Francis L. Lawrence, former Rutgers University president

Former Rutgers University President Francis L. Lawrence
Former Rutgers University President Francis L. Lawrence
Posted: April 19, 2013

Francis L. Lawrence, 75, who served as president of Rutgers University from 1990 to 2002, died Tuesday, April 16, in his Mount Laurel home, the university said Wednesday. A cause of death was not disclosed.

Dr. Lawrence oversaw a period of sweeping changes at the state's flagship public university, including the implementation of the school's first long-term strategic plan, "A New Vision for Excellence," and the establishment of more than 50 new undergraduate and graduate degree programs and more than 45 research centers and institutes, the school said.

Diversity was important to his tenure, but it was awkwardly thrust into the spotlight when he asked in a talk with faculty members at the Camden campus whether black students had a "genetic, hereditary background" that led to lower test scores.

Dr. Lawrence later apologized for the remarks and said the words he used did not reflect his beliefs.

"I had never seen someone who looked so vulnerable and weakened as Fran did" when he was called to a meeting in Trenton, said Clement A. Price, professor of history at Rutgers-Newark. "You have Fran in one office with some people in the administration, and you have a group of black elected officials who were calling for his firing, and me, and I was going back and forth."

That controversy, which included student protests and faculty calls for Dr. Lawrence's resignation, seemed to hang over the rest of his tenure, Price said. Still, Price said, Dr. Lawrence remained a strong leader who continued implementing large-scale projects, including an IT infrastructure overhaul, and the launch of a $500 million fundraising campaign to make up for declining state funds.

Colleagues said Dr. Lawrence will be remembered as a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan and jazz enthusiast. "Fran was not a boastful man, he was not a heroic leader, he was very modest in his persona as a university president," Price said.

Dr. Lawrence was born August 25, 1937, in Woonsocket, R.I. He received a bachelor's degree in French and Spanish from St. Louis University in 1959 and adoctorate in French classical literature from Tulane University in 1962.

He was a Tulane professor and administrator until 1990, when he left his post as provost and dean of the graduate school to become Rutgers' 18th president.

After Dr. Lawrence stepped down as president in 2002, he joined the Rutgers faculty and continued to teach until his full retirement in 2012. At the school's Camden campus, he taught an undergraduate seminar on leadership at the honors college during that time.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Kay, son, Christopher, daughters, Naomi and Jennifer, three sisters, and 13 grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Sunday, April 28, at 9 a.m. in Kirkpatrick Chapel on the university's College Avenue Campus in New Brunswick.


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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