NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Dozens of current and former Rutgers students jumped to the defense of a university employee accused of conducting a “military style” lecture for incoming freshmen in the university’s Equal Opportunity Fund (EOF) program last summer.
Students in the program are typically the first in their family to attend college, and incoming first-year students are required to pass a five-week "Summer Institute" to prepare them for college. The program usually begins just days after the students finish high school.
In the past month, there has been a wide variety of opinions expressed regarding a welcome speech conducted by Eliezer Marcellus that some felt may have gone too far last summer.
In a response to a New Brunswick Today article published on June 28, the vast majority of more than 100 comments on this website were supportive of Marcellus, who has worked for Rutgers since 2008.
Many EOF students cited Marcellus as a man that dedicates his life to helping students succeed.
“His methods are nothing but a way to make students realize what they have at stake,” wrote Ruberth Valencia, a former EOF student.
Others expressed that the use of “tough love” is meant to prepare students for college.
“Tough love has always motivated me to go above and beyond to achieve my goals. His words built me up and never broke me down,” wrote Gary Wilson, a former EOF student who said Marcellus played a large part in his success at Rutgers.
“As we all know some communities in New Jersey are more ‘difficult’ than others, so naturally students have different social experiences and the tough love approach may not necessarily fit students who come from a more sheltered background,” wrote one anonymous commenter on the article.
Sources told New Brunswick Today that the summer institute orientation in 2013 involved students being ordered to stand at attention in a campus parking lot, describing the treatment as "military-style."
Though some of the feedback was critical of the ritual, the vast majority of comments have defended Marcellus' actions, including the ritual that took place in 2013.
"I was there during the situation and I can confirm that there was no "hazing" of any sort," said Marie Callahan, an apartment assistant involved in the program.
"These programs are there to provide structure, emotional support, and academic support," Callahan told New Brunswick Today.
Despite the allegations, Marcellus has had a positive impact on many of his students, and is also credited with taking charge of relief efforts to help Haiti after a catastrophic earthquake hit the country in 2010.
Comments indicated that he can have an “intimidating” demeanor “at first” but that it’s all part of his mission to get students to “take EOF seriously” and prepare them for future success.
Jose Uben Jr., an EOF student who attended the 2011 summer program, said that he’s learned to “appreciate Marcellus’ ways of pushing his students.”
“His military style kind of brought me back down to earth when I honestly thought I was invincible, but truthfully, had so much more to learn about life and education,” said Uben.
Uben said that the summer orientation in 2011 took place in the Rutgers Student Center, where students sat along the walls of the multi-purpose room.
“It was a military style environment, but he basically made it clear what we had to do to succeed and what happened if we didn’t,” said Uben.
“I just thought ‘what am I getting myself into?’” said Uben. “However, after that day there was really no other confrontation quite like that. Marcellus was a very approachable individual.”
Damon Grant, an EOF student who attended the 2009 summer program, said that his orientation was fun and hard work at the same time.
“The first couple of days I thought it was going to be easy, but that first night was kind of an eye opener because Eliezer brought the hammer down on us and gave us the rules on how things was going to be done,” said Grant.
“[Marcellus] even told one of the other students she can go pack there stuff and leave before the program even started," Grant said.
"[Marcellus] informed us that our acceptance at Rutgers was not completed until we finished the program so in my mind I was thinking I was already in Rutgers but not yet. So the only thing I had on my mind was I need to make it through the summer and I will be an official Rutgers student.”
However, Elizabeth McLaughlin, an EOF student who attended the 2013 summer program as commuter, felt the summer orientation last year was inappropriate.
“The first night of the program, the orientation, he made us line up like we were in a prison and laid out the rules and yelling at us like we were in trouble,” said McLaughlin.
Another student who was present during last year’s orientation wrote in a comment responding to the article that Marcellus was a respected figure in the EOF program, but disapproved of the ritual that took place last year.
“I personally think Mr. Marcellus is a great counselor and resource for all EOF students, but that ritual needs to go.”
According to statements made by sources and displayed on comments, there were key differences between the orientation in 2013 and orientations that occurred before.
According to a comment posted on Reddit, a similarly stern lecture was given during the 2012 summer orientation, but students were placed and seated indoors instead of standing at attention in a parking lot.
“I went through the 'ritual' also, a part of the EOF class of 2012. It was the summer class, seated in an air conditioned auditorium room being challenged by Mr. Marcellus and the rest of the staff to do their best in college, and if not then expect to go home,” wrote the anonymous commenter.
"It was a tough-love teaching technique that challenged people, including me, to become our best."
According to a Residence Life employee at Rutgers, the housing staff noticed that resistance to authority within students has increased in the past year, though it's unclear if the June 2013 incident had anything to do with it.
"Many of my residents are EOF students, and in recent years they have been less respectful of authority and less trusting of authority. Our job is to support them, but they have not been coming to us when they need help, and they have been taking matters into their own hands. This past year especially."
Hema Patel, a former EOF employee, said that it’s important to make students understand the rules and policies of the program.
Patel characterized Marcellus as a warm and friendly man who has had a big impact on students in the EOF program, even those who he is not assigned to counsel.
"Mr. Marcellus has a strong physical presence, but he is very soft and kind. They don't realize how important their safety is and what students have risked in past years,” said Patel.
According to Patel, an EOF student’s funding to pay for college can be rescinded if they do not do well in their classes during the summer institute, making it the staff’s job to do all they can to help students succeed.
"EOF students just have to show effort and follow rules for safety during the summer… The rules are hard for some students and the sternness of the tone can be jarring," said Patel.
“Our thinking is that we do not want to set them up for failure because the loan debt they will incur in that one year could financially debilitate them… for years to come.”