Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni inductee Richard W. Roper has had a profound influence in myriad ways across Rutgers, in Newark, throughout New Jersey, and beyond.
By Sam Starnes GSN’04 (Photo by John O’Boyle)
Richard W. Roper wanted everyone to know he earned his degree from Rutgers University–Newark. “I got a class ring—one of those big things that took up a third of your finger,” says Roper NCAS’68. “I wanted people to see it when I was on the bus going home after I graduated.”
Those proud feelings he had for Rutgers upon graduation have persisted for more than half a century. “That’s how I felt about the institution then, and it led me to want to be helpful to advance the mission of this university,” Roper says.
His involvement at Rutgers has been vast, dating back to when he was a student and cofounded the Black Organization of Students, a group that continues at Rutgers–Newark. He later participated in creating the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), a groundbreaking program launched in 1968 and that today serves students at 42 colleges and universities in New Jersey. EOF, which Roper worked for after graduation, has been instrumental in transforming Rutgers–Newark from a predominantly white institution when Roper was a student to one of the most diverse universities in the nation.
Roper since has served on numerous Rutgers advisory boards and groups that support the university, including the Rutgers Board of Governors. In addition, his generous gift established the Richard W. Roper Undergraduate Scholarship in Civic Responsibility for Rutgers–Newark students.
Beyond Rutgers, his vast community involvement in Newark included serving in the late ’70s as a founding trustee for WBGO, also known as Jazz88.3 FM, the public radio station where he remains involved. Today, WBGO’s transmitter in Manhattan reaches audiences in New Jersey, all five boroughs in New York, and southern Connecticut, and through online streams has a worldwide audience of jazz listeners. “I’m thoroughly pleased with the impact it is having both as a cultural institution and as a source of news and public affairs,” he says.
His career also has had profound impact. After earning a master’s in public policy from Princeton University in 1971, he served as executive director of the Office of Newark Studies, a city program that Rutgers administered during the administration of groundbreaking Newark Mayor Ken Gibson, the first Black mayor of any major northeastern city. (Roper was co-editor and contributor to A Mayor for All the People: Kenneth Gibson’s Newark, published in 2019 by Rutgers University Press.)
He went on to serve in a leadership role in the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington during President Jimmy Carter’s Administration and then held prominent positions over a dozen years at Princeton where he directed its Program for New Jersey Affairs. He followed that with two stints at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, first as director of the Office of Economic and Policy Analysis from 1992–1996, and then returning as the authority’s director of planning from 2007–2010. In 1996 he founded the Roper Group, which has conducted economic and social policy research and analysis for organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts. He also was a Senior Fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government of SUNY for ten years.
Roper says the career he has led seemed unlikely considering his start. Born in DeLand, Florida in 1945, Roper grew up in Brunswick, Georgia, where his mother—although she had attended college—was a domestic worker and his father a plumber’s assistant who was unable to hold a plumber’s license because he was Black. After graduating from a segregated high school and attending college in West Virginia, Roper visited New Jersey to see relatives and decided to move to Newark. He arrived in the city on his 20th birthday, landed a job as a salesman in a Sears store, and soon after enrolled in Rutgers–Newark’s University College.
Two years later, he was a rising senior living in an apartment in downtown Newark in 1967 when racial tensions exploded in the city, resulting in violence, fires, and suppression of protestors by police and military that killed 26 and injured more than 700. “We don’t call it the riot—we call it the rebellion,” Roper says. “The impact of the rebellion on me was monumental. I couldn’t imagine that the state, let alone the city’s police infrastructure, would direct its energy at harming the citizens of the city of Newark. There were troops in Newark. There were military vehicles patrolling the streets of Newark at night. They were gunshots. I had to walk through the staging area for the military infrastructure that was being used during the rebellion. And I was appalled.”
The result of witnessing those five days inspired his “desire to make a difference, to have an impact, to do things that would help reduce the marginalization of people of color.”
At Rutgers–Newark, he embraced an environment that gave him a launching pad to fulfill that desire. “Rutgers mean service,” Roper says. “It has been the place where I nurtured my interest in and desire to play a much more active role as a professional. The Rutgers spirit is such that we think that things are possible and that we have a role to play in making those things that are possible happen, to be of service to others, to try to make a difference in the lives of the people we care about.”