Onward and Upward

During her 13-year tenure at Montclair State, President Susan A. Cole has taken the University to The Heights—and beyond. She shared her experience in a recent interview.

Photo: Mike Peters

President Susan A. Cole at Montclair State University's 2011 Commencement ceremony.

What was the campus like when you arrived?

It was a wonderful institution doing great work—but without adequate resources. The classrooms were old and ill-equipped, and the laboratories lacked the equipment and materials needed to do science in the twenty-first century. The campus had been under-resourced and under-built, and it showed.

How did you determine your initial priorities?

Most of my priorities derived from conversations with faculty, students, and staff. It was clear that we needed more facilities, for example. We also needed to enroll more students; we didn’t have a large enough student population for the range of degree programs we wanted to offer.

In addition, it was absolutely clear to me that we needed more full-time faculty, and that they needed better technology to enhance the teaching and learning, and research. We were in the Middle Ages when it came to technology infrastructure.

With all of these challenges, what was so gratifying was that the campus community—the heart of the educational enterprise—was strong and solid, and highly committed. As long as you have that, everything else can follow.

How has the student body changed in the past 13 years?

The most significant change is that it’s much bigger. Enrollment has grown 50 percent. Beyond that, and even more significantly, we have grown the number of degrees granted by 65 percent. In 2011, we granted close to 4,000 degrees, up from about 2,500 degrees ten years ago. In addition, the reputation of the institution has grown. So applications have increased, and so has the quality of the student population.

Is that why we’re seeing record numbers of applicants?

No question about it. The quality and reputation of our programs has grown tremendously. They were strong when I came, and they’re much stronger now because of the new facilities, new faculty, and new programs that have been developed. Students want to come to Montclair State in great numbers—far greater than we can possibly admit. We had 16,000 applications for 2,100 places in the incoming freshman class.

There’s been a lot of press about recent reductions in state aid. With so much taken away, how are we continuing to grow?

It’s taken a lot of sweat equity, and a lot of help from good friends. Unfortunately, we have suffered a real disinvestment by the state in public higher education in New Jersey. So we have had to find new ways to build the institution and provide the high quality of education that we insist on offering to our students.

The growing student population has provided more tuition revenue, which has enabled a lot of the growth you see on campus. We have also had to raise tuition to offset the loss of state aid, but we’ve also been very aggressive about seeking support from corporations and foundations, including some very generous donors. We are reaching out to the approximately 100,000 living alumni of Montclair State, asking them to help support the students who are trying to gain the kind of education that they had.

You’ve made alumni relations a priority over the past few years.How can alumni reconnect with the University?

There are so many ways alumni can reconnect. They can help us recruit wonderful students for the institution. They can mentor students in their careers. It’s wonderful when alumni working at corporations bring two or three students from Montclair State into their offices as interns, giving them hands-on experience in the real world of work and guiding them in their careers.

Alumni have so much to teach our current students. And of course, giving to the Annual Fund is a terrific thing for an alumnus to do.

The buzz has been terrific on Montclair State’s newest residential complex, The Heights. You were the first university president to take advantage of a new law that allows state universities to partner with private developers to build new buildings on campus.

Because resources from the state have been so minimal, we have had to figure out how to build things ourselves. We believed that private developers would be willing to finance and build new residence halls, which generate revenue without cost to the University or the state. There were laws that prohibited that, however, so the first thing we had to do was to get the laws changed.

It took several years of hard work, but with the help of some forward-thinking New Jersey legislators, we were able to change the law. As soon as we could, in 2009, we went out into the marketplace and found a strong partner, Capstone, to help us build The Heights.

With The Heights, Montclair State now has the capacity to house 5,000 students on campus. What’s the value of a residential campus to the university community overall?

Montclair State has been around for more than 100 years and it has had a housing shortage for about 100 years. These new beds will enable us, for the first time in our history, to provide housing for any student who wants it. We will always have many commuter students, but for those who want to live on campus, student housing provides a valuable immersion in the university environment.

Any other new buildings in the works?

We are not yet done! We have wonderful programs in Communications and Broadcasting, but they don’t yet have adequate facilities. We’re putting finishing touches on the design for a new science building, particularly for life sciences and environmental studies. And we very much need a new home for our business school. We have wonderful, fully AACSB-accredited business programs, which put us in the top third of business schools nationwide, but our current facilities are woefully inadequate, so we’re hoping to break ground on several new academic buildings in the near future.

You’ve mentioned that recruiting new faculty is a top priority. How have you managed to remain committed to recruitment at a time when many universities are cutting back?

Because it’s the right thing to do. I have seen institutions stop hiring faculty during times of budgetary stress, and it has had a devastating impact over the long term. They have missed out on generations of new faculty coming in, with new ideas and fresh knowledge. The faculty is the heart and soul of what we do in a university, so we need to make sure it remains a vital and continually renewed resource for our students.

Didn’t you start out as a faculty member at the City University of New York?

Actually, I started out as a playwright. I went to graduate school on a playwriting fellowship, but I needed to make a living, so I got a job teaching English at CUNY. At first, I planned to return to the theater, but I was drawn in by the theater that was the classroom, the dynamic that happens when you have students in front of you and something you want to teach.

How did you get into administration?

That’s simple: I was participating in the life of the university as a faculty member, and it occurred to me that things weren’t all that well-run. I thought, “I can do this better.”

And here you are. What’s the agenda for the next five years?

There’s going to be more growth. We will continue to recruit excellent new faculty, which we are doing at the rate of 20 to 30 new professors per year. We will continue to grow our student population. And we want to make our graduation rates even better than they are.

We need to keep getting better at everything we do. That is what Montclair State has done since 1908, and what we are going to continue doing.

Many, many years from now, how would you like your leadership of Montclair State to be remembered?

I would like people to say that I enabled the development of the full potential of this incredible institution. I have always viewed my job as releasing the potential in others. Presidents don’t build universities by themselves: faculty, staff, students, and alumni all participate in the process. But all of that intelligence, ability, creativity, and potential needs to be released in a way that builds on a shared vision. I hope that’s what I have been able to do.

What will you remember most about your time here?

Standing at the podium, watching the students file in for graduation. I love seeing those faces, that stream of eager young people with their lives before them. I love when parents stand in the audience and cheer. It’s an incomparable experience, and I never tire of it.