Having been at Rutgers for nearly 10 years, Richard L. Edwards has served in a variety of leadership roles: dean of the School of Social Work, interim Rutgers president, executive vice president for academic affairs, and chancellor of Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Even if you’re familiar with his formidable Rutgers résumé, you may not know this: although Edwards grew up in Iowa, he’s got New Jersey roots. His father was stationed at Camp Kilmer during World War II, his mom was from Rahway, and they met when his father was on  a weekend pass to New York City. When his father served in the South Pacific, Edwards lived in Rahway, staying there until the family moved to Iowa when he was 4. The family’s yearly vacation? New Jersey, to see  relatives—he saw a lot of Route 22—with a day trip to the shore. Edwards, who now lives in Jersey City with his wife (and a view of the New York skyline), serves as chancellor during what is un­doubtedly a pivotal moment for Rutgers, what with entry into the Committee on Institutional Cooper­ation (CIC) and the Big Ten, the integration of most of the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers, and the completion of the strategic plan for Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: What makes this an important time for Rutgers University–New Brunswick?

RICHARD EDWARDS: First, the fact that we now have Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences as part of Rutgers, which provides many more opportunities for collaborative research. Also, our entry into the Big Ten athletic conference, which enabled us to become part of the CIC, where we’re interacting with our colleagues at the other 13 Big Ten universities and the University of Chicago. It has greatly expanded the visibility of Rutgers. That’s already paying off as we see applications for first-year students next year increase dramatically. Just the visibility of being a part of the Big Ten and the CIC makes us more attractive to people.

RM: What sets us apart from the other Big Ten schools?

RE: One is our location, and another is our diversity.

RM: How does Rutgers’ location set  us apart?

RE: There’s a 30-second ad from the Big Ten being shown on the Big Ten Network. It’s an animated look at the Big Ten universities, and the last one is Rutgers. It says “birthplace of college football,” but it also shows the New York skyline and the shore. What I’m finding is a lot of people had no idea we were so close to New York City. Our location is something we can really capitalize on because we’re centrally located between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. That’s eye-opening to people. That visibility is helping us—the recognition of where we’re located and that there might be side benefits to coming to a place like this.

RM: And Rutgers’ diversity?

RE: When I meet with my colleagues at the other Big Ten universities, one of the things that’s quite remarkable is the level of diversity that we have—of all kinds of diversity—relative to them. They see us, in many respects, as taking a leading role. We’ve got a lot of pipeline programs, which are working with kids from underprivileged backgrounds in junior highs and high schools. We’re having great success working intensively with these kids and having them go to college, most of them to Rutgers.

RM: What are your thoughts as we’re heading toward the 250th anniversary of the university’s founding?

RE: The 250th anniversary is a really big deal for Rutgers—the eighth oldest institution of higher education in the United States. Rutgers’ history in some respects mirrors the history of the United States. Rutgers started here in New Brunswick in 1766 and has grown and grown and grown. Our strategic plan is entitled Rutgers University–New Brunswick: Revolutionary Past ... Revolutionary Future. We’re at the cusp of some really great things. But you have to adapt and change if you’re going to survive for any length of time, and Rutgers–New Brunswick has changed and adapted, from a small church-related, male-only school to a land-grant university to a public university to now being part of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. We’re looking to see what  other changes we can implement for the rest of this century and the centuries ahead.

RM: Certainly there’s a lot of change in the physical appearance of the university, especially on College Avenue. 

RE: One of the ways that we are on the cusp of new things is the construction of the new Honors College, where, beginning next fall, we can serve 500 new honors students a year. This gives  us an opportunity to recruit some of the best and brightest students to stay in New Jersey. Next to that, and opening a year later, is the first academic building to be built on the College Avenue Campus in more than 50 years. Another new College Avenue building will have student housing, an outdoor area for students to gather, and commercial shops and restaurants. Wherever you look on campus, you see construction. That creates a certain amount of inconvenience at the moment, but what it does for us in the years ahead is going to be quite remarkable. Having these new, state-of-the-art buildings, whether it’s a new home for the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology on the Busch Campus or our New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health on the George H. Cook Campus, leaves a favorable impression with people and also makes a difference in attracting faculty and retaining the great faculty we have.

RM: You seem to have a genuine connection to this place. 

RE: I’ve found that I really love Rutgers. There’s just something about Rutgers that makes me feel at home even though I didn’t go to school here.  Being the first in my family to go to college, I find that I relate easily to the student body here, with so many first-generation students. They are the kind of people I grew up with.

RM: You appreciate what you got from a college education. 

RE: Anything that’s been accomplished in my life has been because I had an opportunity to go to college, and nobody in my family had done that. And I also know that your family doesn’t always know what you’re going through when you’re a college student if you’re the first one out doing that. All of that has contributed to what I can bring to the job. •