DR. STEVEN J. DINER: REVITALIZING HUMAN POTENTIAL
BY JENNIFER MILLMAN | © 2008 DIVERSITYINC
Dr. Steven J. Diner, chancellor of Rutgers
University-Newark, remembers the first
day he walked into a classroom to teach
a group of all-Black students at the
open-enrollment Federal City College
(now the University of the District
of Columbia). He had never been so
conscious of being white.
“I was a professor, so even if I felt a
little bit marginal, I was the person with
the power, the students were not, and
even so, I felt certain kinds of tensions,”
says Diner, who held the only Ph.D. in
a department where none of the faculty
members did research and the students— DR. STEVEN J. DINER
mostly poor and ill-prepared—popped in
and out of class.
After about three years, those tensions evaporated,
and he was mesmerized by his students’ stories and
the questions they made him ask about his own identity. “It was a world I was unfamiliar with.
I didn’t go there because I was a missionary wanting to help Black students; it was “Success IN THE WORLD INVOLVES A
the only job I got, so I went, but I found I really loved it.” whole variety of abilities—
Today, as chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, the 10,000-plus student campus
with a $130-million budget, Diner
oversees a vibrant undergraduate and
postgraduate university and champions
the campus’ mission of providing quality education to
students born without privilege.
“Cities like Newark have been written off by many
people. Ever since the ’60s riots, Newark was perceived as ‘the dangerous place’ for middle-class white
people,” says Diner, who urges students and faculty
members to take advantage of the vast resources
within walking distance to campus.
He adds, “As an urban university, we can have the
kinds of educational experiences that are not possible
in more isolated institutions.”
Diner’s efforts have created immense change.
At his urging, the university opened up a 600-bed
residence hall last year that now is at 102 percent
capacity, and Rutgers-Newark has the highest enrollment ever this fall.
“I’d like to be known as the
provost who solidified the urban
division and ‘urban mission’
of the school—to get everybody
to understand that being located
in Newark was not something
you had to overcome but something that was an enormous
asset,” he says.
Diner was the second in his
family to graduate from high
school after his older brother;
both went on to earn Ph.D.’s. His
parents, both immigrants with
less than 15 years of formal educa-
tion between them, were factory
workers, but they taught their
sons that education, not money, commands respect.
“Success in the world mostly is not strictly intellectual,” says Diner, who tells his admissions director to
AMONG THEM, BY THE WAY, TO DEAL WITH
PEOPLE FROM multiple cultures.”
conduct holistic, qualitative assessments of each applicant rather than rely on SAT scores, which he calls a
“dubious predictor of academic success” that results in
the loss of “all kinds of human potential.”
“You may have people capable of doing top intellectual work, but they’ve just never had the preparation
to take these tests, or they didn’t take life seriously in
high school, or didn’t have the right role model,” he
says. “Success in the world involves a whole variety
of abilities—among them, by the way, to deal with
people from multiple cultures.”
Diner was dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science
at Rutgers before becoming provost in 2002. A married father of three, he has authored two books and
many essays on the history of American higher education, urban history and public policy.