As Dollars Dwindle, Opportunity Knocks for NJ and Higher Ed

Rutgers University is trying something new this weekend. It’s called Rutgers Day and it takes place Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the school’s Busch, College Avenue and Cook/Douglass campuses.

Rutgers Day is designed to showcase New Jersey’s state university to the people of the Garden State. “Think of it as a great, big one-day show-and-tell for New Jersey, a celebration of our great state and a great university,” the school says on its Rutgers Day website.

Although the date for Rutgers Day was selected several months ago, the timing of the event could not be more fortuitous, given the current economic crisis. The downturn in the economy is forcing everyone to tighten their belts, including state governments and institutions of higher learning.

In New Jersey, Governor Jon S. Corzine has proposed a $29.8 billion budget that calls for $4 billion in cuts, including a $15.5 million reduction in state aid for Rutgers. In a message to the university community, Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick delivered the sobering news that “searches for critical positions will be cancelled; courses and sections will be eliminated; important services provided to our students, staff, and faculty will be reduced; maintenance of our facilities will be scaled back; and major projects will be delayed.” He also said layoffs may be unavoidable: “Dedicated men and women whose work is important to Rutgers will, unfortunately, lose their jobs in an extraordinarily difficult job market.”

Times are tough all around. But tough times also create opportunities. And now is one of those times. In fact, we all should take heed of a piece of advice that John F. Kennedy offered some 50 years ago: “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger, and one representing opportunity. The danger now is clear. But let us also make the most of our opportunities. For if they are lost now, they may never come again.”

The danger that the economic crisis poses for state government and higher education in New Jersey is clear. The opportunity may lie in Rutgers Day – not in the event itself, but rather in its spirit.

For the past six years, I have spent a day or two a week on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus – taking courses as a Ph.D. student and teaching classes as an adjunct instructor. During the rest of the week, I’m in Trenton following state government, where I worked for several years before joining the Hall Institute.

At Rutgers, I see brilliant scholars conducting ground-breaking research to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. In Trenton, I see tremendous problems that need solutions. We need to make a greater effort to bring these two worlds together and harness the academic talent at Rutgers to tackle the major public policy issues confronting our state.

Neither of these entities operates in a vacuum.  Indeed, there are many programs and people at Rutgers who already are working hand-in-hand with the state.  But they represent just the tip of the iceberg. Furthermore, the nexus between state government and higher education in New Jersey need not be limited to Rutgers. There are talented scholars at all of our institutions whose research skills could be valuable to the state.

So if you want to have fun, go to Rutgers Day on Saturday.  It’s free and there are more than 350 activities.  You’ll find dance, music, games and more — maybe even some inspiration for strengthening the bond between academia and government in order to make New Jersey a better place for us all.

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