President's Address to the University Community

April 22, 2015

Photo: Mike Peters

Welcome, and look on the bright side: spring is here, and so are we.

I would like to begin today by pointing to an obvious truth: most of the time, we cannot get where we are going if we don’t know where we want to go. There are occasional surprising moments when we wander in the desert and happen, by chance, to wind up in the promised land, but counting on such serendipity is probably not a good idea. As a consequence, choosing a destination and charting a course are generally a prerequisite to achieving goals, and, even then, there is no real promise or guarantee that we get there. So the best we can do is to make a plan and then put in considerable effort, hoping for a lucky break or two.

That is why you may have seen in the media, both in the past and recently, my vigorous advocacy for the formulation of a rational plan for investments in public higher education in New Jersey. I have pointed out, with some forcefulness I admit, that New Jersey has failed to answer the most basic questions about its intentions in regard to higher education, questions such as, how many students the state wishes to educate, what a reasonable cost might be educate those students, what fields of study might be of particular importance to the state, how the cost of public higher education should be apportioned between the student and the state, what the role of various institutions should be in achieving the state’s priorities, how we should assess quality, and on what considerations the state should base its appropriations to its several institutions or shape its considerable investments in financial aid. Because the state, over many decades, has ignored these important policy questions, the current circumstance is one in which there is absolutely no rational basis for appropriations and no statewide plan. New Jersey institutions have made their way through the desert, each of them attempting as best they can to chart a course that will make a meaningful contribution to the higher education of the people of the state.

In the absence of a statewide plan and in the absence of rational and reasonably predictable appropriations, it has been particularly important for Montclair State University to have a well-articulated plan of its own. As a consequence, over the years, we have developed, communicated, and implemented our institutional strategic plan, and we have studied selected benchmark institutions and measured our own progress toward our goals. If we look back 15 years to the beginning of the 21st century, I think the path we have forged from then to this moment in time displays coherence, consistency, and clear intentionality. We had a plan; we followed our plan. We had 13,000 students; now we have more than 20,000. We granted about 2,300 degrees a year; now we grant about 4,500 degrees a year. We have grown and revised and improved our academic programs and added doctoral education. We have expanded our full-time faculty; we have enriched our scholarship and research efforts. We have literally doubled our available academic facilities and increased our residential opportunities by 150 percent. Our technological infrastructure has moved from primitive to cutting edge. We have enhanced our reputation both within and beyond the state. These results were not happenstance. We did not just chance upon these achievements. We planned; we worked; we adjusted our plans based on our growing experience and knowledge and the demands and opportunities of a rapidly changing world; and then we worked even harder. Our plans provided guidance, not constraints, and, consequently, we were able to stay nimble and to take advantage of unanticipated opportunities and to deal with unanticipated obstacles.

I cannot say if New Jersey will ever find its promised land insofar as its higher education assets and resources are concerned, but I can say, with considerable pride, that, because of our planning and because of our efforts, this University community has found a way to exist within a chaotic and irrational external environment and build a continuously improving educational promised land for increasing numbers of deserving students.

The most important aspect of University planning has been its expression at the level of the program and unit. A university, by its very nature, is a highly dispersed enterprise, and it relies almost entirely on the efforts and accomplishments generated by the talented and creative people dispersed throughout its colleges, schools, departments, programs and professional work units. Those combined accomplishments blend together to create the identity and the culture of the larger institution. That dispersion of accountability and responsibility makes a university a very complex organism, somewhat ungovernable, often difficult for others to understand, but it is actually the characteristic that has made universities, over hundreds of years, a primary resource for the advancement and preservation of human knowledge and culture.

As we approach the end of this academic year, I would like to celebrate some of those dispersed accomplishments. In what can be only an abbreviated tasting menu, I have selected a few initiatives, some small and some large, which I think are examples of the creativity that is helping to shape the overall institutional direction. These initiatives include increasing opportunities for success for an increasing number of students, expanding services to the state, strengthening the quality of our programs and expanding our technological and facilities resources. For example:

The John J. Cali School of Music this year realized one of its important goals, the establishment of its first graduate student string quartet. The graduate student quartet is an attribute of most nationally recognized schools of music, and its establishment has been an important item on the School’s agenda. This ensemble-in-residence, which made its Carnegie Hall debut this March, is coached by the Shanghai Quartet, our string quartet in residence, and supported by a grant from the Lydia Bergen Foundation. Congratulations go to Robert Cart, the Director of the Cali School, the Shanghai Quartet, Prof. Ken Lam, Director of our Orchestra Studies program and Mark Heimerdinger from University Advancement who assisted with the grant acquisition.

The School of Business and the School of Communication and Media both successfully expanded their internship opportunities for students. The School of Business placed 181 students in internships, a 28 percent increase over last year. These internships vary from positions for accounting majors with some of the top firms in the field to hospitality management internships as far afield as the National Conference Center in Virginia. The School of Communication and Media placed 136 students in internships in 84 different communication, media, and non-profit organizations and government agencies. Examples include production assistant positions at HBO, CNBC, and CBS, and corporate internships at Madison Square Garden and Gucci. These internships provide students with the opportunity to hone their professional skills, gain experience in their field and compete successfully for professional positions after graduation.

In another significant and related achievement, the School of Business has implemented a very strong Campus to Career Transitions Program. Through this program, led by Diane Freedman, Director of Career Services for the School of Business, and supported by the faculty, students are connected to alumni and members of the business community, business leaders are invited to speak on campus, large and successful career fairs are mounted on campus, internship opportunities are developed, networking events are held, and a number of professional development experiences are actually built into the curriculum to support students’ transition from college to the business world, including everything from dining and dress etiquette, to presentation skills, resume writing and training for interviews.

The Department of Psychology established a new Psychological Services Clinic, temporarily located in Stone Hall, providing community members with access to psychological testing and assessment services and providing students with an opportunity to develop their skills in treating clients of all ages and backgrounds. Working from the plans developed by faculty and staff, the University is in process of implementing an initiative to build on this successful achievement and to create a permanent, expanded, and integrated clinical facility that will serve a variety of programs, including Psychology, Counseling, Child Advocacy and the Center for Autism.

The College of Science and Mathematics has implemented its first large continuing education program, a program designed to meet the demand for credit-bearing courses for environmental professionals, including licensed site remediation professionals, engineers, environmental attorneys, certified environmental service providers and other professionals licensed by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. The College has recruited the state’s leading environmental experts to act as instructors and will offer approximately a dozen courses over the next year to over 1,000 environmental professionals. This program provides an excellent model for future extended learning initiatives by the University.

Last year, the College of Education received a glowing reaccreditation from NCATE, and, this year, the faculty of the School of Business, under the leadership of Acting Dean Kimberly Hollister, achieved a very positive review and five-year AACSB reaccreditation, which is the hallmark quality indicator for business programs. In addition, the Masters in Public Health program received its first accreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health, and the Dietetics program in the B.S. in Nutrition and Food Science was reaccredited. The faculty in the BS program in Computer Science, under the leadership of the department chair, Prof. Constantine Coutras, received reaccreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology for its program in Professional Computing, with no deficiencies noted. The department will be going back for further reaccreditation based on changes in their curriculum. All of these reviews are extremely rigorous, and the accomplishment is a credit to the faculty and staff in these units and is consistent with our overall University goal of assuring that we have substantial external validation of the quality of our academic programs. That validation comes in many ways, but for programs where there are recognized national accrediting organizations, our success in that particular area is very important.

This year Montclair State University achieved a 10-year designation as a Community Engaged Campus by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The process for achieving this important designation was led by Associate Provost Fred Bonato, working with an excellent and broad-based faculty and staff committee. Achievement of this designation constitutes a formal affirmation of the University’s longstanding dedication and commitment to community engagement. Under Bryan Murdock’s leadership, as the director of the University’s Center for Community Engagement, our programs have grown from the offering of a small number of service learning courses to include many community outreach programs, and a substantial portfolio of private and federal grants, notably this year, a $2.5 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education for a project with the City of Orange to convert two low-performing Title I schools into University-Assisted Full-Service Community Schools.

This year, two important technology initiatives were achieved. The Division of Information Technology fully implemented Canvas, our new learning management system, giving all faculty and students access to an extremely effective and user-friendly system of instructional resources and activities for all our online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses. The implementation team was led by Dr. Yanling Sun, Director of Technology Training and Integration. I want to thank the many faculty members who led the way in adopting Canvas and who served as guides for their colleagues. More stealth-like and less visible to the community, the University Library accomplished a very complex task, transitioning from one integrated library system to another, from SIRSI to OCLC World Management System. With the efforts of Meiling Chow, Cataloging Librarian, Denise O’Shea, Head of Access Services, Kathleen Hughes, Head of Cataloging, Metadata, and Archives Services and Suxiao Hu, Head of Collection Development and Acquisitions, the new system will provide improved user access to the Sprague Library holdings and to information about holdings in other libraries in the U.S. and abroad.

On the athletics front, we opened the Academic Center for Excellence in the Panzer Athletic Center where student athletes in our 17 intercollegiate sports can prepare for classes, study and seek out assistance on their academic work. We are very insistent about supporting the academic achievements of our scholar athletes, and I am happy to report that last semester, the football team played a winning game both on and off the field, achieving the highest team GPA. The field hockey team was, once again, the recipient of the Team Academic Award from the National Field Hockey Coaches Association and this fall reached a record team high GPA of 3.4. And how about this year’s women’s basketball team that brought a spectacular season to a close, beating Tufts University to finish third in the nation.

The University’s two current major construction projects have proceeded toward completion this year, on time and on budget. The new $55 million, 107,500 sq. ft. Center for Environmental and Life Sciences will provide extraordinary laboratories and scientific equipment for our research and instructional programs in the sciences. The new $66 million, 143,000 sq. ft. School of Business is wired to a fare-thee-well and will provide a state-of-the-art environment for business education and collaboration with the surrounding business community. Currently, the furnishings and equipment are being installed in both buildings, staff and faculty will begin moving into the buildings in late spring/early summer, and come September both buildings will be in full operation, having massively expanded academic facilities in two high demand areas. Along with the opening of these buildings we will see very noticeable improvements to the contiguous campus quad areas. These two projects represent the most significant addition to academic space for Montclair State since the opening of University Hall.

In a campus-wide, all-hands accomplishment, the University broke the 20,000 mark in its enrollment growth this year, admitting a well-qualified and highly diverse class of students. Our graduation and completion rates continue to trend in the right direction, and the University Registrar predicts that this May we will grant approximately 4,500 baccalaureate, masters and doctoral degrees to the largest class in the University’s history. Unfortunately, the closing of the Meadowlands arena necessitated that we had to scramble to find an alternate location for Commencement, which this year will be held on Wednesday, May 20, at 5:00 p.m. at the Prudential Center in Newark. University Advancement is working hard on pulling together all the necessary logistics, the most serious of which have to do with parking and with transportation to and from Newark. All the relevant information will be widely communicated well in advance of the ceremony. I am pleased to announce that our Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient this year will be Stuart Rabner, Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. In addition, for the college and school graduation convocation ceremonies that will be held on campus, we are continuing our recent tradition of inviting an accomplished alumnus from the particular college or school to be the convocation speaker and to receive an alumni award, giving the faculty and staff a chance to reconnect with one of their alumni. This year’s speakers once again clearly illustrate the success of the University’s graduates. They are:

  • for the College of Education and Human Services, Dr. Estela Bensimon, Professor of Higher Education and Co-Director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California;
  • for the Graduate School, Susan Head, Senior Vice President and Senior Philanthropic Specialist at Wells Fargo;
  • for the School of Business, Henry Keizer, retired Deputy Chairman and COO of KPMG;
  • for the College of the Arts, Al Prieto, Vice President of ABC News;
  • for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, David Wertheim, Vice President and General Counsel of Ferrari, North America; and
  • for the College of Science and Mathematics, Anthony Scriffignano, Senior Vice President and Chief Data Scientist for worldwide data and insight at Dun & Bradstreet.

The University’s Convocation and Commencement ceremonies are the real illustration of our achievements and always very moving events. I hope to see you all there because your presence is extremely meaningful and important to the students and their families.

We have looked at a sample of the dispersed accomplishments of some of the larger units of the University, but many important accomplishments in a University are achieved by individuals or small teams, specifically, the scholarly and research achievements of the faculty. Provost Gingerich and Dean Hunt have again published a handsome bibliography of University Authors, and I note a few examples of this year’s distinguished publications:

  • Lovewell’s Fight: War, Death, and Memory in Borderland New England, by Prof. Robert Cray, published by University of Massachusetts Press
  • Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal, by Prof. Lucy McDiarmid, published by Oxford University Press
  • Groove: A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance, by Prof. Tiger Roholt, published by Bloomsbury Academic
  • Music Matters: A Philosophy of Music Education, by Prof. Marissa Silverman and a colleague from NYU, published by Oxford University Press
  • Deschooling the Imagination, Critical Thought as Social Practice, by Prof. Eric Weiner, published by Paradigm

Support for the scholarly and research activities that push forward the frontiers of knowledge and that apply new knowledge to real world settings continues to grow, and, among this year’s significant new grants, are the following:

  • Prof. Stephanie Brachfeld was awarded a $157,056 grant from the National Science Foundation Antarctic Earth Sciences Program for collaborative research on “Deglacial ice dynamics in the Weddell Sea sediment provenance.” Prof. Brachfeld is a member of an international team of researchers that has demonstrated that the catastrophic collapse of the Larsen-B Ice Shelf in 2002 was driven by warming air temperatures.
  • Prof. Julian Brash of Anthropology was awarded a $125,000 grant by the National Science Foundation for “The High Line: Public Space in the Contemporary City”
  • Prof. Yang Deng of Earth and Environmental Studies was awarded a $175,652 two-year grant by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation to study “Approaches to Mitigation of Landfill Leachate-Induced UV Transmittance Impacts.”
  • Prof. Erick Forgoston and Prof. Lora Billings of Mathematics were awarded a $299,987 three-year grant from the National Science Foundation for a project involving undergraduate and graduate students in a research project concentrating on the challenges of positioning vehicles in the ocean. The project could yield benefits to fishing, shipping, the military and environmental monitoring.
  • Prof. Jamaal Matthews of Educational Foundations was awarded a $733,334 five-year grant by the National Science Foundation to study “How Urban Adolescents Come to Think of Themselves as Mathematicians.”
  • Dr. Jennifer Robinson, Director of the Center of Pedagogy and Prof. Susan Wray of Early Childhood, Elementary and Literacy Education were awarded a 5-year $6.2 million grant from the US Department of Education for The Newark-Montclair State University Urban Teaching Residency Program
  • Profs. David Rotella and John Siekierka of Chemistry and Biochemistry were awarded a $2.5 million five-year grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency for the development of medical countermeasures for botulinum neurotoxin.
  • Prof. David Talaga of Chemistry and Biochemistry was awarded a $283,164 grant from the National Institutes of Health for a project to discover better means of evaluating drugs that inhibit Parkinson’s Disease, potential causative agents, and mutations or genetic causes of the disease.

I would also like to take note of the growing number of our faculty who are deeply engaged in collaborations with colleagues at other universities in the U.S. and abroad. A good example of such a collaborator is Prof. Peter Siegel of Anthropology, who, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society, has been leading a multidisciplinary international team of earth and environmental scientists and archaeologists studying socionatural landscapes across the southern and eastern Caribbean. Prof. Siegel is currently in residence at Leiden University in the Netherlands collaborating with researchers in the group.

Added to this impressive catalog of accomplishments, are many initiatives in the early stages of planning or implementation, and, perhaps at this time next year or the year after, we will hear more about them. For example:

  • The Cali School of Music hopes to work toward a graduate-level opera program as part of its plan to enhance the national and international reputation of the School.
  • The Psychology Department is launching a new concentration in Forensic Psychology this coming fall.
  • The School of Business is working toward the offering of a substantial portfolio of graduate level professional certificates, an initiative that this year saw its first accomplishments in the certificates in Forensic Accounting, developed by Prof. Jim DiGabriele, and in the Entrepreneurship certificate, developed by Dennis Bone, Sharon Waters, and Prof. Ross Malaga. Planned to be next up are certificates in Human Resource Management, Project Management, and Business Analytics.
  • Samir Bakane, Executive Director for Enterprise Systems and leader of the OneMontclair project, with collaborative leadership and participation from across the University has made great progress in the work toward implementing the University’s new information systems, and the University is now poised for phased implementation over the next 18 months of its Finance, Human Resource, and very important Student information systems.
  • The next phase of capital facilities improvements will include both new construction and major renovations. We will break ground this spring on a new 60,000 sq. ft. facility for the School of Communication and Media, as well as some associated renovations to Life Hall. Major renovations that are currently in design include the preparation of Partridge Hall for its re-use once the business programs have moved into the new building; the renovation of College Hall transforming it into an integrated center for most student services; and the renovation of the building on the Ward property to provide usable space, starting with the east wing of the building.

So, there is plenty more to come, as the University continues to develop and grow, both to lead and to respond to, the developing initiatives and creative energy of its faculty and staff. Next year, we will be joined by over 20 new full-time members of the faculty, as well as new professional staff, and who knows what innovative ideas and opportunities they will bring with them.

The University is, as you have seen in this presentation, all about its people, and every year, we have a large number of changes among our faculty and staff, as new people join the University and others leave for other career opportunities or to retire. Throughout the year, we try to do a good job of communicating these comings and goings, but I would like to make particular note of two of them today.

One very important recent addition was the appointment in January of Candace Fleming as our new Vice President for Information Technology. Candy received a BSE degree in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University and an MBA in Finance from New York University. Her prior position was as Chief Information Officer and Vice President for Information Technology at Columbia University. There is very little that we do at the University that does not significantly implicate the uses of technology, so, if you haven’t already done so, I hope you will all take the opportunity to get to know Candy and her excellent IT team.

On the departure side, I must take note of Denise DeBlasio’s retirement. Denise came to Montclair State 36 years ago, in 1979, as the Assistant Registration Evaluator, and she rose through the ranks, becoming University Registrar in 1993. Although we think of Vice President Don Cipullo as the University’s Treasurer, it is Denise DeBlasio, as the University Registrar, who is actually the treasurer of the coin of the academic realm – that is, the tracker, recorder, protector and ultimate verifier of student credits and degrees. Any student who has entered Montclair State at a particular moment in time in the last 107 years has actually entered into a form of contract with us that stipulates exactly what they must do to achieve a particular degree or certification. And throughout that 107 year history, programs have been continually added, suspended or altered; degree requirements and academic policies have been modified, and so the contract for each entering cohort differs from prior cohorts, and the Registrar maintains and tracks what, in today’s University, is a complex chart of accounts going back over a century. It is Denise who can produce an accurate transcript for a student who attended in 1960, and it is Denise who can determine exactly what the academic requirements were in a specific program for a student who entered in 1928 or 1988 or 2008.

Every year, when I stand at Commencement, as I am about to do on May 20, and, “upon the recommendation of the faculty” and “by the authority vested in me” confer over 4,000 degrees, there is a little phrase that precedes it whereby the Provost proclaims that the University Registrar has certified that all these students have, indeed, fulfilled the specific requirements for the degree they will receive. The faculty’s recommendation or the President’s vested authority would be meaningless without the Registrar’s certification. For 36 years, Denise DeBlasio has been a pillar of integrity and service at Montclair State. She has been a smart, hard-working, funny, sometimes maddening, and always completely reliable colleague, and it is hard to imagine the place without her. Denise, we wish you a happy and fulfilling retirement.

In 1859, in a lecture he gave in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln made reference to the period before the world was radically changed by the invention of printing and the subsequent widespread teaching of reading. He said, “It is very probable – almost certain – that the great mass of men, at that time, were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement. They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings; but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality. To emancipate the mind from this false and under estimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform. It is difficult for us, now and here,” said Lincoln, “to conceive how strong this slavery of the mind was; and how long it did, of necessity, take, to break its shackles, and to get a habit of freedom of thought, established.”

Over 150 years later, we are well into the next age of information dissemination, well beyond the printing press, and well into the time where what Lincoln refers to as “the great mass of men” have added to reading other electronic and analytical literacies which he could not have imagined. But even with that progress, I think Lincoln would have been wrong to think that, even in this time, we would not be able to understand slavery of the mind and how difficult a task it is to break the shackles of that slavery, to emancipate in all people a sense of their worth, and to teach the habit of freedom of thought. We live in a world where slavery of the mind and its noxious effects sit on our very doorstep.

The relationship between political and social freedom and freedom of thought is absolute, and the relationship between education and freedom of thought is absolute. So, going back to my earlier comments, making our plans and working to realize our plans is important. It is what enables us to help the world understand how city kids learn to think of themselves as mathematicians, and how to treat Parkinson’s disease, and how people need and use public space, and how our behaviors are impacting the physical conditions of our world. It is what enables our students to think like scientists and philosophers and historians, and to express themselves as artists and writers, and to see themselves as entrepreneurs and translators and physicians and advocates. We create knowledge without which the world cannot be free. We teach our students the habit of freedom of thought, without which they cannot be confident in their own worth, without which they cannot actually be free.

So while New Jersey may be a bit adrift in regard to higher education, we are not adrift. We do, in fact, know where we are going, and each of you plays a part in getting us to our promised land, that land where the people have the established habit of freedom of thought.

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