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Rutgers Big Ideas draw on University’s Expertise to Make the World a Better Place

Rutgers Big Ideas—an initiative of 12 bold projects with global implications—will draw on the university’s academic, health care, and research expertise to make the world a better place.

For more than 250 years, Rutgers has been reaching further, trying harder, and achieving bigger and better things. From the discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic used to treat tuberculosis, to the Rutgers Tomato, the university has given birth to bold projects that have made the world a better place.

These innovations didn’t appear by magic. If every great achievement begins with an idea, it is also true that those ideas require resources, collaboration, and organizational support. Rutgers has used these ingredients time and time again. And the university is continuing the tradition in the Big Ideas initiative.

In 2018, Rutgers issued a challenge to its 23,000 faculty and staff to produce their most imaginative, disruptive, and visionary proposals for inspiring widespread, equitable societal change. That challenge resulted in more than 200 collaborative ideas, ranging from cutting-edge cancer treatment to socially engaged art and sustainable urban farming.

Forty teams went on to pitch their large-scale, forward-thinking projects at a symposium on October 4, 2019. Hundreds of community leaders, philanthropists, and innovators gathered to learn more about how Rutgers was applying its intellectual power to serve the common good. They offered their input to guide what came next.

In 2020, as much of the world turned inward in the face of COVID-19, the Rutgers community continued to move the Big Ideas initiative forward. Rutgers chancellors and academic leaders at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, Rutgers University–Newark, and Rutgers University–Camden met repeatedly (and remotely) to discuss and refine the 40 proposals and incorporate feedback from the university community. President Jonathan Holloway reviewed the team’s recommendations and supported the vision and aspirations reflected in their choices.

From those deliberations emerged 12 Big Ideas that advance Rutgers’ status as a world-class university devoted to the greater good. Driven by faculty and researchers across disciplines, divisions, and locations, the 12 interdisciplinary projects hold the potential to address critical issues of our day, such as public health, climate resilience, social justice, access to education, microbiomes, and artificial intelligence.

“These Big Ideas have the capacity to improve the human condition,” says Holloway. “By leveraging Rutgers’ standing as an academic, health, and research powerhouse, our university is poised to lead the nation and world toward a more just and sustainable future. These projects could not come at a more critical time. At what may seem to be a dark hour in human history, Big Ideas promise to light a way forward.”

Of the twelve Big Ideas, two of them are led by SASN faculty. They are featured below. 


Art Rising

Art Matters, administered by Express Newark, will be a safe haven for creativity and expression.

Salamishah Tillet
The Art Matters project will be run by Express Newark, a popular arts collaboration between the City of Newark and Rutgers University–Newark. Salamishah Tillet is the faculty director of the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark and professor of African American and African studies as well as creative writing at Rutgers–Newark. Photo by Nick Romanenko

Since 2017, Express Newark has been a place where the people of the city of Newark and Rutgers University–Newark collaborate to lift the voices and visions of their diverse community. And in a year of racial reckoning and disparities laid bare by the pandemic, Express Newark’s creative space is more essential than ever. “Art is what has allowed Newark to persevere in the face of systemic racism that we all know can bring you to your knees,” says Rutgers–Newark chancellor Nancy Cantor. “What art does is bring you up.”

That inspirational power was never more apparent than during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. “The one project we were really fortunate to be a part of and really be a creative partner in was the social justice murals that the city has supported and conceived,” says Salamishah Tillet, faculty director of the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark and Henry Rutgers Professor of African American and African Studies and Creative Writing at Rutgers–Newark. “You had faculty, students, and alumni collaborating with city officials and community artists to create two really beautiful street murals.”

As students have wanted to engage more deeply in the community, Express Newark has been evolving into something more, thanks to the Art Matters project. “Express Newark, and Art Matters in particular, has a way of bridging this divide or decreasing that gap between those who have access and those who do not—those who are allowed to create and those who are told that they should be creative,” says Tillet. “The issues that we’re addressing—social justice and equity—are so big that we need many ways of imagining how to navigate and make sense of them.”


Dream Catchers

Dreams Fulfilled will ensure that students get an affordable degree on time.

The Dreams Fulfilled project recognizes that college begins before students set foot on a campus and continues after they graduate. Photography courtesy of Rutgers University Foundation


The Dreams Fulfilled project believes student excellence can be found in every zip code, income bracket, ethnicity, and nationality. “Many New Jersey students just can’t afford to get here,” says Molloy. “They can get tuition support, but that’s not enough.” The expression of talent is limited only by scarcity of resources and opportunity, and the perception of it only by imagination.

“What does ‘access’ mean?” asks Sherri-Ann Butterfield, executive vice chancellor and associate professor of sociology at Rutgers–Newark. “How have our practices been intentionally or unintentionally keeping certain kinds of students from attaining a college education?” Dreams Fulfilled mobilizes Rutgers programs like Rutgers Future Scholars, Scarlet Promise Grants, Bridging the Gap, and RU-N to the TOP as well as academic advising, honors programs, CARE Teams, and career services to ensure that all students—including those from underrepresented communities—have the resources to complete their degrees within four years and without significant debt.

Rather than viewing college as a stage in life, the project recognizes that college begins long before a student sets foot on campus and continues long after a student graduates. “As a state flagship university, we have a stewardship responsibility to make a difference in the lives of the many youngsters and residents of this state,” says Courtney McAnuff, vice chancellor of enrollment management at Rutgers-New Brunswick.

By connecting related programs under Dreams Fulfilled, the university can better identify and cultivate talent and leverage its expertise to help students, from demonstrating strong grade school aptitude to finding meaningful work as productive members of society. “Through our pipeline of support, we can fulfill this dream for young people and their families,” says Nyeema Watson, vice chancellor for diversity, inclusion, and civic engagement at Rutgers–Camden. “The students we support today will go on to help the next generation.”


This story was part of a larger feature in Rutgers Magazine's Spring 2021 Issue covering all twelve projects. Read more here.