Rutgers Magazine: You Can Go Home Again

Rutgers Magazine: You Can Go Home Again

Douglas Greenberg

A year ago, Douglas Greenberg took up residence as the first executive dean of the new School of Arts and Sciences, marking his return to Rutgers after a nearly 40-year hiatus during which he had a distinguished career as a scholar of history and a leader of organizations promoting history—talents he will bring to bear as the university’s biggest school transforms the educational experience to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century.

At 2:00 a.m. on a sultry June 5, 1969, too antsy to wait for daybreak, Douglas rounded up the remaining record albums and books cast about his apartment and headed downstairs to George Street to load them into his car, a secondhand 1962 Buick Special bought for $600. In his mind, the time had come. Yesterday’s commencement was now a memory. He was done. His undergraduate years at Rutgers had been an exhilarating time of personal discovery and incredible intellectual stimulation. But having grown up in nearby Highland Park, the son of a New Brunswick certified public accountant and a staff member in the chemistry department at Rutgers, and having spent four years in New Brunswick, Greenberg had

the itch to get out into the world, one only imagined through all the books he had consumed in his young life. All he had known was Middlesex County and little else. And Route 206 north to Route 46 to the Delaware Water Gap was the way out, sending him north to Ithaca, New York, where he would be pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Cornell University. But, first, he wanted to take one last swing through New Brunswick and the College Avenue Campus to remember Rutgers.

At George and Somerset streets, Greenberg hung a left. Off to his right stood the Old Queens Campus, looming in the dark. There had been the time when he joined a group of students to march on Old Queens to discuss the university’s reluctance to fund public housing in New Brunswick, an incident reflecting the political activism among the student body that had continued to grow since his freshman year in 1965 when he lived in Demarest Hall. An empathetic President Mason Gross had invited the students to his office to hash out a solution to the problem and reflect on the relationship of a university to its surrounding community. The escalation of the Vietnam War had been the fuse that lit so many social and political grievances, issues that seemed to align the sentiment of the campus with the mood out in the country. The small African-American population on campus had grown more militant, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had been the last straw for his African-American friends; many of them had moved out of Phi Sigma Kappa, the only effectively integrated fraternity at Rutgers and the only reason Greenberg had been willing to join one at all during his sophomore year. Raised during the height of the civil rights movement, he believed the cause of racial justice was his cause, and it would never leave him.

Angus K. Gillespie (l) and Douglas Greenberg (r)

The possibility of a life of the mind had first occurred to him during the summer preceding his freshman year. He had been required to read four books—Brighter than a Thousand Sons: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists by Robert Jungk, Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud, Darwin’s Century by Loren Eiseley, and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx—important books about the most powerful ideas of the century. If this was a taste of college, he remembers thinking, it was going to be even more engaging than he had imagined. But that was then, and this was now. Greenberg had been given the intellectual tools; it was time to use them. He headed north and left New Brunswick before the sun rose, believing he would never see Rutgers again.

At the next intersection, Greenberg took a right and headed up College Avenue. Driving past Voorhees Mall to his right, then Seminary Place and Bishop Place, he stole a look at Bishop House, its silhouette barely visible against the dark sky. It had been one of his sanctuaries, a place where the study of American history, particularly early-American history, had become a passion, first stoked when he used to slip into Alexander Library while still attending Highland Park High School. At Rutgers, his history professors had been Richard P. McCormick, Warren Susman, Lloyd Gardner, Richard Heffner, and Phillip Greven, men of imposing intellect whose stature as scholars radiated far beyond New Brunswick. It was because of them and their mentorship that Greenberg was on his way to Cornell to study under the tutelage of scholars like Michael Kammen and Walter Lafeber. He wanted to be like them. He wanted their life: teaching students, conducting scholarly research, writing books, pursuing knowledge.

“One thing I should have known from taking geography at Rutgers is that there are no straight lines on planet Earth.” Douglas Greenberg is speaking from his office at 77 Hamilton Street in New Brunswick, where he returned a year ago to preside over the new School of Arts and Sciences as its first executive dean. “I thought I was following a straight line away from Highland Park and Rutgers. But all lines are circles in this world. I was always headed back home.”

Home, though, had changed. In 2006, after two years of deliberation led by a campuswide taskforce appointed by President Richard L. McCormick, Rutgers completed a comprehensive reengineering of undergraduate education on the New Brunswick Campus. The cornerstone of the transformation was the merging of the colleges—Rutgers, Douglass, Livingston, and University—into a single School of Arts and Sciences. Emerging as the university’s largest academic unit, the School of Arts and Sciences had been in operation for one year before Greenberg’s arrival, enacting ambitious new ideas and policies to positive reviews from students, faculty, alumni, and administrators alike. There was a new curriculum; one set of admission and graduation requirements; a superb undergraduate honors program; a capstone experience for students completing their undergraduate education; seminars for first-year students introducing them to the range of intellectual pursuits at Rutgers; and a newfound commitment among faculty to find different ways to teach, mentor, and otherwise engage students.  

The School of Arts and Sciences, in Greenberg’s view, is the touchstone to the university’s reputation. “The heart and soul of every great university is the school of arts and sciences,” says Greenberg. “If the school of arts and sciences is weak, the university cannot be strong.” His deep gratitude for the superb education he received at Rutgers, coupled with a rich résumé of experience in higher education and the nonprofit world, uniquely qualify him to lead the School of Arts and Sciences into the 21st century and to enhance Rutgers’ reputation as a public research university. He enthusiastically embraces the twin tasks of preparing students for informed citizenship and promoting the research that will enable Rutgers to continue to make significant contributions to the state of New Jersey, the nation, and the world.  

As much as he loved the Rutgers of the 1960s, Greenberg knows it would be misguided to try to replicate that educational experience. The world is a far different place, and so are the students. Rutgers, with a student body representing myriad cultural and ethnic backgrounds, is the face of tomorrow’s world. He wants today’s students to be ready for the complex demands of this century, a consideration that is driving the new core curriculum at the School of Arts and Sciences. Students must now master capacious categories of intellectual discipline, not specific courses, while pursuing the requirements of their major courses of study. Greenberg believes a university abdicates its responsibility as an educational institution when it abandons core-curriculum requirements.   

Douglas Greenberg

“We have two fundamental goals. We want our students to be citizens of their communities and of their world, capable of moving knowledgeably across cultural and geographic boundaries,” says Greenberg, who graduated from Rutgers College with Highest Distinction in History. “And we want them to be technologically and scientifically literate because every public policy issue they will face as citizens will require such literacy.” The School of Arts and Sciences also places a significant emphasis upon introducing undergraduates to research. More undergraduates than ever before have the opportunity to participate in the creation of new knowledge, working side by side with professors who are international leaders in their fields. Even if they do not pursue academic careers, they will learn to think analytically and critically. The Aresty Research Center for Under­graduates provides support for them to have these experiences across the disciplines throughout their undergraduate careers.

Greenberg considered the unique role of research universities as institutions that both generate knowledge through research and disseminate it through teaching. In the case of the former, some of the most exciting research is taking place, as he puts it, “on the boundaries” of the traditional disciplines in areas like computational biology, women’s and gender studies, and cognitive science. “We are more likely to think in terms of problems to be addressed these days than in traditional academic categories,” he says. At Rutgers today, the topic of autism, for instance, can be examined from its genetic foundation and its chemical consequences in cells, to its effects on behavior and cognition, to its social consequences and public policy challenges, engaging a host of researchers and scholars from disciplines that include genetics, cell biology, psychology, computer science, sociology, and history, not to mention the significant work of the Graduate School of Education and the Douglass Center for Developmental Disabilities.

Greenberg, whose enthusiasm for education and learning clearly animates him, is looking forward to the creation of additional “signature courses,” a series of lecture courses taught by the university’s best lecturers that explore “big questions” such as war, climate, extinction, freedom, beauty, disease—broad categories of inquiry that will invite cross-disciplinary engagement and give students the opportunity to confront these problems from a variety of approaches and, in some cases, to work alongside professors to craft new approaches to addressing age-old questions.  

Another responsibility that the School of Arts and Sciences has to its students, Greenberg says, is to imbue them with a sense of self-knowledge as well as knowledge of others. They have to be culturally and linguistically adaptable. “In this era of globalization, our students need to be exposed to other literatures and cultures in order to develop the capacity to adapt to a world more characterized by difference than by similarity,” he says. “They need to become comfortable with the ‘otherness’ of others as well as the ‘otherness’ of themselves.” In addition to promoting and supporting the Rutgers Study Abroad Program, Greenberg has ambitious plans to combine foreign study with opportunities for service learning in international nonprofit organizations. “What made Rutgers so exciting for me was that it brought me outside of myself, introducing me and connecting me to all sorts of experiences I could not have had anywhere else,” says Greenberg. “It took me out of my comfort zone. An education that does not do that is a failure.”

Despite its size, Greenberg believes the educational experience at Rutgers can be intimate. The Byrne Family First-Year Seminar Program, for instance, features top faculty members giving seminars on a rich host of topics to small gatherings of first-year students. Rutgers retains the best of the multicollege experience in other ways as well, in Greenberg’s view. For alumni who may think they won’t recognize their beloved Rutgers because of the merger of the former colleges, he explains that the university strives to replicate the dorm and social life that alumni associate with so much of their undergraduate experience. There are floors in certain dorms, for example, that are arranged by theme or associated with a particular language or culture. Douglass Residential College, the successor to Douglass College, remains a close-knit and singular environment promoting women’s leadership. “It is unique in American higher education: the only women’s residential college at a public university,” says Greenberg. “It truly offers an educational experience like no other.”   

Upon receiving his master’s and doctoral degrees from Cornell, Greenberg em­barked on an academic career. He taught history for four years at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, before moving to Princeton University in 1978, where he met a visiting scholar named Richard L. McCormick, the son of his former teacher, Richard P. McCormick. While at Princeton, Greenberg had also been asked to tackle some administrative tasks, which he handled successfully, prompting Aaron Lemonick, the dean of faculty, to appoint him associate dean. Greenberg, gregarious by nature, realized that, despite his love of teaching and scholarship, he long had an impulse to be an organizer. “It’s just my nature to get beyond the small world I could control as a scholar because I felt the need to get my arms around a larger enterprise. The impulse for leadership didn’t come naturally to me, but I tried to seize the opportunity.”

Douglas Greenberg (l)

Greenberg eventually left Princeton to join the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) in 1986, where he became vice president. At ACLS, an organization that represents scholarly associations in the humanities and social sciences, Greenberg was able to keep his hand in scholarship while also teaching legal and constitutional history at Rutgers following his recruitment by Richard L. McCormick, by then the chair of the history department. The part-time teaching experience, Greenberg says, was “sublime, a reminder of the energy and excitement of public higher education.” He continued his work as a scholar, writing books on crime in 18th-century New York and a United States history textbook, composing scholarly articles, and coediting an anthology on early-American history (soon to be published in its sixth edition).

Greenberg also married his love of history to leading nonprofit organizations that promoted it in unique ways. While still at ACLS, he was appointed by Governor Thomas Kean to be a member of the New Jersey Historical Commission, the agency founded by Richard P. McCormick RC’38, GSNB’40 to oversee all historical activity in the state. Greenberg, who became chair, expanded efforts to have historians engage the public about history. As the vice president of ACLS, meanwhile, he traveled worldwide while helping to lead a project on the role of constitutions and constitutionalism in the modern world.  

Subsequently, as CEO of the Chicago Historical Society, he continued to advance the notion that historians have a responsibility to the public. Greenberg continued to write, now about the role of technology in museums and libraries, and he led a major rebranding and strategic planning exercise at the historical society, underscoring that all the people of Chicago were the subject of the historical society. He engineered a series of enterprising exhibitions of the city’s neighborhoods for which local young people were given cameras to videotape interviews with the oldest members of the community.   

Still writing, now about technology and humanistic scholarship, Greenberg became the executive director of the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education in Los Angeles in 2002. Founded by filmmaker and friend Steven Spielberg, the institute, thanks to Greenberg, has a permanent home for its video archive of 52,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors at the University of Southern California (USC). Greenberg returned to the classroom at USC as a professor of history in 2006 and taught the history of the Holocaust and comparative genocide. “The experience was the most morally compelling and personally fulfilling work I have done,” says Greenberg. “It was the perfect combination of my longtime commitment to human rights, my experience in organizational leadership, my training as a historian, my interest in technology, and my commitment to the use of the past to inform the future.” He logged more than 100,000 miles of international travel each year during his tenure, including several trips to Rwanda where he initiated a project similar to the Shoah Foundation project to document the experiences of survivors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. By the time he left the institute in 2008, he had visited more than 50 nations in his career—a considerable distance to have traveled since leaving New Brunswick 40 years before.  

When Greenberg learned in late 2007 about the establishment of a new genocide center at Rutgers–Newark, he emailed his old friend Dick McCormick to learn more. As an aside, the president asked him if he would be interested in the new executive dean position at the School of Arts and Sciences. Although Greenberg said no, McCormick passed his name along to the executive recruiter conducting the search. Two months later, she contacted Greenberg, who had undergone a change of heart. Leaving colleagues, friends, and his work in Los Angeles would be difficult. “But I had been gone for 40 years,” Greenberg says. “After 40 years in the wilderness, I thought I ought to go home. I had loved all of those places—Princeton, Chicago, Los Angeles—but I never felt part of them. I always felt like I was visiting, in some respect, because this is where I am from. Rutgers and New Jersey are home.”

Douglas Greenberg

Winding down his tenure at the Shoah Foundation Institute, he sent emails to the deans overseeing the four main intellectual areas of the School of Arts and Sciences that comprise 40 academic departments: the mathematical and physical sciences, life sciences, behavioral and social sciences, and the humanities. His query was simple and comprehensive: “Tell me,” he wrote: “What do I need to know?” The spirited replies came to fill numerous three-ring binders, which he studied long and hard. He approached the task like a student, as if he were working toward his Ph.D. again, in this case learning about the exciting new world of the School of Arts and Sciences, which encompasses 800 faculty, 70 majors, and 20,000 undergraduate students.  

Arriving in August 2008, Greenberg hit the ground running. He met with other deans, university vice presidents, department chairs, faculty, alumni, donors, and students. Each meeting added to the fund of knowledge that he was developing. He made some key appointments, began to build a new team to manage the School of Arts and Sciences, established some early strategic goals, and sought to determine how best to fulfill the aspirations of a great faculty and an impressive student body.  

By the time the academic year concluded in May, after a taxing, if rewarding, first year of presiding over the School of Arts and Sciences, Greenberg was tired. Nonetheless, a surge of adrenaline carried him through commencement ceremonies on May 21, where, under a flawless blue sky, he led his first class of graduates from Old Queens to Voorhees Mall. On the podium, he was moved as he congratulated graduates stepping up to receive their diplomas, summoning recollections of his own undergraduate years that had culminated in his receiving a diploma in Rutgers Stadium—his ticket to a life that brought him beyond himself to become a citizen of the world. It was wonderful to be home. “It was a joy to greet the graduates,” Greenberg says. “The significance of that moment is so thrilling.”

Another thrill had come the previous weekend during the 40th reunion of the Class of 1969, an occasion that Greenberg enjoyed far more than he anticipated. Moving from table to table under the reunion luncheon tent on Voorhees Mall, he said hello to old friends. Echoing his own sentiments, former classmates couldn’t adequately express their enthusiasm for their Rutgers education. If Greenberg had been asked to explain the new School of Arts and Sciences, he might well have said that if he were beginning his college education again today, he would be a School of Arts and Sciences student, live in Demarest Hall, and take history classes on College Avenue, political science classes in Hickman Hall on Douglass Campus, and biology labs on Busch Campus. Marching with the Class of 1969 and leading alumni up College Avenue, he found himself walking past the very landmarks and memories to which he thought he had bid farewell 40 years ago. He was home.