In the course of a two-hour address to faculty members in November last year, Mr Lawrence, known as `Fran' to his friends, let slip three words. Black students' below-average performance in university admission exams, he remarked, was a function of their "genetic, hereditary background". The slur could not have been worse timed, rekindling as it did the furore generated in the autumn by The Bell Curve, a book which cited the evidence of IQ tests to propound the notion that people with black skins were biologically inferior to the rest of the species.
Black Rutgers activists responded by disrupting a university basketball match and calling for Mr Lawrence's resignation. Civil rights groups and black political leaders in New Jersey joined the clamour, prompting newspaper pieces denouncing his words as a poison that "bubbled up from somewhere deep in the unconscious". Soon, the case acquired such national notoriety that the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times felt obliged to publish weighty editorials counselling forbearance and forgiveness. For Mr Lawrence had quickly - and tearfully - apologised, comparing his discovery of what he had said, but allegedly forgotten, to hearing news of a death in the family.
The record shows that his life has been a monument to political correctness. A long and distinguished career promoting the cause of America's racial minorities in education reached its peak in 1990 when he was appointed president at Rutgers.
During his tenure Mr Lawrence opened a $1m African-American cultural centre on campus; he spearheaded a drive to raise $5m of scholarship funds for black and Latino students; he gave his blessing to the introduction of a "speech code" which, as a university document has it, makes it an offence punishable by expulsion for students to discriminate verbally "on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, age, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status".
Clutching the document, student John Ambrose sneered. "Lawrence has been kowtowing to those engaged in the PC war, catering to those with far left, far PC agendas. And now this!" He stopped short, however, of rejoicing at the fate of a man who fell foul of the liberal orthodoxies he himself helped create. "It puts me in a tough situation," he reflected, "because on the one hand it's good if he's forced to quit. On the other he'd be another sacrifice in the cause of PC.''
As the leader of the Rutgers chapter of College Republicans, a nationwide university campus movement, John Ambrose finds himself on the cutting edge of what Newt Gingrich describes as America's libertarian revolution. Radical chic at Rutgers resides with the Republicans, whose membership has soared from 50 in the summer of 1993 to 450 today.
In contrast with the caricature of a college Republican, Mr Ambrose does not wear jacket and tie, but looks much like any other student, in T- shirt and sneakers and sensible Nineties haircut. The difference is that he has a rare political energy imbued not with the knee-jerk prejudice of many Republican voters, but with novelty and flexibility of thought.
"For me far left and far right are the same thing, really," he explains. "What I favour is libertarianism, what I oppose is totalitarianism." How would he define the difference between libertarianism and the liberalism he so decried? "Some time back it meant the same thing. Equal rights for women - that's undoubtedly a good thing. But then it snowballed into this `date-rape', sexual harassment mania. Civil rights - the same. It's a good thing, but it snowballed into this ridiculous mania for affirmative action.
"What I object to about PC is its intolerance of free expression of ideas as it pertains to relations between the sexes and the races. It gives way to preferential treatment and creates fertile territory for damaging social attitudes and government policies. I'm for individual rights. That's what I want and it pisses me off that we conservatives are portrayed as racist and sexist."
And what did he think about Mr Lawrence's remarks? "I think it was stupid because I don't believe that group thing is true. But the truth is that what really pissed liberals off was that he spoke the unspeakable, breached the taboo, the PC thing that certain things are unspeakable and should be censored. I find that far more frightening than anything Fran Lawrence said."