Rutgers-Newark chancellor: Making America great again? N.J. can lead the way | Opinion

By Nancy Cantor

Posted on January 30, 2017

President Donald Trump sporting a cap with his campaign logo: "Make America Great Again.

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What does it mean to "make America great again?"

Not an easy question to answer, and surely one that will evoke many different solutions, as we all bring diverse experiences and expertise to the search for an answer.

Fully cultivating America's diverse talent pool is key to finding any reasonable answer. We need all minds on deck to right the course of America.

At the heart of America's greatness is and always has been the diversity of its people, the steadfastness of their aspirations; we are nothing if we are not the land of opportunity that we have always claimed to be and must aspire once again to really be

 

Now, I am admittedly biased, as truthfully we all are, by my experience as an educational leader.

But we can't recapture the land of opportunity without educating in a fulsome way more of our children, and educating them together, so they can work and play and vote and dialogue over solutions together.

If they do, then America's democracy and prosperity will benefit. But how do we get from where we are now to something that more resembles a land of opportunity, at least educational opportunity?

Since the very question of making America great again implies a local (certainly not global) focus, I'll start with New Jersey from the anchor point of Newark -- the state's largest city and among its oldest, at 350 years.

What does the landscape look like here, from the perspective of diversity and educational opportunity? Well, for a geography that includes as rich a map of cultural diversity as you can imagine (New Jersey ranks third in the country in the share of immigrants), we are thoroughly segregated in residential neighborhoods.

For example, a recent report noted that 55 percent of white residents would have to move to another neighborhood in order for Northern New Jersey to be considered racially and ethnically balanced. Not surprisingly, then, the Garden State is just behind New York, Illinois and Michigan in terms of having the most segregated K-12 schools in America.

Not a great way to start to get to know each other, never mind problem-solve together. And these divides persist into higher education, virtually dooming the prospects of so many talented residents.

OK, enough of the hard realities and disparities, after all President Trump says he will make America great again, though he also claims that we have "educational systems awash in cash" and I'm not sure where they are, certainly not here.

Anyway, the least we can do is have New Jersey lead the way in educational opportunity - we have the diverse talent pool waiting hungrily (and nutrition is an issue) to take their place in a long line of persevering generations that have strived to make it.

Where do we start? We start with each of us examining what our particular institutions, organizations, sectors, communities can do.

In Newark, for example, a virtual college town (with 50,000 students and faculty participating each day), the Newark City of Learning Collaborative is working to increase the post-secondary credentials of the residents of the city from a mere 18 percent to 25 percent by 2025, and that won't come easily, though it will come to pass; while the City of Newark, in partnership with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the Newark Alliance, Rutgers University-Newark, Prudential, RWJBarnabas Health, PSE&G, Panasonic North America, Audible.com, United Airlines, the Port Newark Container Terminal, and the New Jersey Devils/Prudential Center, among others, is striving to cut the unemployment rate in half by adding 2,020 jobs for local residents by 2020.

And at Rutgers-Newark, we have a specific commitment to our local youth, supporting full-tuition scholarships for Newarkers with adjusted family incomes of $60,000 or less, teaming up with the state's county colleges to build pathways (and similar tuition scholarships) to Rutgers in a variety of key fields from STEM to criminal justice to the arts and business, and enrolling and housing many of our talented Newark students in our signature Honors Living-Learning Community, dedicated to local citizenship in a global world.

We also welcome the energy and intellect that our undocumented New Jersey residents bring to our university, and we hope that our state will soon extend the Tuition Assistance Grant program to these deserving students. 

We believe that it is our responsibility to show that by bringing this state's diverse talent pool to and successfully through our doors, we can make New Jersey and, by extension, America, great again.

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Nancy Cantor is chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark.

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