At Rutgers back then, life was much as it must have been for several decades—male students only, frosh hazing rampant, fraternity life was huge, tradition ruled including misogyny, and professors’ class work expectations were high. No classes were scheduled on Wednesday afternoon as that was Drill Day and two-thirds of the students were enrolled in ROTC. It had been mandatory for freshman and sophomore years up until a year or so earlier. It was not uncommon to take 17 or 18 credit hours per semester. Our biggest football game of the year was Princeton, 20 miles down the road. Our student athletes (the only kind) took class with us and ate the same cafeteria food at the same tables in The Commons. A recent change involved the largest minority student group—Jewish guys—many of them locals who could attend because their mothers or fathers had worked menially for years at the college for the promise of free tuition to their qualified sons. Some of those mothers cleaned the students’ rooms every day and were often poorly treated. The smallest minority were probably African Americans. We had one in my freshman class of about 1,500 as best I recall—he was from Massachusetts. The basketball team members were white and so were all the other teams. New Jersey had a large population of black and brown people then as now. It may be that Rutgers made offers to the well qualified of those high school graduates, but they chose to go elsewhere, I don’t know.

I was not well-prepared to go to engineering school, but that was the encouragement I had from the time of the Sputnik—so I did it. For 3 semesters. We were warned that one-third of us would be gone in under two years. My best grades were ROTC, English, and engineering drafting. My worst were calculus, physics, and chemistry. It was not boding well. Time ran out in early 1966 when I was dropped from engineering school—aka flunked out. They gave me all the rope I needed; I’ll say that. I went to work as a billing clerk in a factory where some of my relatives and high school classmates worked in shipping or on the floor. I might have enrolled in some college or other if I’d known that Rutgers had a policy of reporting dropped students to the draft board, thus losing one’s deferment in those pre-draft-lottery days. By May I had my Greetings and was inducted into the Army in July 1966.

This was not an opportune time to gain the benefits of being a veteran. Vietnam was killing both sides with abandon and our side needed more triggers and bodies. The military, the President, and Congress were ill-prepared to fight that war, as we learned. It wasn’t because of the draftees. I lucked out. I was trained as a Military Policeman and sent to a poor rural outpost in Korea for a year, but it wasn’t Vietnam. I did my “combat duty” in Washington D.C. during the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. I was discharged from active duty in June, a month early, in time to return to Rutgers summer school so that I could attempt admission to a liberal arts program in the fall. I passed two terms of French with good grades and obtained a position as a freshman dormitory “preceptor,” likely due to my MP skills. There was yet a vestige of law and order at Rutgers. I enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences.

College in the summer of 1968 was strange. Many traditional students were still around but many others dressed like Jesus, a guru, or a hobo. Marijuana was replacing beer. There was rage about the military and Vietnam with little direction about either. For instance, there was a local effort to boycott Coca-Cola because it was run by “The Man” and that would stop the war and the draft. One of many new concepts to digest.

Sometime prior to the fall of 1968 when I was preparing to begin the liberal arts requirements that I’d avoided in engineering, the faculty, at the behest of some part of the student body, eliminated many of the prerequisites—like Western civilization, art or music history, physical education, world history, a science, the humanities test in senior year, and others I can’t remember. Suddenly, one could take almost any combination of courses to graduate with a B.A. My ultimate major, sociology, at least kept a requirement to take 10 sociology courses, one of which could be in anthropology, and one had to be in statistics.

Once the little detail of pre-requisites was taken care of, the university did away with meaningful entrance requirements for some, mainly to satisfy those who took over the Rutgers Newark campus in January 1969. The Black Organization of Students protested the lack of black students, black teachers, and minority-oriented programs on that campus. Affirmative Action got a lot of press. This led to the university wide upheaval that followed. Almost immediately, black students from inner city schools were not only admitted but were given full tuition scholarships and room and board. The bucolic campus of Rutgers in New Brunswick became dangerous on weekends when visitors of these new students came to party. Burglaries in the dorms became common. Ford Hall, a centrally located dormitory, was allowed to become all or nearly all black, resulting in a living situation where no one could study due to the Motown played at deafening levels at all hours. Rules were right out. For my unofficial minor, psychology, I was able to take for credit a joke of a class called Mental Health and Poverty in the Urban Ghetto at newly formed Livingston College—the minority and “less-adapted-to-college” college. That was my first exposure to a professor who spent most of the time calling for the opinions of white students and then having them berated by black students; and where everyone got an A or B.

I am sure that some of the admittees under that poorly conceived program deserved a chance, had native intelligence to overcome the obstacles of poor inner-city schools and worked hard at Rutgers, graduated, and got work their parents maybe couldn’t dream about. That small group, along with others who benefited from successful Civil Rights Act reforms, formed a new middle class of black people who work successfully in our 65% white society. But that admissions program was so destructive of other educational and societal values for little or no gain by so many of the participants, that looking back on it makes one wonder, what were they thinking? Lowering the crossbar does not make more Olympic-class high jumpers. So, what are they still thinking?

Maybe I’m just a grumbling old man now but I don’t think so. Especially after joining the National Association of Scholars years ago at Professor Jackson Toby’s suggestion. Here’s my last vignette: One of Rutgers old guard economic professors was assigned as my counselor for graduate school purposes. I had taken the law boards in 1970 and didn’t do too badly so I went to him. He looked at my grades and said, “Sundermier, you’ll never go to law school or at least you’ll never be a lawyer. Find something else to do.” I did, for nine years. In August 1979, my wife and I sold out of New Jersey, packed our kids into a ’71 Volkswagen van and drove to Oregon for law school. I passed the bar in 1982 and have practiced law here successfully for almost 42 years. I think that mid-1960s education helped me in the long run.

Photo by Elizabeth Villalta on Unsplash

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