NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – If Jonathan Holloway was excited – or even nervous or eager or hesitant – about being selected as the 21st president of Rutgers, he wasn’t showing it.
Holloway was poised and professorial after being unanimously approved by a joint meeting of the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees on Tuesday.
He was painstakingly measured as he talked about integrity and high standards he plans to bring to the Banks of the Ol’ Raritan.
Then he mentioned his mother, Kay, and in an instant, his voice and the polished veneer cracked.
As he fought to keep it together, everyone in the room – governors, trustees, search committee members, his wife, Aisling Colon and their children Emerson and Ellison – began to applaud.
“And wouldn’t you know it, I thought I would get through this moment,” Holloway said.
After pausing for a few moments, the applause inside Winants Hall began to build.
“You know, I wrote that down and I thought, ‘I will handle this fine,’” Holloway said. “So much for that. Thanks, Mom.”
Talking about his mom, an educator and his dad, a military man-turned-lobbyist, resulted in the most vulnerable moment on a day when Holloway stood up questions about his athletic career (He was summoned to appear in a grand total of one play during his football career at Stanford) and what his biggest challenge will be stepping in as the president of a 254-year-old school (Learning faces and names).
Some of the questions pushed Holloway on his trailblazing career through academia. He went from being the first black dean at Yale to being the first black president at Rutgers, with a Midwestern detour at Northwestern where he has served as provost since July 2017.
How does he feel about it? Well, it’s complicated.
“I know no other way to be,” Holloway said. “My professional life in administration, I’ve always been the first in whatever position I’ve had. At Yale College I was dean. At Northwestern, I was provost. I’m proud to have the position. I don’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘It’s great to be a black person getting out of bed this morning.’ It’s just great waking up, getting out of bed, frankly. That’s not to dismiss the importance of my racial identity, which I hold with great pride. The fact of the matter is that we’re still living in an era of firsts and that comes with an awesome responsibility, which is exciting and very flattering, but also shameful, to be honest. But, this is the work that’s in front of me.”
One reporter referenced the part of the College Avenue campus designed Will’s Way for an enslaved man who laid the foundation of Old Queens in 1808 and asked Holloway what that means to him.
Holloway, citing Rutgers’ reclaiming of another athlete-turned-academic, Paul Robeson, said, “This will not be a university afraid of its past, even when we made mistakes.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, who rearranged his schedule to attend the meeting, heaped praise on Holloway, while being mindful to thank Barchi for his eight years of service.
“I had the opportunity to meet with Jonathan last week, privately,” Murphy said. “I came away convinced that he is the right person, as you all clearly agree, to carry on the great work of Bob Barchi. Bob, thank you. He’s the right person to continue that trajectory and chart the future course of our state’s flagship university. Jonathan understands the need to put Rutgers students first. We share a commitment to keeping a Rutgers education affordable and within reach of every student. And from his time at Northwestern and at Yale, Jonathan has the experience of leading internationally recognized research institutions and this experience will be invaluable in growing Rutgers global footprint.”