MIDDLESEX COUNTY – The role of leadership at a state university with more than 70,000 students and 20,000 staff and faculty members during the COVID-19 pandemic was described in eloquent terms befitting someone who has spent a lifetime in the ivy-covered walls of academia.

When Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway drilled down to the essence of his role and the others who participated in the Thursday morning’s virtual business summit, he chose a colloquialism, saying leaders right now have to “step up.”

“A moment like this begs for people of character to stand up and that means to be able to deliver bad news personally, such as in-person means anything these days,” Holloway said. “But, to be unafraid. I’m the one that needs to own this decision. Even though I didn’t make it, I’m the leader of this organization. I need to talk to you about this. It’s not comfortable, but this is what we need to do.”

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Holloway was the keynote speaker for the event that gathered business leaders serving New Jersey and Middlesex County in banking, housing, health care, job development and other areas.

Hosted by Middlesex County Board of Freeholders Director Ronald G. Rios and Deputy Director Kenneth Armwood, the theme of this year’s event, “Leading Together for a Better Tomorrow,” focused on the role of leadership in a state where some 210,000 residents have contracted the coronavirus causing more than 14,000 confirmed deaths and leaving 1.6 million others to file for unemployment benefits.

Holloway said that it has been a steep learning curve since he took over as president on July 1.

When moderator Tom Bergeron of ROI NJ asked Holloway how he approaches his job after he wades through his Excel sheets to discover that his role is ultimately a “people issue,” the president said, “With a lot of care, to be honest.”

“We have a very large workforce but when we don’t have jobs for them because our students aren’t here, (it’s) like, ‘What do we do?’” Holloway. “So, we’ve worked very hard to find as many other kinds of jobs that they’ll be trained into, but at some point all that stops. And this has been the real frustration of the pandemic You can try and try and try and all of a sudden, the math doesn’t work anymore and you have to make these really difficult decisions.

“We have done everything we can, thinking this is a people-centered industry to protect those … one of the great benefits if you are a Rutgers employee and your child is a full-time student at Rutgers. You get an incredible benefit out of that in terms of lowering the cost of tuition. Even when we’ve had to lay off some people because there’s no work, we’ve been able to protect that benefit.”

Holloway’s comments come a day after the Board of Governors adopted a revised $4.45 billion budget that adjusts for restored proposed cuts in state support, an unprecedented collapse of dining, housing and other revenues related to the COVID-19 crisis and cost increases related to the pandemic.

The amended budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1 includes $86.6 million in state revenues that restores a previously proposed cut in state operating aid to the university. Direct state operating aid totals $437 million, about 10% of Rutgers’ overall budget.

About 1,000 staff members have been laid off or not hired back, moves that have affected part-time lecturers and dining employees.

So many of the school’s staff and faculty members and union leaders signed up to speak during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting that Board of Governors Chairman Mark Angelson said there will be a forum in November for them to speak.

The ones that did speak Wednesday, such as Cynthia Saltzman, a part-time lecturer in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminal justice, expressed their disappointment over the job losses.

“I realize that these are difficult times but shifting the burden to the most vulnerable members of Rutgers’ community who play a vital role is neither fair nor sensible. It is cruel,” she said. “Trying to save money by cutting PTL (part-time lecturer) courses or laying part-time lecturers off is like, to use someone else’s metaphor, Bill Gates looking for coins in the couch cushions.”