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President Cole’s Farewell Address

Posted in: Featured Links, Speeches

Good afternoon to those who are here in person in our beautiful Amphitheater, and to all those many more who are joining us electronically. I would have loved to be able to be together with all of you on campus, but we must take satisfaction in the fact that we are at least, one way or another, here and making the best of the circumstances we have been given.

I’ll start with Chaucer today from The Legend of Good Women, because I think the 14th century often provides a useful perspective when thinking things through:

In the original Middle English, almost certainly badly mispronounced:

Whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules synge,
And that the floures gynnen for to sprynge,
Farewel my bok, and my devocioun!

Or, roughly translated to modern English:

When the month of May
Has come, and I hear the birds sing,
And the flowers have begun to bloom,
Farewell to my books and to my devotions!

After 22 years of gathering with you each spring to celebrate the cyclical renewal of the earth and the approaching end of another year of accomplishment at the University, this year, my 23rd, I bid this academic year and this academic community farewell more permanently. I put down, not for a bit of summer rest but forever, my books and my devotions, that is, my work as president of Montclair State University.

When I was inaugurated as president of the University, the provost from Metropolitan State University, where I had before been president, spoke at my inaugural ceremony here. Some of you were there and may recall that she said, “You will find that Susan will speak about her students, her faculty, her buildings, her university. Don’t worry about that,” she said. “Susan takes very good care of her things, and, when she leaves, she gives them all back.” Well today, after 23 years, I am formally giving them all back. Which raises the questions: to whom am I giving them, and what exactly is it that I am giving back. The first question is easily answered; the second is more complicated.

To whom am I giving it all back? I am, of course, giving it all back to you – you who do the work to enrich, sustain and realize the mission of the University, and I am giving it back to the people of New Jersey, who bear the responsibility to support the University so that it may serve their needs: their need to educate the rising generations, their need to push forward the creation of new knowledge, and their need for the intellectual resources to address important societal issues.

This giving back is, of course, symbolic, because, as we know, the University was never really mine. It is true that in moments of pride and affection I would speak about my students. It is true that, from time to time, when deans would be tussling over who had the right of first access to certain facilities, I liked to remind them that all the facilities were not theirs but mine. I confess that there may have been a little something in my personality that conveyed a sense of ownership of the enterprise. But the truth is that I was, as any real leader should be, always sensible of the fact that I was a mere short-term steward of a very long-term asset. And, in giving this university back to you who sustain it and to the people of the state who support it, I would remind you that you, too, are short-term stewards of this immensely important long-term asset.

So that brings us to the second question, that is, what exactly is it that I am giving back. I would say that much more than the University’s people, its land and buildings, or its programs, what I am giving back is an idea or conviction, specifically the idea that the preservation of culture, history, and knowledge, the creation of new knowledge, and the education of people is necessary to the salvation of the world, and all that is implied by the word salvation. To the extent that the University has value, that value is embodied in that central idea and all that flows from that idea, as made manifest by the work that we have done and the work that you will continue to do.

Over the past two decades, based on that idea, our work has been substantially to expand public higher education opportunities for the state we serve, and the manifestation of that work can be very briefly summarized in four major categories.

First and foremost, we have grown enrollments from approximately 12,000 to over 21,000 students, and those students now fully reflect the racial, ethnic, economic and social diversity of the population of this highly diverse state. More than half of our incoming students are students of color, and we are now a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution. And we are not just admitting students; we are retaining them and graduating them at percentages significantly higher than national averages in comparable institutions. The number of degrees granted each year has grown from approximately 2,200 to 5,200. That is not just good; that is remarkable. Much of that success is attributable to the very significant growth in student advising and support services, initiatives that resulted in the recent creation of University College, designed to provide guidance to thousands of students and to assist them in finding the degree program that best aligns with their abilities and aspirations.

Second, expanding the enrollment base has enabled the faculty in all of our colleges and schools to create a multitude of new and redesigned academic programs at the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral levels. These programs have been in traditional academic disciplines, in professional fields, and in emerging and cross-disciplinary areas of study, and have been informed by the knowledge and workforce needs of a rapidly evolving world. Along with this programmatic development has come the breaking down of disciplinary silos, the reshaping of intellectual partnerships, and the transformation of existing academic units into larger, more comprehensive entities. A few examples among so many include the incredible growth we have seen in the Feliciano School of Business, the evolution of a strong Department of Music into the outstanding John J. Cali School of Music, the creation of the rapidly growing and future-focused School of Communication and Media, a new School of Nursing, and new programs in fields such as Medical Humanities, Data Science, Public Health, and Business Analytics. All of that work gives our larger student population access to a far more comprehensive range of educational opportunities.

Third, building on the solid foundation of an existing strong faculty, the recruitment of hundreds of new, highly qualified faculty has enabled the expansion of the University’s engagement in research, scholarship, and graduate and professional education. Graduate student enrollments continue to rise, and the faculty each year is attracting ever increasing external research funding from major federal agencies. As a Carnegie-designated Doctoral Research University, we are no longer focused solely on imparting knowledge; we are increasingly deeply engaged in creating knowledge and in applying knowledge.

And fourth, to support the increases in enrollment, faculty and staff, academic programs, research, and campus activities, we have added millions of new and renovated square feet to a campus that was desperately underbuilt. Just a brief list of some of the major facilities projects include: the Center for Environmental and Life Sciences, the Feliciano School of Business, the Center for Computing and Information Science, the John J.Cali School of Music, the School of Communication and Media, Conrad Schmitt Hall, College Hall, University Hall, the School of Nursing and The Graduate School, thousands of beds for residential life, new dining venues, a train station, beautiful new studios and performance venues for the arts, a completely new energy infrastructure for the campus, including the campus’ own microgrid, improvement of athletic facilities and a new Recreation Center, and improved campus grounds, roadways, and the University’s first three truly elegant parking decks.

So that is the thumbnail sketch of what we have done. What’s next? What will the future require of you? When I arrived in 1998, Montclair State had very recently been designated a university, continuing its historical transition from Normal School to Teachers College, to State College, and then State University, but it still functioned in most ways like the small college it had been. Over the past two decades, because of your willingness to change, it has evolved, incrementally but inexorably, into the large, highly complex research university that stands today. There is no doubt, that the future will require you to continue to be willing and ready to let Montclair State go further in that process of evolution, in its structures, relationships, policies and ways of functioning to meet the needs of the university of tomorrow.

The future will not be found in nostalgia for the past. The future will require an intensely forward-oriented perspective, and it will require largeness of mind. It will require embracing the idea that no piece of the institution can be competent to define the whole. Wasting time over trivia, clinging to process instead of purpose, and stifling creativity, differentiation and useful ambiguity can yield only mediocrity, and mediocrity would be the cost that would be paid if one desires an institution that is, first and foremost, a safe and familiar refuge. Progress toward the fulfillment of purpose, creativity, discovery and accomplishment, requires giving up the safe haven of the familiar, giving up rigid or bureaucratic controls, and it requires, most importantly, giving up the impulse to over-regulate, whether by individuals, committees, units, departments, representative bodies or groups.

To be a successfully creative and achieving organism, the University community needs to trust itself. It needs to let the Chemistry Department experiment with new programs, let the Music School use facilities and time differently, let the Facilities engineers rip up the old pipes and create our own microgrid, let the School of Nursing grow their differentiated culture. The way forward requires us to cheer each other on and help each other on our way, not to slow each other down, not to worry and pester each other about the little stuff, but, rather, to keep thinking about how, working together, we realize the big goals. Not that you have asked me, but, if I were to leave you with one critical piece of advice, it would be to not let yourselves be divided into us and them, and I would say don’t be negative. There is always, every day and every minute of every day, much more going on to excite, to support and to celebrate than to worry about. As I have said many times, the best thing I have ever had to give you is each other. Each of us, as individuals, is limited in what we can achieve. Working together, sharing effort and talent and knowledge, the limits disappear. We have achieved what we have because we have allowed each other and our collective self to do the work.

A new president will be arriving soon, and I am certain that the new president will be deeply committed to leading the University toward the fulfillment of our mission. That person should find a university community that is ready and waiting and wholly focused on achieving big and important future goals, a university community that is united around a mission, accepting and trusting of each other. You are that community. Believe it; you are. There is so much important work yet to be done, and this University is strong enough and you who sustain it are strong enough to do that work.

One Friday evening a couple of weeks ago in April, after grueling days of state budget advocacy, campus budget planning, pandemic logistics, testing and vaccinating, a massive agenda of personnel, legal, program, contract and infrastructure issues, I headed off from my office, weighed down by two briefcases for the weekend, and already mentally reviewing the issues awaiting in the week ahead, and then, on the lawn outside the Cali School of Music, I chance upon Robert Levin, a Music instructor, with a group of students in a circle learning about West African drumming. It was April, so despite the evening hour, the sun was still high in the sky, and I stopped to listen to the drums. The class noticed me, and turned to see who was listening in. “It’s the president,” one of the students called out. And that brought everything to a complete halt. The instructor turned to me and explained, “We’re studying West African drumming, we’re focusing on Burkina Faso. Who knows the capital of Burkina Faso,” he asked the class. “Do you know?” he asked me. “Ouagadougou,” I respond immediately, surprising both the class and myself with the right answer. The students cheered and beat their drums. “That’s why I’m the president,” I said in triumph.

In a matter of five minutes, all the weariness of the week disappears. The students are smiling and engaged, back to practicing West African drumming under an April evening sun in New Jersey, and that’s actually why I’m the president. Not because I know the capital of Burkina Faso, not because I competently plow through the massive work of the week, but because my heart turns over when I see a valuable piece of human history and culture, in this case West African drumming, being preserved and expertly passed on to a new generation, whose lives will be changed by the experience.

There have been countless moments like that: hearing two nursing students, sitting on a bench in their red scrubs, explaining chemistry to each other; a student government leader carefully taking a meeting of fellow students through a decision-making process; an English major proudly sharing a binder of student poems; a graduate student carefully explaining her work in the laboratory on new techniques for quantifying cyanotoxins in lake water; walking across the campus at 10 p.m. at night and seeing the light from room after room, filled with students.

Last week, I spent an hour with a dozen of our student leaders, and it was heartening to listen to their hopes and dreams, both for the University and for their lives. To a person, they spoke with passion and intensity about what Montclair State meant for them, and with more wisdom and thoughtfulness than we sometimes see displayed in the larger world, they spoke about the importance of our campus culture, about its unity, its sense of community, its nurturing qualities. With sense beyond their years, they recognized that people are not perfect, that we will all make mistakes, but that it is important not to define either ourselves by our mistakes or others by theirs. In the various degrees of isolation our students have experienced as a result of the pandemic, they long for a campus accessible and present for them and at peace with itself. They are deeply troubled by the divisiveness they see in the world beyond the campus. They don’t like the pointing of fingers. They want to grow up to be really good superintendents of school districts and teacher role models; they want to be caring social workers; they want to be great scientists, and they want to get graduate degrees in business, medicine and law, and to be good at their chosen professions. They want a world that is gracious, forgiving, supportive and constructive, not one that is judgmental, angry, self-referential, self-righteous or accusatory. And so they should. They have names and faces these students: Ashon Lanada, Karla Farfan, Guillermo Estrada, Christie Rosales, Faith Victor, Ernst Lozin, Andrew Moya, Andrew Lyons, Paulette Gando-Duenas and Fathia Balgahoom. They are not a fabrication of my imagination, and there are tens of thousands more just like them. I have always felt that we need to work hard to live up to the expectations of our students, and to work hard to be the role models they deserve in regard to how we treat each other and how we treat them.

What we have to offer our students and the state, nation and world that we serve, and ourselves, is something of extraordinary importance. I have always believed that, I believed it when I came, and I will leave believing it, and I want to thank all of you who walked by my side on this 23-year journey: the Board of Trustees, the Foundation Board, the elected officials, the donors, the alumni, my colleagues in the state and national higher education community, and with genuinely deep gratitude the amazingly talented, committed and hardworking people who built this University – the faculty, full-time and part-time, the administrators and staff, and those who worked most closely with me, the vice presidents and the deans. I have been surrounded by gloriously intelligent and caring people, and it has been my honor to work with you over the years. And I also want to thank those who came before, the two predecessors in my role as president who I had the privilege of meeting, Dr. David Dickson and Dr. Irvin Reid, and the generations of people who played a part in the history of this institution and who left it for us strong and ready to grow, as we will leave it to those who come next, strong and ready to continue that growth.

We have been part of the creation of an always evolving community here. It is not perfect, but it is very good and within its core there is alive the desire to be better and the knowledge that there is more to be done. I give this idea about the meaning of the University back to you today, and, in doing so, I remind you that the University’s well-being and its future is now, and always has been, in your collective hands.

These days, my mind turns more often than might be expected to the Scottish Highlands because my older granddaughter Sonia will be completing her degree at the University of St. Andrews next year, and so my closing words will be by the poet Robert Burns. But, as I say these last words, when I say Highlands, I would like you to think, not of Scotland, but of this high land on which our University is built. And I want you to think not just about the geological high land that has been so good to build on, that keeps us above the floods, and that gives us magnificent views, but think also of the moral high ground that we have strived for in our work, think of our efforts to lift up our eyes to see and to be unafraid to embrace the big panorama of our world and the people we serve. And, so, I say today:

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birthplace of valor, the country of worth!
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

Thank you, and, to each of you, fare thee well.