Engineering the Critical Thinker: A Conversation with Provost Willard Gingerich

Photo: Mike Peters

Montclair State University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Willard Gingerich.

Willard Gingerich is clearly a constant thinker. And mover. And doer. In conversation, a question is barely formed before he is ready with a description of a program that he’s working on that is exactly in tandem with the topic at hand. Montclair State has brought on a chief academic officer equal to the task of readying more than 17,000 students, 250 academic programs, and five schools and colleges to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world—and he’s jumped straight into the game.

Gingerich, who began his appointment as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in July 2008, began his academic career studying English and American literature, earning a BA in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His doctoral studies at the University of Connecticut in American Studies aroused interests in Native American literature and eventually took him to Mexico where he studied indigenous languages at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia.

Prior to joining Montclair State, he served as Provost, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of English at Fairleigh Dickinson University and before that, as Vice Provost for Graduate Programs and Research and as Dean of the Graduate School at St. John’s University, where he was also Professor of English.

While he originally hails from Northern New York, Gingerich’s sensibility is closely attuned to the Montclair State environment. The first in his family to attend college, Gingerich also has local connections in New Jersey: his first teaching job was at Somerset Community College and he and his wife, Alina, were married in North Plainfield. Alina’s family emigrated from Cuba and eventually settled in West New York.

The following are comments from a recent conversation with Gingerich on the role of education, the interrelationship between teaching and scholarship, and the transformation of Montclair State University.

Let’s begin with teaching. What makes a good teacher?

Teaching is about energy transfer, so I would say a teacher is someone who has enthusiasm for learning, who is inspiring to students, and who finds ways to make students attracted to learning. Good teachers always want to make an impact on the conversation of their discipline, engaging with their peers and carrying that conversation into the classroom to their students. The best teachers are mature in their judgments of their colleagues and set high standards for themselves in scholarship, classroom performance, and engagement with students. Research activities are always part of the development of a rich faculty; it’s what good teachers do to prepare for class. I no longer accept the opposition of teaching and research; the entire university environment is all about learning at different levels, and the best faculty are continuously modeling that learning for their students.

What was the most memorable time from your own college experience?

In graduate school, I ventured off into American studies before it was an established field, and my first travels to Mexico were fundamental to forming a scholarly career. I still consider my years at SUNY Buffalo a paradigm of how inspiring an undergraduate experience can be; I’d still choose it again over any school in the country at the time.

Governor Rockefeller had infused the SUNY system with levels of funding that enabled schools to build really dynamic academic departments, and Buffalo made excellent use of the funding. It created an atmosphere in our department of continual creativity and intellectual vigor, with prominent novelists, poets, and critical scholars, including Nobel Prize winners visiting classes and giving readings regularly, interacting with students at every level. This access inspired us and instilled a kind of comfortable familiarity with distinction. I came to realize later that an essential goal of the best education is to inspire a deep level of self confidence in the student—to never be intimidated by the highest level of excellence but to be inspired by it.

Do you see that kind of transformative possibility at Montclair State?

Yes, and it begins with an outstanding faculty. Given the exceptionally committed senior faculty who have established the values and mission of the institution, and the numbers of new faculty that we have been able to add continually year after year, the University enjoys extraordinary opportunities for reinvention and self transformation within solid traditions of excellence. There really is an art to building a faculty community. The careful selection of the best faculty for the mission and goals of the University will create and foster the environment in which students can flourish.

And, on the student side, is there a similar shift occurring simultaneously?

We are already making some changes to the academic expectations we place on our students, particularly incoming first-year students. We’ve reduced the availability of remedial classes, setting a bar that expects students to come prepared to undertake college-level work. Fortunately, Montclair State has long been a leader in assisting schools to prepare high school students for higher education, and will continue to assist them in shaping a student body that is well prepared for college studies.

Montclair State has seen continual growth of graduate programs. How does this fit into the model of its strategic development?

When you create an environment for higher levels of investigation and academic conversation—graduate study—these things fertilize an entire department and, in most cases, reach down to the undergraduate level. As we support graduate programs, we enrich the undergraduate community with ideas, resources, and educational opportunities. Graduate education elevates the dialogue and intellectual atmosphere of the entire University.

What other areas do you see as important for growth?

More international education, for one. There are many benefits, but across the board, an internationalized campus—students going abroad and international students traveling here—can offer new perspectives for the entire student body. Montclair State has a natural advantage through its location, as part of a large metropolitan area that contains international centers of finance, trade, commerce, and culture. And, of course, other important areas for growth are in supporting our historical strengths—leadership in education, contributing to life science research, and the pharmaceutical industry, all of which play key roles in New Jersey and worldwide.

You’ve had experience at both private and public institutions. What are the main differences and challenges?

The publics have an additional layer of bureaucracy that require attention, and sometimes progress takes longer. Publics also are now increasingly forced to dedicate resources and attention to the art of raising money, an advantage that the privates have had for much longer. There’s no question that the publics are moving more toward privatization, a national trend that forces public colleges and universities to make up the difference between what the state provides in the name of public education and what an education actually costs, and that continues to be at the expense of the public whom these institutions were meant to serve.

What is the biggest impact of privatization?

Economic access to education is increasingly compromised, especially for the average family. The middle class family is in danger of being priced out of higher education, just when awareness of the need for education in a knowledge-based economy is increasing.

American public education, especially in the New Jersey area, is about serving a diverse population and preparing them to pursue opportunities and challenges for a lifetime. Socialization for democracy is public education’s primary obligation. It has always been a foundation of our national strength and resilience.