Aerial shot of Montclair State University's campus.

President Cole’s Fall Address

Posted in: Speeches

Office of the PResident

Each year, I usually weave into my fall address to the University community some reference from my summer reading. As will be no surprise, this summer did not provide much reading time, but, in the small hours of the night, when I could not shut off the buzz in my mind about all the complicated issues and problem-solving balancing acts of how to manage the University through the current crisis, I put the light back on and turned to my books for an hour or two.  Of course, I had to reread Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, written in 1722, but change the setting, and it could have been here and now in almost every significant respect. And then, of course, there had to be Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor. But the largest undertaking was to reread, a half century after my first reading of it, the 700 pages of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg, The Magic Mountain, written in 1924. Ploughing through those 700 pages of philosophizing and endless descriptions of illness and weather, both interior and exterior, felt like some kind of penance for my sins, but, about 240 pages in, I was rewarded with the following words, referencing Carpe diem, the University’s motto: “Take our great cities, the centres and foci of civilization, the crucibles of thought!  Just as the soil there increases in value and space becomes more and more precious, so, in the same measure does time.  Carpe diem! …Time is a gift of God, given to man that he might use it…to serve the advancement of humanity.” (And there, I thought about the city that is the University.) And a little further along, Mann writes that “man’s profoundest natural impulse is in the direction of self-realization.  From this it follows that all those who seek satisfaction of this impulse must become co-labourers in the cause of human progress.” (And there, I thought about our students.) And a little further still, he writes “that almost all individual suffering is due to disease of the social organism.” (And I thought, oh, yes.) The Magic Mountain in all its maddening 700 pages ultimately presents disease as a metaphor of the human condition and illness itself as a pedagogical methodology.  Ultimately, Mann himself summarizes this work best. Of the protagonist, Hans Castorp, he says that he “arrives at an understanding of a humanity that does not, indeed, rationalistically ignore death, nor scorn the dark, mysterious side of life, but takes account of it, without letting it get control over his mind.  What he comes to understand is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health; in just the same way that one must have a knowledge of sin in order to find redemption. ‘There are,’ Hans Castorp once says, ‘two ways to life: one is the regular, direct and good way; the other is bad, it leads through death, and that is the way of genius.’”  So, says Mann, “It is this notion of disease and death as a necessary route to knowledge, health and life….” (And I thought there of the battle we all face between fear of the illness and the natural impulse to find our way to knowledge, health and life.)

As an institution, we have had many years of the “regular, direct and good way,” when we could go about our business untroubled by the specter of disease and death, but not all our institutional years were like that. In the early years of Montclair State, there was World War I, leaving 23 million dead, including members of our college community; there was the Spanish flu, leaving 50 million dead, including members of our college community, and there was smallpox and polio; there was in 1929, the start of the Great Depression, which hit the nation and our college community with devastating consequences; in 1939 World War II began, and Montclair State students in large numbers left our classrooms to fight and some to die in the war; and there was the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War, and there were other economic crises, and there was 9/11 and those in our community who lost family, as our students watched in horror from the windows in their residence halls on campus as the towers fell.  There were the natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.  So, all the years of our Montclair State history have not been “regular, direct and good.” We have faced disease, and death, catastrophe and fear before, and we have persevered.  We worked through it, we learned from the tough pedagogy of history, and we are learning now from this tough pandemic teacher. It may have control, to some degree, over our bodies, restricting our movements and our interactions with each other, but it does not control our minds and our hearts. We are finding our courage and determination, and we are working through the current challenge because we have built something here that is worth saving, and because our 21,000 students trying to fulfill their impulse to self-realization are worth serving, and because our work, as a community of scholars, scientists, artists, and committed professionals depends on the University and achieves significance only in relationship to this community as a whole.

Last spring, from being a University whose instructional programs and student development activities relied very heavily on face-to-face, in-person interactions and the physical campus, we became, almost overnight, a fully virtual institution, and we did our best to salvage the spring semester for our students. Then we successfully served a record number of students in the summer sessions, and now we have put tremendous effort and thought into the best ways to enable our students to continue to make progress towards completing a rigorous education safely. Literally every college, school and administrative unit has been, and continues to be, deeply engaged in that effort, all focused around the plans developed by faculty and staff in each department and school that resulted in the fall instructional schedule, utilizing in different ways and degrees the various instructional modalities and technologies that have been developed and provided to get us through this difficult term with academic integrity. Getting through the spring and summer and getting ready for this fall has been a massive effort, and I thank you for it.

The faculty and staff in those disciplines that felt strongly about the necessity to provide in-person, on-campus instruction came up with a wide range of creative solutions. The faculty in the performing arts, in the Cali School of Music, led by Director Tony Mazzocchi and Professors Heather Buchanan and Tom McCauley, and, in the Department of Theatre and Dance, led by Department Chair Randy Mugleston and his colleagues, deconstructed and rearranged curricula and instructional schedules to combine on- and off-campus experiences, turned the Red Hawk Parking Deck, the Amphitheater, and campus quads into outdoor rehearsal and performance spaces, developed specialized protocols for the use of studios and the use of protective equipment, and changed performances from live venues to broadcast performances.

In the sciences, the NSF-funded LSAMP program, which is led by Prof. Yvonne Gindt and supports under-represented student populations in STEM fields, and the student Green Teams of the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies, led by Dr. Amy Tuininga, successfully switched to intensive online research, internships and mentoring. The Chemistry and Biochemistry faculty, led by Department Chair Saliya Desilva, figured out how to give all their students a laboratory experience this fall, and the Department of Physics and Astronomy, led by Department Chair Marc Favata, set up outdoor laboratories and recitation sections for their fall HawkMix classes. Tents are on the way for them to enable continued outdoor instruction in more variable weather.  The faculty and staff of the School of Nursing undertook a complete review of their curriculum and implemented a detailed plan that provides students in all of their programs with all of the on-campus instruction required.  It is quite cheering really to see our Nursing students in their Red Hawk red scrubs walking on campus.

Carolyn Murray, Director of Clinical Internships for the Center of Pedagogy, in collaboration with the Department of Teaching and Learning, led a team of faculty, staff, and district educators in a three-day intensive workshop in August for over 250 teacher education students focusing on remote teaching and classroom technology. Prof. Jennifer Goeke, also in the Department of Teaching and Learning, teamed up with her colleagues to quickly launch and enroll students in a graduate certificate program to equip classroom teachers with the skills to teach students with disabilities online.

In the Feliciano School of Business, when COVID-19 brought the immensely popular Executive Speaker Series to a halt, MBA Director Nicole Koppel saw the opportunity to greatly expand, rather than diminish the program, using remote technology.  Similarly, Director of Communications Phil Mattia organized a series of podcasts featuring faculty and Business School Advisory Board members. The College of Humanities and Social Science Dean’s Office and the College Working Group on Equity and Inclusion prepared for the fall semester by reminding the College of the commitment to social justice at the core of their mission, and asking every instructor to take one week this fall and dedicate it to focusing on Black Lives Matter, as related to the specific discipline. To assist with the implementation of this idea, the Working Group provided a highly accessible syllabus to members of the faculty.

And, of enormous benefit, throughout the summer, a team from the Provost’s Office and IT, led by Emily Isaacs, Julie Daley, and Yanling Sun, worked together assisting faculty to make an effective transition to remote teaching, to use of the newly installed classroom technologies, and to the new combined on- and off-campus instructional plans. More than 1,000 faculty members participated in these workshops over the summer in preparation for their fall teaching.  Summer Jones, Mike Korinko and their IT teams upgraded 64 classroom spaces in record time over the summer to enable “zooming” to and from students in classrooms for the fall. Registrar Leslie Sutton-Smith and her team rescheduled countless classes to accommodate the new course modalities and to leverage the new classroom technologies.

University researchers adeptly developed new protocols for existing human subject research studies, data collection, and consent procedures, and a number of faculty saw the research opportunities posed by the crisis and turned their efforts to new avenues of research to produce pandemic-related knowledge.

Beyond instruction, Montclair State’s student population is extremely dependent on a wide range of academic support and other campus life services which have a very real impact on student success or lack thereof. As with instruction, the University model for getting those services to students depends heavily on in-person interactions and the physical environment of the campus. The task of delivering those absolutely critical support services virtually was extremely challenging. It happened, but it took a village, as they say. Professionals from a wide range of units collaborated and shared tools and methodologies, invented, and worked relentlessly to try to assure that no students would be left unserved. Just to provide some sense of the enormity of the task, during the spring, when students were so suddenly separated from all their accustomed support networks on campus, Associate Dean of Students Fatima deCarvalho led a group of Student Development professionals who made a personal phone call to every one of the University’s 21,000 students to check in on how they were doing.

The Division of Residence Life, led by Executive Director Jeanine Stroh and Associate Director Kevin Schafer, first made sure that hundreds of students who had no other safe place to be had a campus home for the spring and summer, providing them the support they needed to continue with their education, safely and well-fed. They then turned to the implementation of a complex plan to open housing to 3,000 students this fall, providing them with a safe place conducive to study and affording them the best chance for a successful educational experience. At the same time, Director of Financial Aid Jim Anderson and his team reorganized the work of the unit to handle the explosion in student financial aid needs and quickly created a new process to award, in an equitable and helpful way, the $10 million received by the University in CARES Act funding dedicated specifically to financial assistance for students.

While we were operating largely virtually during spring and summer, exactly when thousands of students needed the most advising assistance, the professionals of University College were figuring out how students would find advisors without a physical location and how advisors would manage virtual traffic without a waiting room. With leadership by Associate Dean Daphne Galkin and Technology Manager Alker-Kelly Antoine, technology solutions were researched and implemented with lightning speed by the advising centers across all the colleges and schools, who delivered thousands of advising sessions by live chat.  This technology will remain in place, side by side with in-person advising, as we move forward this fall. Similarly, Red Hawk Central, the first-stop help-service for students, which in the past relied on in-person visits and phone calls to provide assistance, introduced completely new online chat and email systems to their work processes to maintain their advising levels, which for the months of July and August totaled about 36,500 discrete service contacts.

Of course, the pandemic totally disrupted the normal admissions process, both for students and for the University. Both undergraduate and graduate recruiters changed overnight all of their procedures, developing virtual presentations, tours, and admissions events and changing the processes for uploading admissions applications. Their excellent work, in collaboration with the Office of University Communications and Marketing, resulted in the admissions picture for this fall that is overall level with last fall’s numbers, showing a small decline in undergraduate enrollment, but an increase in graduate enrollment.

Quietly, and almost invisibly in the background, Vice President for Finance Donna McMonagle and her team worked with people from every division across campus to gather and scrub the data and compile the voluminous and complicated applications and supporting documents that has resulted, to date, in the award of $43 million in CARES Act funds, all while managing the hugely complex Refund process caused by the pandemic, keeping emergency procurement of PPE and technology moving, addressing an increase in the need for student payment plans, handling the normal business processes of the University, and assuring the University’s financial stability. Working closely with Donna was Executive Director of Budget and Planning David Josephson and his team, who kept a close eye on budget resources, state appropriations, revenues and expenditures, and created budget plan after budget plan for the fall as all those circumstances kept changing.

And in the midst of all the pandemic disruptions, Vice President Colleen Coppla and her terrific development team managed to bring the University’s Soar Campaign to a close, raising a total of $82 million which exceeded our $75 million goal. A significant portion of the funds raised were for scholarships, and it is a particularly lovely circumstance that among the closing gifts for the Campaign was a generous gift from recently retired Professor of Psychology, Deborah Fish Ragin. Her gift will contribute support to the University’s most vulnerable students, including those who have come through the foster system, are homeless, or have no parental or family support structure. These students, who are among those currently living on campus, receive assistance with tuition and fees, housing and food services, and support to help them succeed in the university experience.

And, finally, on the health and safety front, there has been a veritable army of people, working together to assure the implementation of a responsible and safe plan for the University’s re-opening. The Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Related Planning, co-chaired by Dean Lora Billings and Dean Janice Smolowitz, worked steadily throughout the spring and summer, and their research, analysis, study of the needs of operating units, and their collaboration with the major divisions of the University resulted in careful advice that made possible the University’s Restart Plan and that contributed extremely useful guidance to campus operations. I also want to recognize the contribution of Vice President Joe Brennan and the communications professionals who prepared the massive number of documents, websites, emails and other communications necessary to comply with State restart standards and to provide necessary information to the University community.

There are not enough words to say about Vice President Shawn Connolly and the entire University Facilities division. They never left campus, and they have done an unbelievably thorough job of preparing the campus for life in the pandemic. From working with IT to install technology, to procurement and installation of tents, plastic shields, PPE, enhancement of HVAC systems, installation of hand sanitizers, vast amounts of signage, and implementation of cleaning protocols, they have worked hard, and they have worked smart, and they have been extremely responsive to the needs of various units on campus.  I want particularly to note the contribution of Gena Coffey, Assistant Director of Environmental Health and Safety, who had responsibility for reviewing all the physical modifications and materials put in place, reviewing all the product selection to ensure that the chemicals we chose and the PPE we purchased was the best for the particular situation. Gena is also a member of the Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Related Planning and continues to make an important contribution in the area of health tracking for employees. We owe the whole Facilities Division an enormous debt of gratitude for their tireless efforts on behalf of the University throughout the pandemic.

Associate Vice President Donna Sadlon, who is also a member of the Advisory Committee, and her team in IT did incredible work building the Hawk Check tool for self-screening of symptoms, creating reporting mechanisms to track student and employee completion of Hawk Check and the required COVID safety training modules, and creating applications to support the Student Health Center and the Occupational Health and Safety Center in contact tracing. The use of the University’s existing data systems related to class rosters, residence registrations, and campus WIFI login data to support contact tracing was particularly creative and efficient.

Marie Cascarano, Coordinator of Health Promotions and Tara Mellor of Residence Life, made a very important contribution in the development of an extensive training plan for students, including innovative and creative COVID-19 training videos for returning students, as well as training students as Community Health Ambassadors and deploying them across the campus to encourage social distancing, use of face coverings, and hand hygiene.

And finally, we are extremely fortunate to have Dr. Patricia Ruiz as the Director of the University’s Health Center. As another member of the Advisory Committee, she has been rigorous, thorough, and comprehensive in the Health Center’s response to the pandemic.

Many of us have returned to campus, some of us never left campus, and others are not yet ready to return. But whether you are among those who are here, or among those working remotely, this institution is standing on its feet today, serving our 21,000 students, sustaining our research, and taking care of business because of your efforts.  It would have been a lot easier to do less, to demand less of ourselves, to provide less to our students, but it would not have been better. If we don’t achieve all that we are trying to do this semester, any deficit will not be because we didn’t have the courage and the ingenuity to try. We may not entirely succeed in everything we are attempting to do, but we will be able to look at our students and look at one another and know that we did our best.

So, yes, this year has brought an enormous challenge for us to tackle, but our goal has always been clear – to get through this crisis, protecting the University that we have created for the tens of thousands of students we serve now and the generations of students to come, and protecting it for all of us whose life’s work is part of the fabric of the University. If we don’t protect it, there is no one else who will.  All our teaching and mentoring, our research and knowledge creation, is dependent on the foundation and the infrastructure of this University built by our efforts and the efforts of those who came before us.   And the commitment and creativity the University community has brought to that challenge has been amazing, as the few examples I cited above demonstrate.

This year is my 23rd year as president of Montclair State. I have been doing this job for some time, time which, as Thomas Mann says, is given to serve the advancement of humanity.  I came here with a profound commitment to the importance of public higher education in improving the quality of life and opportunities for fulfillment of the nation’s people and in sustaining and advancing our democracy.  When I came to Montclair State, I found a solid institution, with good and talented people, and with enormous potential, building on its history and values, to grow in contribution to the state and the nation.

I had a vision and ridiculous optimism about our ability to achieve that vision, and the University had the benefit of a faculty and staff and Board of Trustees that were ready to engage in expanding and refining that vision, and who were ready to roll up their sleeves with me to tackle the work. The work that we accomplished together, the things we have built and grown constitute a transformation of Montclair State that is nothing short of miraculous, and it is worth saving.

We will get through this crisis, step by step, relying on our commitment, our courage, and our ingenuity, and once we are firmly on the other side of the crisis, we will be able to turn our attention again to realizing our ever-evolving vision for the future. However, my role in this University’s growth and development is coming to a close. I have informed the Board of Trustees of my intention to retire effective July 1, 2021 or as soon after that date as the next president arrives.

I will not tell you, as so many people do when they retire, that it is time to retire because I have accomplished what I came to do. It would not be true. The University is not finished, and I have not accomplished all that I came to do.  The University will never be finished; it is organic and ever changing and meant for the ages, not just the decades.  And, as for me, if I stayed here for another 20 or so years, I would still never accomplish what I came to do, because my dreams and goals for the University keep growing with the University. Every day I get up, I think of all that can yet be done. When we have our eyes on the horizon and take a step towards it, the horizon moves away from us with each step we take.  All that we accomplish just teaches us about what more could be done. As we finish each thing, we become better able to see what the next thing should be. So, no, I am not finished, I could never be finished, so, at some point, I just have to stop.

That time will be at the end of this academic year. This was not the kind of last year I would have preferred, either for me or for all of you, but, in this last year, whatever it brings, I will continue to do my best for you and for the University. I will, as I always have, give it everything I have to give, and, until July or whenever after that date the new president can take over, I will be present, fully engaged, as I have always been. So, this is not a farewell speech. The farewell speeches will undoubtedly come much later, but right now we have a very tough year to get through together and that is what needs to be the focus of our attention.

So, let’s get back to work. And, as I have said and as I have truly meant every one of the past 22 falls, and as I truly mean in this 23rd fall, I am immensely grateful to have such an extraordinary community of colleagues with whom to share the important work we do.

I would like to leave you today with the sound that over these many years has motivated and inspired me, the voices of our students. Thank you.

Watch and listen to the Montclair State University Singers’ message of hope, All My Trials.