Eric LeGrand, Scott Vallone
Mel Evans  /  AP
Former Rutgers football defensive tackle Eric LeGrand, bottom center, visits the sidelines before Rutgers' Scarlet White spring football game in Piscataway, N.J. LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down in a game against Army last October.
updated 5/13/2011 6:34:59 PM ET 2011-05-13T22:34:59

Commencement at Rutgers University will be welcome, not just for the usual, festive reasons, but also because it brings to a close a hard year at New Jersey's flagship public university.

Even before the school year opened, there were budget cuts. In the fall, there was tragedy: One freshman killed himself after his roommate allegedly used a webcam to spy on him during an encounter with another man. A few weeks later, a football player was paralyzed during a game.

Last month, the school said it would discontinue its big annual Rutgers Fest concerts. That decision came days after violence broke out in New Brunswick after this year's edition. Three men, none of them Rutgers students, were wounded.

There was a campus dust-up when a reality TV star received more money to speak than the Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author scheduled to give Sunday's commencement speech.

"Maybe it's because I was in the thick of it, but I was pretty sure it was a tough year," said Yousef Saleh, who is finishing his turbulent term as student body president. "When one cycle of bad press was about to end, another one came."

Rutgers is the only flagship state university in the U.S. without the state named in the title— something that gives it some anonymity outside academia.

It has 37,000 full- and part-time students on five campuses spread out around New Brunswick and Piscataway and, as New Jersey's main state university, has a solid reputation. Its latest U.S. News rank is 64th among national universities.

A university spokesman said no one from the administration was available to speak about the year's difficulties. But the spokesman provided a list some of Rutgers' accomplishments.

During the school year, Rutgers started construction on a 32-acre solar canopy that is expected to be among the largest in the world, a group of its scientists were the first to send a robot across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean and the university launched a $1 billion fundraising campaign.

Over the last several years, Rutgers has gotten a big boost in the eyes of the nation thanks to a football team that transformed from perpetually dismal to routinely impressive.

Football might not be so important in the scheme of things, but it is the lens through which so many outsiders see universities.

Alas, 2010 was a down year. With a 4-8 record, the Scarlet Knights broke a string of five consecutive seasons capped by bowl games.

But the lasting memory from the season is a tragic one.

During a game against Army on Oct. 16 at New Meadowlands Stadium, Eric LeGrand made a tackle and fractured two of his vertebrae, leaving his arms and legs paralyzed.

In his story, there's some hope. He survived. He's in school again and is thinking of becoming a sportscaster. He helped call the broadcast of his team's spring game last month.

LeGrand's injury came just as the university was trying to come to grips with another tragedy.

Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman weeks into his first year at college, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22.

Image: Tyler Clementi, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei
The Star-Ledger
Tyler Clementi, left, is thought to have committed suicide, days after video of him was secretly webcast on the Internet. Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, center, and another classmate, Molly Wei, have been charged in the case.

Authorities say that in the days leading up to Clementi's suicide, his roommate used a webcam to spy on Clementi during a dorm-room liaison with another man.

The roommate, Dharun Ravi, faces 15 criminal charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. That charge was added because a grand jury found he could have acted because his roommate was gay. A second student charged in the case entered a pretrial intervention program that could result in her not having a criminal record.

The case brought national attention to a problem that had long been a concern for gay rights groups. Young gays and lesbians are often subject to bullying, sometimes with horrific results.

At Rutgers, it was a factor in one change. Students living in dorms don't have to have roommates of the same sex. While the new policy is likely to be used also by heterosexual couples who want to live together, it had long been pushed as a way to create more comfortable places for gay, lesbian and transgender students.

Mary Le Evans, who is speaking at convocation and receiving her Masters degree in labor and employment relations, said she believes the university responded the right way to Clementi's death as there was more emphasis on sensitivity.

"They've done a wonderful job, they really took it to heart," she said.

The prime tumult in the spring term surrounded Rutgers Fest, a celebration with a 30-year tradition. The April 15 concert was free to Rutgers students and the public. When it was over, attendees hopped on shuttle buses to the bars along New Brunswick's College Avenue. There were three shootings that night and early the next morning outside the bars. Days later, Rutgers President Richard McCormick announced the event would not return.

On campus this week, students were finishing final papers, taking exams and clearing out their dorm rooms.

For some, the year's difficulties colored the year.

'Study hard'
Charlene Smith, a junior ecology and natural resources major originally from Quebec, Canada, said she has some worries that all the problems will diminish the standing of Rutgers in the eyes of prospective employers. But she doesn't feel like Rutgers is a worse place for it.

"I love this school so much," she said.

For others, hunkered down with studies and the busy daily lives college students can lead, nothing much seemed unusual.

"It seemed like a normal year," said Shelya Yahav, a junior studying English and film who was confounded by all the attention the school's woes got. "There was a suicide here last year that nobody talked about."

Purnank Gandhi, the School of Pharmacy valedictorian, watched campus from afar this year as he worked at different kinds of pharmacies across New Jersey.

"What I believe is that you pay the tuition, the $20k tuition to go there and study," said Gandhi. "It's amazing that people pay the tuition and focus on anything else."

Even Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author whose works like "Beloved" are class reading list staples, brought some controversy to campus, when it was reported in March that she was receiving $30,000 to speak at commencement Sunday at Rutgers Stadium, where 12,890 students will receive degrees.

But that was almost immediately overshadowed when the Rutgers University Programming Association paid Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of the reality TV show "Jersey Shore" $32,000 out of mandatory student activity fee money to give a speech. Her advice to students: "Study hard, but party harder."

Saleh, the student body president, said that as wearing as his final year was, he doesn't think his school will be hurt by it in the long run.

"We have a very storied history in this nation and as movers and shakers in the world," Saleh said. "I don't think that reputation will be diminished by one bad year. We've been around since 1766."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Did secret webcam lead to student’s suicide?

  1. Transcript of: Did secret webcam lead to student’s suicide?

    MATT LAUER, co-host: But we begin this half-hour with the tragic death of a freshman at Rutgers University who took his own life after being secretly recording during an intimate moment. It was posted on the Internet . Now two students have been charged in this case. NBC 's Mike Taibbi is on the Rutgers campus with more on this. Mike , good morning to you.

    MIKE TAIBBI reporting: Good morning, Matt. Well, grief counselors have been at work on this campus for a week. There's plenty of work to do, Matt. This is a terrible day for this university. The students involved were all from New Jersey , only 18. They had just begun their freshmen years. Now one is a dead. A body pulled from the Hudson River yesterday may be his, and the lives of the other two have been changed forever. When Tyler Clementi celebrated his high school graduation this past June, he'd already won acclaim as a violinist and a scholarship he would use at prestigious Rutgers University . But on Sunday, September 19th , his new college roommate, Dharun Ravi , announced via Twitter , according to the AP , that "roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into Molly 's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

    TAIBBI: Prosecutors say Ravi also broadcast live video of Clementi 's encounter over the Internet , where an untold number of viewers could watch. Then Ravi allegedly tried to do it again tweeting, "yes, it's happening again." And though this time it did not work, the next day, a police source told NBC News , two witnesses saw Clementi jump off the towering George Washington Bridge to his death. Ravi and the Molly he referred to, high school and college classmate Molly Wei , have been criminally charged with violating New Jersey 's privacy laws and if convicted, could face three to five years in prison. Not enough, says privacy law expert Parry Aftab .

    Ms. PARRY AFTAB (Internet Safety Expert): I think that if the prosecutors limit this to just the privacy violations in state law , they're not doing their job.

    TAIBBI: Clementi 's suicide may be the latest tragic teen death linked to the Internet and to humiliating violations of privacy . Last year, 13-year-old Hope Witsell and 18-year-old Jesse Logan both took their lives in separate incidents after nude photos they had sexted to close friends were forwarded to their classmates. But in Tyler 's death, his accused tormentors face criminal charges . Rutgers , like so many schools, continues to struggle with issues of privacy in the Internet age .

    Mr. MOR NAAMAN (Rutgers University School of Communications): The basic element you have is the human nature that can exploit any technology to do any number of bad things to other individuals.

    TAIBBI: Clementi 's family issued a statement, calling him a "fine young man, and a distinguished musician. The family is heartbroken beyond words and is cooperating fully with the ongoing criminal investigation of two Rutgers University students." Friends mourn the loss of a young and hopeful talent.

    Ms. MARY ALCARO (Friend): Outside of being an extremely talented musician, Tyler was an amazing person who made you feel great, and you couldn't help but smile when Tyler smiled at you.

    TAIBBI: No comment from Molly Wei or her lawyer, while Steven Altman , the lawyer for Dharun Ravi , did tell me yesterday that his client is confused, he's upset and still struggling to understand what happened. Both suspects are now home with their families awaiting arraignment. Matt :

    LAUER: All right. Mike Taibbi . He's on the campus of Rutgers for us this morning. Thank you very much . Parry Aftab is an Internet safety expert. Greg Blimling is the vice president of student affairs at Rutgers University . Good morning to you both.

    Ms. AFTAB: Good morning, Matt.

    Mr. GREGORY BLIMLING (Vice President of Student Affairs, Rutgers University): Good morning, Matt.

    LAUER: Mr. Blimling , let me start with you. I mean, it's obviously a horrible day for students and everyone at Rutgers . What's the university doing to deal with this situation?

    Mr. BLIMLING: The campus is in mourning. We're all very, very sad about what has happened to Tyler . Our heart goes out to his family. There's no greater tragedy than to lose a child and our entire campus mourns with them.

    LAUER: I know you cannot because of federal law speak specifically about the case, but I wonder, has there ever been any kind of similar incident at Rutgers , any situation involving such a gross invasion of privacy ?

    Mr. BLIMLING: I've been in higher education 36 years working with students, and I have never seen a case like this in that 36-year period. So it's highly unusual for a case like this to happen. Mostly what happens in our residence halls is students develop a close-knit trust relationship, a sense of community and attachment to one another. For a student to do this, it violates that trust relationship that usually exists within a residence hall , and it's shocked our entire university community .

    LAUER: And tragically and ironically, Mr. Blimling , this happened, or this was announced, on a day that the university was announcing something called Project Civility , which had been long in the planning. It was about compassion and courtesy in everyday interactions. There was even a session

    planned as part of that program called Uncivil Gadgets: Changing Technologies and Civil Behavior. So this was not something that wasn't on the radar.

    Mr. BLIMLING: Civility is an issue that the university talks about with our student at all times. It's part of the way we try to build character and help students understand how they interact with one another. And there's a lot of ways in which our students interact both on the Internet and with one another. And part of our responsibility as educators is to teach them how that interaction needs to occur with one another and with people outside the community.

    LAUER: Parry , it's become so easy for people to record just about anything and then stream it online. Do you think because of the ease of this that these young people simply forget that this is not only an affront to privacy , it's illegal?

    Ms. AFTAB: It's very illegal, and it's more than an affront to privacy . And we talk about this as a privacy issue; it makes me very nervous. I think these are smart kids who got into Rutgers , and it's very competitive. They knew that this kind of thing shouldn't happen. It's easy, and that's the problem. You think about it , it seemed like a good idea at the time . There's technology to let you do it, and done.

    LAUER: They are charged right now with a couple of counts of invasion of privacy . Could more serious charges be filed? For example, if they can -- if prosecutors can connect the dots directly from this invasion of privacy and this recording and streaming online to the suicide of this young man, could a charge like involuntary manslaughter be added? I know you're not a prosecutor, but have you seen things like this in the past?

    Ms. AFTAB: But I'm a New Jersey lawyer.

    LAUER: Right.

    Ms. AFTAB: And -- I don't think that's going to happen. We looked at that with Megan Meier 's case as well. But I think you're going to be seeing a lot more serious charges, especially civil rights charges used by the prosecutor in the Phoebe Prince case. It's the modern way of approaching this.

    LAUER: Apparently one of the students kind of went online and told others to log into this and watch this. Unwittingly, if someone did log in to it and do nothing about it, could they be an accomplice to this?

    Ms. AFTAB: No. We're allowed in this country to see terrible things happen and not report them as long as we don't have a special relationship with them. But this is a much bigger issue, Matt. We're here far too often to talk about these things. It has to stop.

    Ms. AFTAB: I'll help Rutgers do it. But I've got kids who work with me who knew him, went to school with Tyler , and know what a huge loss it is.

    LAUER: This is perhaps an incredible lesson, not only about, you know, remembering and respecting the privacy of others, and I know the privacy makes you nervous, but also remembering we are not safe. And we've got a laptop computer next to you. It's simply open. It has a camera on it; could record this entire conversation or anything else that goes on in a room.

    Ms. AFTAB: Absolutely. And if somebody puts a Trojan horse , which is a hacking type program on it without your knowledge, they can turn it on and off whenever they want to. Walk in from the bathroom into your room, having sex, having a private conversation, you are now on national TV .

    LAUER: All right, Parry Aftab , Mr. Blimling , we appreciate your input, both of you. And again, our condolences to everyone there at Rutgers , Mr. Blimling .


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