On a warm and sunny day in September, the sounds of trumpets heralded the celebration of Jonathan GS Koppell's investiture as Montclair State University's ninth president. Festooned with red-and-white balloon arches, the campus welcomed community partners, family and dignitaries to hear Koppell lay out his vision and plans for the University and to celebrate all that makes Montclair a special place.
Over Montclair’s 114-year history, the investiture of a president has been a rare occasion, and the University marked the event with much flourish. The day's events included performances by Dance students and the University Singers, a procession of faculty and University leadership in academic regalia, initiated with a fanfare courtesy of John J. Cali School of Music students and accompanied by processional music performed by the University's Wind Symphony.
In the historic Amphitheater, which Koppell referred to as the "beating ancestral heart of Montclair State University," the president told students they are Montclair's most important constituents, and invited them to make a difference in the University and the world. "We need your effort. We need your industry. We need your intellect. But mostly, what we require is your optimism – and that's what today means to me. We will do great things together."
Montclair's President Emerita Susan A. Cole, who returned to honor her successor, explained the tradition signifies the contribution higher education has made to the progress of humanity throughout history. "Every member of this university community has played a part in that history and heritage," she said. "And today, we come together as a community to acknowledge the awesome responsibility that President Koppell assumes as the leader of this university."
Cole, who led the University for 23 years, and her predecessor Irvin D. Reid, who served Montclair from 1989 to 1997, when he left to become the first African American president of Wayne State University, addressed an enthusiastic audience to much applause.
Reid told the attendees that he was certain that like presidents before him, Koppell would leave his mark. "No doubt your vision for the centrality of a university at the heart of the community of which it is a part has brought you to Montclair State University at a propitious moment." He also applauded Koppell for giving students such a prominent role in the investiture. "It already shows you as a leader committed to the sensitivities of those you serve."
Students indeed played important roles throughout the September 15 festivities: from the symphony and choral performances and the singing of the national anthem by Harrison Smith to brief speeches by Faith Victor '22, a former student member of the Board of Trustees, and Student Government Association President Richard Steiner-Otoo. Board of Trustees student member Maria Cavero Muñoz carried the presidential medallion in the procession.
As the Wind Symphony played Emperata Overture, the academic procession, which included representatives from other universities as well as Montclair leadership, joined the president and together they made their way across campus to a red-carpeted Memorial Auditorium. There, Koppell was officially invested by Board of Trustees Secretary Mary A. Comito as Trustee Preston Pinkett III took the medallion from Cavero Muñoz and hung around Koppell's neck "a chain of office" bearing a silver medallion engraved with the University's seal, an action that symbolized the board's delegation of its authority and responsibility to the president.
New Jersey Governor Philip D. Murphy, who said he wore a red-and-white tie for the occasion, sent a videorecorded message: "Montclair has become an important resource for the State of New Jersey and beyond, providing a strong education for its students, the opportunity for social and economic mobility and promoting the ideals of public service. I am confident that President Koppell is the right person to lead Montclair State in this moment and to continue its upward trajectory."
Board of Trustees Chairman Francis M. Cuss, who chaired the presidential search committee, said the board was "unanimous in our opinion that he would be the kind of transformative president that we needed at this propitious time." He called the day’s events "an important celebration of renewal and a wonderful opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to the future of this great university."
Cuss gave a special welcome to Koppell's wife, Jennifer Steen, and their children Elsa and William, as well as all the president’s relatives and friends from across the country, who joined in person or via the livestream. A viewing party also was held at Arizona State University, where Koppell served as dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions before assuming the Montclair presidency.
Speakers included representatives from the faculty, staff, student government, alumni, elected officials and community leaders partnering with Montclair. Newark Board of Education Superintendent Roger León '96 MA said that he and President Koppell share a commitment to providing an inclusive and excellent education and emphasized the partnership between Montclair, the American Federation of Teachers and his district in a teacher preparation program that is a national model. "Together, we are ... preparing the next generation of inspiring teachers and transformative school leaders."
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh spoke about his city's educational and community partnerships with Montclair, noting that when they first met, Koppell told him, "If you’re trying to write a success story in the City of Paterson, sign me up as a co-author." Sayegh added there are many opportunities for collaboration – both in the community and in the schools – and that he was proud to call Koppell a partner and a friend who will help write that new narrative.
City University of New York Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and Bloomfield College President Marcheta Evans, both personal friends of the president, delivered keynote addresses. Matos Rodríguez discussed Koppell's family background and how his grandparents, first-generation graduates from New York City colleges, inspired Koppell to forge a career in public universities.
"Jonathan’s family’s story is the story of the promise of America and the role public higher education plays in that promise," Matos Rodríguez said. "That is the journey that we keep seeing in America, thanks to places like the one where we stand right now."
Evans spoke of her friendship with Koppell and the "model partnership" forming between Montclair and Bloomfield College, noting that Koppell "put his legacy on the line right at the start of his tenure" by throwing a financial lifeline to ensure that New Jersey's only four-year Predominantly Black Institution, as well as a Hispanic-Serving Institution and Minority Serving Institution, could remain open while the two institutions establish a strategic partnership.
"He knows the life-changing power of social mobility and how minority-serving places are the vessels that hoist students up the social mobility ladder," Evans said.
Imagining the Future
In his rousing half-hour investiture address, Koppell said his first year in office has been "incredible" and expressed gratitude for the confidence placed in him. "I am a link in a chain of leaders who served as stewards for Montclair State University."
Koppell called the day "a celebration of a vital institution that has been ambitious and pugnacious, confident and sometimes underestimated, but always focused on its public purpose. All of us are links in the chain, a chain that connects the people who for generations have made this university great."
But most of all, he said, "I see today as a celebration of imagination, this extraordinary human ability to form mental images of things that do not exist...We can make real something that has never been."
The president announced a number of future initiatives both on- and off-campus that will support his vision of enhancing Montclair’s impact for students and communities.
One of those initiatives, he said, will involve a significant educational role for the University in the revival of Hinchliffe Stadium, one of only two remaining historic Negro League ballparks. Montclair plans to use the site as a teaching tool to educate K-12 students, residents and visitors about the history of Paterson.
"This is just the beginning. We have a lot of things that we’re going to do together. I cannot wait, and it's not limited to Paterson," he said. "It’s not limited to Montclair, it's not limited to Clifton, Little Falls or Newark. This is what we will do anywhere and everywhere. We are eager to be a partner." Koppell said that the University also plans to launch a college of health professions "focused on community well-being," and reimagine the focus of the College of Education.
Other initiatives to better serve students include launching Montclair Unbound, the Office of Student Belonging and the Next Generation Service Corps, and doing so while continuing to keep the University accessible and excellent. Through Montclair Unbound, he said, the University will offer degrees in ways that combine in-person and online modalities, creating more accessibility for more students, meeting them where they are.
"This is the Montclair State University I imagine, the prototype of the public-serving university we need today: one that expands opportunity, invents solutions, empowers problem-solvers, engages our communities and reinvigorates our democracy. We can make it come into being as surely as inventors, artists and scientists have brought their ideas to life for millennia," he said.
"Our forebears, the architects of the New Jersey State Normal School at Montclair and every successive generation that made this remarkable institution what it is today – they imagined the University for which the moment called – and they built it. Now, it is our turn to answer the bell. Carpe diem."
Laura Griffin and Marilyn Joyce Lehren contributed to this story.