Why a Racial Remark At Rutgers University Stirs Such Emotion

Black students say no forgiveness for school president

THE meeting between Rutgers' officials and students quickly turned into a three-hour public flogging of the university's president, Francis Lawrence.

''You are a liar and a racist,'' one black student yelled out repeatedly.

''I want you to resign and I want you to resign now,'' another student said, standing on her feet and shouting to be heard over the din of the crowd.

The outpouring of invective against Dr. Lawrence -- a white scholar of French classical literature with a long record of promoting minorities in academia -- is the latest flare-up in a decade-long national debate over what can and cannot be said about racial and gender differences.

Some Rutgers students have villified their university president for a November racial slip that was made public two weeks ago. While extemporaneously addressing faculty members about why schools needed to give blacks a boost during admissions, Lawrence said that blacks ''don't have that genetic, hereditary background to have a higher average'' on standardized tests.

Rutgers' president has subsequently apologized repeatedly. ''People are human. They misspeak. Sometimes they say precisely the opposite of what they mean,'' he told the meeting Friday.

But students at New Jersey's main state university have continued to protest the remarks. Last week they halted a basketball game with a sit-in.

Feeling under assault

Some observors say Lawrence's slip hits a raw nerve because the increasingly conservative agenda in Washington and elsewhere has many minorities worried about their future.

''There's no question that black folks feel under assault,'' says Colia Clark, a native Mississippian who led civil-rights struggles there in the early 1960s. ''It started as a trickle under Reagan and has turned into a flood.''

Political changes that concern minorities include cutbacks in welfare, discussion of halting affirmative action, and curbs on immigrants rights, says Mary Davidson, dean of Rutgers' School of Social Work.

''When one person has a slip that is human frailty, regardless of the track record he or she may have,'' she says, that becomes ''a catalyst to bring these kind of things out in the open.''

At a tense and emotional meeting of the university's Board of Governors open to a limited number of students Friday, Ms. Davidson was a rare black voice supporting Lawrence. She said his strong record of helping minorities is more important than a few ill-chosen words, and added that some vocal students are attempting an unjust lynching of the official.

Students remained unchastened. When Emmet Dennis, a black biology professor, spoke in support of Lawrence, hecklers called out: ''Traitor to your race,'' and ''You should resign with him.''

Standing by their man

After hearing student and local government leaders during the long and turbulent session Friday, Rutgers' Board of Governors issued a statement supporting Lawrence's continued service. The university president has given no indication that he will cave into to student pressure to resign.

On the surface, Rutgers would seem an unlikely place for a racial flare-up to attract national attention. Nearly 30 percent of the 47,000 students here are minorities, and the university has a long tradition of promoting minority faculty and offering scholarships to the disadvantaged.

Some conservatives say this emphasis on helping disadvantaged groups creates a charged atmosphere in which the smallest slip could topple a university president.

''These administration proposals have contributed to a sort of moral minefield,'' says Dinesh D'Souza, author of a controversial 1991 book about political correctness on campus. ''By giving verbal, moral, and financial and institutional support to various forms of political correctness on the campus, essentially he now becomes its latest victim.''

The Rutgers drama also raises the question of how society should deal with racial slips. Should the adage be ''one strike and you're out?''

''It depends on what position you hold,'' says Vanne Owen Hayes, the assistant dean of student affairs at the University of Minnesota Law School. ''In certain leadership roles, one chance is all you get.''

When Rep. Dick Armey (R) of Texas recently uttered a slur against Rep. Barney Frank, an openly homosexual Democrat, (and later corrected himself), he met with a few days of criticism and then the incident passed. But in many other instances, off-color remarks have earned officials a one-way ticket out the door.

The students calling for Lawrence's resignation most definitely support the policy of ''one strike and you're out.'' ''If someone talks about the holocaust or slavery or genetic background, you just can't slip up on that kind of stuff,'' says Rick Scott, a graduate business student at Rutgers.

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