It was an odd inaugural year, to say the least, for Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway. Like many during the pandemic, he spent a good deal of time working from home.
“I can’t wait to meet in person, I can’t wait to engage you,” he told a group of alumni during a Zoom meeting conducted from the study of the president’s house in April. Now, as most students and staff return to campus, Holloway can finally get out and about, meet and greet, and feel the energy of the campus.
It is a pivotal time for the state university and for Holloway, in his new role as “chief fundraiser, chief lobbyist, chief cheerleader.” He expects to act on recommendations from a climate task force and to advance priorities like fostering racial justice and ensuring Rutgers remains affordable.
The budget—“unspooled” by the pandemic—remains a concern. But he says Rutgers is poised, at last, to reap the dividends of joining the Big Ten Conference—a move that has been a drain on finances in recent years. “We’re headed in a positive direction…. The revenue stream will be picking up,” says Holloway, who is particularly optimistic about the university’s beleaguered football program. “I expect a much more competitive football team,” he tells New Jersey Monthly, adding, “There will be a lot of good news coming down the line, and I think very quickly.”
Holloway was chosen as Rutgers’s 21st president in late January 2020; by the time he was installed in July, the university, and the world, was in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. He was eager to connect with the sprawling Rutgers community—hundreds of thousands of students, alumni, donors and other constituents. Instead, it was “just crickets,” he said on the Zoom call, as the pandemic dragged into the fall and winter.
In January, Holloway got Covid-19, despite not having strayed too far afield. It was a relatively mild case, he says, but he was beset by profound fatigue, labored breathing and temporary “brain fog.” Holloway was treated with monoclonal antibodies and spent a week in bed.
Adding to his disjointed year, Holloway’s wife, Aisling Colón, had remained in Chicago, where their son was finishing high school. “This year was one challenge after the other, but there are no regrets,” says Holloway.
The pandemic had a huge impact on colleges and universities, forcing many—including Rutgers—to quickly adapt to almost exclusive virtual learning and to shoulder steep declines in revenue. There were hard choices, including pay freezes, layoffs and furloughs for staff.
A little more than a month into the job, Holloway, along with other university presidents in the Big Ten, voted to delay the 2020 football season. That decision generated a fair amount of pushback—including mean tweets from then President Donald Trump, which Holloway has called “cheap politics.”
Then came the “piercingly difficult” call to make commencement virtual. “I can’t think of a more unpopular decision than that one,” Holloway told the alumni.
Holloway hopes that the university can tackle—through research and clinical initiatives—some of the disparities laid bare by Covid-19. “One thing that we really want to start talking about is what Rutgers’s role will be in addressing health inequities,” he says. The university has a huge biomedical component.
Rutgers was the first university to require students to be vaccinated for the return to campus in September; others soon followed. “When we announced, we didn’t know we were first in the nation to do so—we were being bold accidentally,” Holloway said on the alumni Zoom meeting. “But we’ll claim it. It was the culmination of a lot of work.”
The logistics of the return, like many things at Rutgers, are complicated. Housing capacity will be reduced somewhat, and rooms are being set aside for quarantine in case of a resurgence of the virus. For the fall semester, classrooms have been “assigned reduced capacities depending on room size and configuration, in accordance with public health guidelines,” Rutgers says.
Rutgers is not an easy place to manage in the best of times. The state university has more than 71,000 students spread among three large campuses: Newark, Camden, and the flagship in New Brunswick-Piscataway. The biomedical division includes hospitals and other clinical-care facilities, and there are a host of graduate schools, more than 23,000 employees, and an annual operating budget approaching $5 billion. There have long been complaints of the “RU Screw”—the knotty bureaucracy that has stymied generations of students.
“We have one president, four chancellors, five provosts…and three different mascots,” allows Holloway, who has pledged to “work very hard to make Rutgers less complex.”
Mark Angelson, head of the Rutgers Board of Governors, sought out Holloway, who was provost at Northwestern University in Evanston and had been a dean at Yale University, where he earned his PhD in history. “He is a remarkable intellect, and he gets the balance of constituencies at Rutgers. He came to Rutgers with a vision for what he wanted to accomplish,” Angelson says.
Holloway, 54, was born in Hawaii and grew up in California, Alabama and Massachusetts, later moving to Maryland, when his father retired from the Air Force. He earned his undergraduate degree in American studies at Stanford University, playing football (at linebacker) on the same team as Senator Cory Booker.
After years in leadership roles at private institutions, Holloway at first balked at the thought of the financial and political vicissitudes of a public university. “These jobs are hard enough; who wants all that other difficulty?” he recalls. “But I knew Rutgers was strong in my area of scholarship…. I kept saying no, but I kept being curious about Rutgers, a place with an established tradition of welcoming people of all traditions. I thought I could be of service. I thought this could be a deeply meaningful experience.”
There are a lot of nuts and bolts to attend to as president of a vast enterprise like Rutgers—budgets, construction, faculty development—but in his introductory address to the university senate in September, Holloway took a somewhat poetic turn, speaking of his desire to create a “beloved community” at the school. “It recognizes that every aspect of the community is important,” Holloway explained later. “People often don’t think of the staff, especially the staff who wear uniforms. It’s a call that we recognize all the constituent parts of the community.”
To some on campus, Holloway’s style is a welcome departure from his predecessor, Robert Barchi, a former medical school leader who butted heads with faculty and staff in shepherding the massive integration of the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers.
Holloway’s annual compensation package at Rutgers is about $1 million. Upon his arrival, he made a $75,000 donation to kick off a fund-raising drive for the Scarlet Promise Grants program, which offers financial support to students in need. Last year, the program distributed more than $33 million to nearly 11,000 students.
Among state universities, Rutgers is one of the most expensive. The price tag is nearly $30,000 for undergraduate tuition plus room and board at the New Brunswick campus. However, a significant portion of students receive financial assistance. Rutgers is one of the most diverse universities in the nation and prides itself as a bastion for first-generation college students and others who are underrepresented in higher education. Holloway is the school’s first Black president.
A historian who specializes in the African-American experience, Holloway’s latest book on the topic, The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans, was published in February by Oxford University Press. It arrived at a time when that oft-buried history is coming into clearer focus for many Americans.
Last fall, Holloway announced a five-year, $15 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice at Rutgers. The initiative “will enable Rutgers, an institution older than the country itself, to be an international leader” in scholarship that could lead to meaningful action to address racism and social inequity, Holloway states on the Rutgers website.
“As a nation, we have to be more comfortable with uncomfortable conversations; people need to do a better job in granting grace to one another,” Holloway says. “We need to recognize that talking about diversity is not about taking something away from somebody—it’s about creating and sharing more.”
As we emerge from the pandemic, the new president is finding his stride. Holloway’s son, Ellison, and daughter, Emerson, are both in college now. His wife, an actress who was his high school sweetheart, has joined him at the president’s house in Piscataway. Set on a bluff across the Raritan River from the main campus, the house is a “stunner,” Holloway says, and very comfortable despite its proximity to busy Route 18. “We’re very happy there…. Finally, we’ll be a New Jersey family!”