He’s the son of a teacher and a military man. Respect, discipline, order, and the Zion AME church were big parts of his childhood. “We learned the value of sharing, we learned the value of respecting people, of being decent. I learned the value of presuming the best in people and hoping not to be disappointed,” Jonathan Holloway said from his New Jersey home of less than one month. His selection as the new president of Rutgers University was announced in January 2020, before COVID-19 hit the United States and for many the world began to seemingly stand still. “We thought it would be two weeks or so,” Holloway recalls. But that quickly changed. “Our March visit was cancelled; then April and May.” His arrival was delayed until the last week of June and on July 1 he found himself thinking, “I’m now in charge of a 100,000-person community having spent six hours on the campus.” Then he asked himself, “So is this how New Jersey usually is? I don’t know how people spend their time in New Jersey
Always the First
Raised in Maryland, Holloway comes to Rutgers by way of Northwestern University. He was provost there, and dean of Yale College at Yale University prior to that. He was the first African American to hold each of these positions, and is the first Black president of Rutgers University. “It weighs on me, it affects the way I’ll be a leader here,” he explained. “Certainly, we take this present moment when this country might finally be reckoning with its own practices with regard to race and inequality, I recognize I have a certain set of information and orientation that could be of service to the University.” As an historian and former history professor, the magnitude of his accomplishments are not lost on him. “I do know though, the expectations are going to be unreal. First at Yale, first at Northwestern. I’m not looking to leave Rutgers at all, but if there is anything for me after Rutgers, the odds are extremely high I’ll be the first Black person to hold that position.” He continued, “I just find it sad that there’s been such a systemic commitment to not believing the human potential of Black and brown people in this country that these things are still firsts. Rutgers existed for 254 years and while I’m quite proud of being the first African American president to hold the position, it also reflects a commitment—sometimes conscious, other times not conscious at all—that they could not find someone until this moment who they deemed ready to run the University. I think I’m pretty good at what I do; I’m not that good. It’s a damning statement about our larger society that we’re still in the era of firsts in my lifetime.”
The Why of Rutgers
Holloway didn’t waste any time in diving right in at Rutgers. On his first day, he announced he would take a 10 percent pay cut and made a considerable donation to the Scarlet Promise Grant program. “It’s the right thing to do. I think during a time of challenge, someone who is leading a community also needs to recognize they’re serving the community,” he said. “Any time of challenge is an opportunity for a leader to say some version of, ‘We share more things in common than we don’t; we’re only going to be better if we recognize that fact and each other’s humanity.’ We all want the same things. We want to be acknowledged, we want to be respected, we want to have a roof over our heads, food, and clothing. When those things are being put at risk, then a leader has to do something about it.”
His wife, Aisling Colón, was instrumental in his decision to even consider the presidency at Rutgers. They dated in high school then reconnected 12 years later. This fall marks 22 years since being reunited. “She encouraged me,” Holloway said proudly. “She said, ‘Jonathan, the difference you can make — this will be important to you and I think you should do it.’ Rutgers won’t get to know her well this first year because she’ll be with our son in Chicago; but she’s looking forward to being part of the community as well.” Meanwhile, Holloway is settling into the community. “We really have been so beautifully supported by the Rutgers administrative community—there’s been a wonderful outreach… I’ve felt very warmly embraced—especially during COVID.”
Rutgers had more to offer Holloway than a prestigious title and fulfilling position. “One of the reasons I was so excited to put my name in the hat at Rutgers is the idea of being at a university with an explicit mandate to serve the public. It’s really exciting to me . . . I think a lot of cool things can be done at a public institution,” he said. “Part of my personal agenda as president is to try to make sure Rutgers stays accessible, becomes even more accessible. I wanted to be able to support students who need a little bit of extra help to get by. Rutgers’ Scarlet Promise Grants were exactly what I was looking for. It was a ten-minute conversation with my chief of staff and it was clear that was where I needed to make my gift.”
The How at Rutgers
“My vision has been fundamentally delayed by COVID. The things I was hoping to do for Rutgers really to elevate its ambitions internally and elevate its reputation externally, that’s still stuff we need to do, but the resources we need to do that stuff are gone or need to be redeployed in other places. Our revenue streams for schools like Rutgers that are deeply tuition dependent have been really wiped out and we are all feeling deeply uncertain about how we’re going to proceed not just this fall, but in forward looking years,” said Holloway. “My present hope is the Legislature really recognizes the value of Rutgers to New Jersey’s economy and invests in us deeply as an engine of positive social change for the state. If we don’t get that kind of support, I don’t have an answer right now about how we are going to become our best version of ourselves.”
The decision to have the Fall 2020 semester at Rutgers take place mainly remotely was complicated. “We know the undergraduate cohorts will navigate through this virus relatively unscathed, so it’s easy to say, ‘Bring them all back!’ But think of all the support staff,” Holloway said. “The people cleaning for undergraduates, feeding undergraduates, teaching undergraduates—they are at risk. And if we have to take care of them and provide them with a safe environment, then it’s going to take that much longer to get the students back on campus. My heart goes out to the students unhappy about this, and feel it’s unfair. Yeah, it is unfair. It would make a lot more sense financially to have the students back. But I’m not going to ignore the health and safety of my staff and faculty.”
While the decisions are both difficult and complicated, President Holloway has a firm grasp of the mindset and emotional strength needed to navigate the labyrinth of a global pandemic and come out healthy and ready to move forward when the coronavirus subsides. “Especially during this time, we need to treat one another with grace as our first move. This is hard on everybody and the more we can just recognize we need to help one another and the value we find in that, I feel that’s really the best way to get on the other side of this thing.”
As he navigates the administrative and health and safety challenges of COVID-19, Holloway is also aware of the tension and stress the pandemic has placed on everyone and is readying himself for the possibility of pushback or disappointment from students. “The part that weighs on me is the anticipation of that moment—I don’t know when it’s going to come, but it will come,” he explained solemnly. “It’ll most likely be Black students or their allies; they’ll come with some version of, ‘We thought you would be better. We thought when you came here the administration would finally listen to us. We thought we finally had an administration that gets the things we deal with.’ I had that experience at Yale, I had it at Northwestern… That stuff is cutting; it cuts to the core. That moment’s going to come; it’s built into the logic of the system. And it’s going to hurt. But it happens.”
When that moment inevitably comes, Holloway will meet it with the sense of hope he learned as a child and has carried with him throughout his life. “I am a historian who writes on these topics; I have lived through these things… I know how this country is organized. I understand how these systems are built and they’re deeply unfair.” His voice softened. “I know all of these things; but I also have to get out of bed each morning and if I let myself be consumed by things that speak to another example of disregard, another example of inequity or disrespect—I wouldn’t be able to function. No one promised me fairness. So, my attitude is I choose to be hopeful because I need to get up, get out of bed, and engage the world.”
If ever the stars aligned around the selection of a university president, they did when Holloway accepted the position at Rutgers. Who could’ve known last January there was going to be this global pandemic and in the middle of it, racial and social unrest would take place on a level unseen in fifty years in America? How fortuitous is it for Rutgers to have a renowned historian at the helm? “There are plenty of examples in our own history and other country’s histories that say this is really resonating with 1968 in the U.S. and around the world… Comparisons are often overdone in the sense that we can become captive to the comparison. It breeds a really dangerous situation,” Holloway explained. “There are plenty of things you can point to that really resonate to different points of social unrest or social protesting in our past, but boy, is this different. And it’s different because of social media; because people can get organized without a central leader. Take Black Lives Matter… people were skeptical. It’s a hashtag, it gets retweeted, but what does it do? But look at it now. We have never seen this before, not at this scale.” He continued. “My hope is that we will not return to normal because normal is what got us here. That we get to a place where decency is valued, again. Where praying for another is valued again. That it’s not about who won, but what we accomplished together. I don’t recognize this country right now; that is a very hard thing for me to say, but it’s true.”
“My wife and I both have family here,” he said. The smile was audible in his voice. With his wife and son in Chicago until next year and his daughter studying at a different university, that New Jersey family is a welcome respite for the intrepid university president. One of those relatives is Gustav Heningburg, II. Holloway affectionately refers to him as “Little Gus.” “He’s been making connections for me and said to call him if anybody messes with me,” he chuckled. He’s also enjoying time with another cousin, Michael Heningburg. “Big Gus,” better known as Gus Heningburg, was a first cousin of Holloway’s mother and a giant among New Jersey construction, philanthropy, Black History, and too many other things to name here. Holloway reflected on his first interview for his current position and remarked, “When I mentioned the family connection to Gus Heningburg, the air in the room changed.” As he shook hands and said his farewells, almost every person on the panel had something personal to tell him about his first cousin once removed. “I did not really understand how important Big Gus was to New Jersey,” he reflected.
As Holloway leads Rutgers through this most precarious time, he’ll be following in his family’s tradition of service. “I choose to believe Gus knows I am where I am now and that his legacy is a major asset to me as I make my way forward here,” Holloway reflected. “And I hope I do him proud.” With his intellect, talent, and dedication, Holloway is destined to make “Big Gus” proud. And if those natural gifts aren’t enough or anybody messes with him, “Little Gus” will have his back. That’s how New Jersey is.