School year marked by tragedy wraps up at Rutgers

May 13, 2011 - 4:59 PM

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — Commencement at Rutgers University will be welcome, not just for the usual, festive reasons, but also because it brings to a close a hard year at New Jersey's flagship public university.

Even before the school year opened, there were budget cuts. In the fall, there was tragedy: One freshman killed himself after his roommate allegedly used a webcam to spy on him during an encounter with another man. A few weeks later, a football player was paralyzed during a game.

Last month, the school said it would discontinue its big annual Rutgers Fest concerts. That decision came days after violence broke out in New Brunswick after this year's edition. Three men, none of them Rutgers students, were rounded.

There was a campus dust-up when a reality TV star received more money to speak than the Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author scheduled to give Sunday's commencement speech.

"Maybe it's because I was in the thick of it, but I was pretty sure it was a tough year," said Yousef Saleh, who is finishing his turbulent term as student body president. "When one cycle of bad press was about to end, another one came."

Rutgers is the only flagship state university in the U.S. without the state named in the title— something that gives it some anonymity outside academia.

It has 37,000 full- and part-time students on five campuses spread out around New Brunswick and Piscataway and, as New Jersey's main state university, has a solid reputation. Its latest U.S. News rank is 64th among national universities.

A university spokesman said no one from the administration was available to speak about the year's difficulties. But the spokesman provided a list some of Rutgers' accomplishments.

During the school year, Rutgers started construction on a 32-acre solar canopy that is expected to be among the largest in the world, a group of its scientists were the first to send a robot across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean and the university launched a $1 billion fundraising campaign.

Over the last several years, Rutgers has gotten a big boost in the eyes of the nation thanks to a football team that transformed from perpetually dismal to routinely impressive.

Football might not be so important in the scheme of things, but it is the lens through which so many outsiders see universities.

Alas, 2010 was a down year. With a 4-8 record, the Scarlet Knights broke a string of five consecutive seasons capped by bowl games.

But the lasting memory from the season is a tragic one.

During a game against Army on Oct. 16 at New Meadowlands Stadium, Eric LeGrand made a tackle and fractured two of his vertebrae, leaving his arms and legs paralyzed.

In his story, there's some hope. He survived. He's in school again and is thinking of becoming a sportscaster. He helped call the broadcast of his team's spring game last month.

LeGrand's injury came just as the university was trying to come to grips with another tragedy.

Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman weeks into his first year at college, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22.

Authorities say that in the days leading up to Clementi's suicide, his roommate used a webcam to spy on Clementi during a dorm-room liaison with another man.

The roommate, Dharun Ravi, faces 15 criminal charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. That charge was added because a grand jury found he could have acted because his roommate was gay. A second student charged in the case entered a pretrial intervention program that could result in her not having a criminal record.

The case brought national attention to a problem that had long been a concern for gay rights groups. Young gays and lesbians are often subject to bullying, sometimes with horrific results.

At Rutgers, it was a factor in one change. Students living in dorms don't have to have roommates of the same sex. While the new policy is likely to be used also by heterosexual couples who want to live together, it had long been pushed as a way to create more comfortable places for gay, lesbian and transgender students.

Mary Le Evans, who is speaking at convocation and receiving her Masters degree in labor and employment relations, said she believes the university responded the right way to Clementi's death as there was more emphasis on sensitivity.

"They've done a wonderful job, they really took it to heart," she said.

The prime tumult in the spring term surrounded Rutgers Fest, a celebration with a 30-year tradition. The April 15 concert was free to Rutgers students and the public. When it was over, attendees hopped on shuttle buses to the bars along New Brunswick's College Avenue. There were three shootings that night and early the next morning outside the bars. Days later, Rutgers President Richard McCormick announced the event would not return.

On campus this week, students were finishing final papers, taking exams and clearing out their dorm rooms.

For some, the year's difficulties colored the year.

Charlene Smith, a junior ecology and natural resources major originally from Quebec, Canada, said she has some worries that all the problems will diminish the standing of Rutgers in the eyes of prospective employers. But she doesn't feel like Rutgers is a worse place for it.

"I love this school so much," she said.

For others, hunkered down with studies and the busy daily lives college students can lead, nothing much seemed unusual.

"It seemed like a normal year," said Shelya Yahav, a junior studying English and film who was confounded by all the attention the school's woes got. "There was a suicide here last year that nobody talked about."

Purnank Gandhi, the School of Pharmacy valedictorian, watched campus from afar this year as he worked at different kinds of pharmacies across New Jersey.

"What I believe is that you pay the tuition, the $20k tuition to go there and study," said Gandhi. "It's amazing that people pay the tuition and focus on anything else."

Even Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author whose works like "Beloved" are class reading list staples, brought some controversy to campus, when it was reported in March that she was receiving $30,000 to speak at commencement Sunday at Rutgers Stadium, where 12,890 students will receive degrees.

But that was almost immediately overshadowed when the Rutgers University Programming Association paid Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of the reality TV show "Jersey Shore" $32,000 out of mandatory student activity fee money to give a speech. Her advice to students: "Study hard, but party harder."

Saleh, the student body president, said that as wearing as his final year was, he doesn't think his school will be hurt by it in the long run.

"We have a very storied history in this nation and as movers and shakers in the world," Saleh said. "I don't think that reputation will be diminished by one bad year. We've been around since 1766."