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Opening Day Remarks

Posted in: Featured Links, Homepage News and Events, News for Faculty & Staff, News for Students, Speeches

I am extremely excited to be here with you today, obviously, welcoming everybody back to campus. For those of you who don’t know, my name is Jonathan Koppell. I’m the President of Montclair State University. [There’s somebody who just got off sabbatical: “What happened to Susan?”]

It’s a tremendous honor for me to be with you today. As you know, I’ve been on campus a little under a month now. I can find my way around. I had a nice little boost yesterday when I was walking with a dean and the provost and somebody asked for directions and they didn’t know the answer, but I did. Just saying! I’m not identifying them. ‘Cause I don’t want to shame anybody.

This is my first opportunity to address you as a group. So before I get into it, what I’m going to do is I’m going to walk. I’m a walker and talker. So I’m going to keep my mask on. I may occasionally go over to the podium and unmask for a moment just so I can be heard and speak. And I think that’s distant enough to maintain safety. So I want to be cognizant of that.

Obviously the safety of the campus is on everybody’s minds. And we’ll talk about that in a bit, but before I go any further and we celebrate on this soggy day, I do want to acknowledge where we are. We’re on the ancestral homeland of the Lenape people. I want to recognize that and I also want to honor the history and culture by working together to repair the damage of our country’s dark legacies of genocide, dehumanization and oppression.

We will get about that business of repair by drawing upon the aspirational, enlightening and ennobling aspects that are also part of our shared history of this young, evolving, complex democracy. This is the commitment we make together. And I appreciate your enthusiasm for it.

Now, we at Montclair State University, in my opinion, have a critical role to play in this ongoing process of evolution. That includes self-examination and improvement. In fact, that’s what this community is all about. We are committed to learning, inquiry and discovery, but that is not enough. That is not enough. And that’s what people think universities are. They are places where ideas are, where there’s talking and writing, bloviating you might say – that’s part of it too, but we must also be committed to action. And we must ask the question: How might we harness the power of more than 20,000 souls so that we can be a powerful force for good in the world?

That to me is what this community is about. And my goal as your president is to lead that effort, to create a dynamic, innovative institution that is capable of adaptation, of redesign. One that is able to empower faculty, staff, and students to make a positive impact in the world.

I truly love universities.

This question has come up over the last couple of months: why do you want to do this? And why is this something that you aspire to do personally? And the big part of the answer is I love universities. I love what they represent. I love their energy. I love the way they bring people together. They are collections of smart, curious people with varied interests, assembling to help others learn, to pursue ideas, to create new stuff. That’s literally stuff coming out of this place.

I’ve already had the opportunity to meet some of you, to visit some schools and centers.

I love it. I’m going to do more. I’ve already said to folks making my calendar to move that stuff up. I want to do it. I want to intensify the effort. To my mind, it’s fun. This is fun. It’s supposed to be fun and you’re supposed to enjoy it. And I hope you share my feeling that we are truly privileged. We are privileged to inhabit this citadel of learning and be given the opportunity to let our imagination run free. And I don’t think we should ever forget the privilege that we enjoy, today, every day, to be part of Montclair State University, to be part of this community, to have the luxury to think and let our imagination run free and feel like we’re part of something special. I feel privileged. I feel privileged to be here with you now.

Now, let’s not kid ourselves. We’re gathering at a tough, tough moment in history.

Obviously we’re still grappling with COVID after we thought we’d be done with it. We live in a country that’s riven, not just by partisan political division, but profound schisms of value and even dramatically different perceptions of what constitutes reality.

That’s a pretty profound division right there.

And it truly does make it hard to engage constructively the many problems that plague our society, including inequality, racism, lack of opportunity, and more. And quite frankly, in my mind, moving over it all is the fact that we inhabit a planet that’s in deep, deep ecological distress, a planet that is issuing daily demands for our attention that are still not being met.

Now, it’s easy in the face of these challenges to react with despair. It’s easy to castigate others for their failures. These are understandable human reactions. Of course, they’ve been my reactions. Like, I assume, everybody in this room who occasionally clicks on The New York Times or whatever, and you just want to curl up in a ball after reading. One story seems to be worse than the next.

So that’s an understandable reaction, but I believe we can do something else and we should seek to answer a far more challenging call. The loudest most persuasive critique that can emanate from this campus, uniquely from this campus, is what we build here together, what we create together. And I, over the last couple of years, a quotation, a sentiment that keeps coming back into my head, it’s most commonly attributed to Marcus Cicero, Roman statesmen philosopher – is there a classics professor in the house by any chance? Okay, It’s pronounced kick-a-row. You happy, you feel good? Hopefully I get my street cred there.

Cicero said, “I criticize by what I create.”

“Criticize by what I create” – I feel like that should be our guidestar. Interestingly, this is a quotation, like most good quotations, that gets attributed to lots of people. The second most famous attribution of this idea is to another Italian: Michelangelo said, “Criticize by creating.” And I actually think it’s interesting that you have a political leader and an artist who are coming to the same place, offering the same wisdom that you can best use actions to respond to the critic, rather than just words. And this mandate to criticize by what we create, I believe, applies to everything we do. Everything.

And let’s start with the subject that’s on everybody’s minds – our campus approach to safety in the face of COVID-19.

It’s very easy to be critical of how this has been handled by various municipalities, various states, various elected officials, various institutions. And so rather than go there, I’d rather talk about how we will criticize by what we create here and reflect on what is going on right now.

We’re together in this room. Over the last week, the students have been coming back to campus. I never, never fully realized the sense of joy I could get by watching students schlep their dorm furniture from their car into their room. This elation at seeing crap being brought in. It was really important to you once: “I have to have a mini fridge!”

The reality is, over the last 18 months, we’ve learned the value of in-person learning and human interaction. It is true: We pivoted to online learning. It was an impressive feat on this campus, on so many others. It was a Herculean effort on the part of staff, faculty and students to pivot in this way. And so I honor it.

But let’s not for a minute pretend or forget that some people were left behind in his transition and not everyone had the same access to technology. Not everyone even had the same access to a quiet space where they could be in an online class.

And so this approach, while functional, doubled down on some of the inequities and unfairness in our society and fell short of what we aspire to in our classrooms. And so we shouldn’t discount what is lost when we sacrifice the interaction and understanding achieved face to face, not just in the classroom, but on campus.That’s part of college learning. That’s part of research.

And so we need to take the steps, in my opinion, we need to take the steps that allow us to keep people on campus in a safe and secure way. That’s why we’re moving to expand the vaccination mandate that was put in place for students to include faculty, librarians, professional staff and managers on our way to full coverage of the campus as mandated recently in the announcement by the governor.

And now is not the moment to get into the details. We’ll have that for you shortly.

But I think this is the most important part: I’ve been deeply gratified by the cooperative spirit in which we’ve approached this. I had the opportunity to sit down with our campus labor leaders, where they were able to raise concerns, identify solutions, so we could develop and implement a policy that is fair, thoughtful and well-designed.

And of course, we will continue to follow a masking policy as long as it is recommended by circumstances and the CDC. And we are committed to maintaining a testing infrastructure that, along with Vax Check, will now be mandatory, and allows us to monitor and maintain a safe campus.

What we’re trying to find here is a balance, right? A balance between individual preference and comfort and the safety of the community.

We will criticize others by creating a community that is safe, but respectful of differences. But let’s be clear about this. Communities are not monolithic and they’re rarely if ever unanimous.

Now we’re lucky this community is less divided by the response to COVID than many others. And we can be thankful for that, but it’s not unanimous. And we can criticize in another way by maintaining compassion for others, even in an environment – talking about a big environment now – even in an environment that grows toxic, more toxic, seemingly by the minute.

I hope that that’s our approach, right? That we take the steps necessary. We embrace them, but we try not to let any division we have over the reaction and the rightness, the wrongness, the steps that people have taken, to tear us apart in the way that it is tearing apart our country in a very real way.

So we’ve got to extend this “criticized by what I create” logic to every part of this University. We can criticize, for example, the zero sum social discourse around race and identity by creating a community that goes far beyond tolerance as a value and objective, and truly embraces diversity, equity and inclusion as non-negotiable essential qualities that will make Montclair State University great.

I’ll tell you. I’m so energized by the incredible heterogeneity of this community. So let’s start by reviewing every aspect of how we do things to ensure that we’re working to build a positive anti-racist institution, for which every person on this campus feels a strong sense of ownership and belonging.

Anything less than that and we’re not achieving our goals.

And let’s build a University leadership and faculty that is reflective of the diversity of the students, workforce and communities that we serve. That needs to be our goal.

And we can criticize the cloistering of universities seemingly indifferent – and I know this is not this university, but it’s the reality that we see in other places – seemingly indifferent to the fate of neighbors and those who are not directly engaged in the work of the campus. We can criticize that by building an unrivaled engine of social innovation and solution creation.

This is already the profile and history of Montclair. We are after all the Montclair Normal School in our DNA, created to educate teachers who would lead to social progress. And we are continuing that legacy today, both immediately and dramatically expanded. There’s so much good stuff going on here already. I discover new things every day. I’ve come to appreciate what we do already. And I know we can and will do more in the surrounding towns, in Newark, in the Oranges, in Paterson, and beyond.

We will criticize by creating something that nobody has seen yet in New Jersey and beyond, and becoming an example.

We can criticize educational institutions that have accepted low graduation and success rates as a de facto reality by focusing on student success like no one else does.

Here’s the reality – and you all know this – higher education is not popular in this country.

I don’t know why; we’re all so nice!

But look, Americans distrust higher education. They are suspicious of it and they have good reason to be frustrated. The majority of Americans – this is a profound thing and I’ve said it many times because I sort of can’t believe it, so I keep saying it to remind myself – the majority of Americans who have attended college do not have a degree, right? So most people who went to college left feeling like it was a failure, maybe they feel like they were a failure, but it was not a good experience. And then, think of this from a public policy point of view: the majority of educational debt outstanding in this country is owed by people who did not earn a degree.

Right? So these are, this is a whole bunch of people who feel that they are now paying off loans and saddled by debt, and for that they got not nothing. Nothing.

The majority of Pell dollars expended in the history of what I consider to be an important signature program that speaks to the ethic of this country, right? I believe strongly in it. The majority of Pell dollars expended did not result in the earning of a degree. That’s a public policy failure. And we in higher education, not Montclair State University, must own it. The things that I just said are an embarrassment. They’re an embarrassment and we should be embarrassed by them. And we have an opportunity to criticize institutions that are far more responsible.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that Montclair State hasn’t risen far above the average, no doubt about it. I’m super excited by what we’ve seen at this institution, the achievements in terms of graduation, retention and student success. They are indeed something to be proud of.

But we need to push ever higher to show those who accept mediocrity as the inevitable outcome of this system to be wrong. We will criticize by creating something entirely different and be proud that we have shown this is possible.

We can criticize those who say it is simply not possible to build a diverse, inclusive university and also be excellent. Be excellent in every sense. Hold our students to the highest standards, do research that is excellent. That notion, that access and excellence cannot go together is a false dichotomy.

And let me be pretty blunt. It’s a racist one.

So we will show that Montclair State is giving an educational experience that’s every bit as good as any other university in this country, and we are doing so for a broad swath of the population that is representative of the full diversity and richness of this society. That is what we will do here.

And I’m trying really hard not to – when I’m talking about campus and my experience, that I came from this school in Arizona. You may know that. I don’t want to, I don’t want to keep bringing that up, but I will say that my passion for this was sort of carved into stone based on my experience at ASU, where I saw what it means to have that commitment and to be dissatisfied with anything less. And I know what this institution is capable of because I’ve been part of an institution that’s been driven by this. And I am so excited to work on this together here at Montclair with you.

Here’s the thing. These are big ideas. These are challenges. I’m not saying any of these things are easy. They are not easy. They are not easy, right? And so whenever I say, they’re not easy, I can’t help invoking President Kennedy who talked about going to the moon and said, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

And it’s catchy, but it’s catchy because it’s true, right? That’s why we need to do it because it’s hard, but we need to show that it can be done because if we don’t show that it can be done, then all those other institutions who say we didn’t do it because it’s impossible can live in that lie.

So we’re going to do it precisely because it is difficult and show that if you task yourself with solving the problems, you can get it done. And I know we can. And here’s the thing. This is the exact right time, the exact right time to take on these challenges, perhaps the best time in decades, perhaps the best time ever.

Higher education is in transition. There’s no doubt about that. Partly this is an unintended consequence of the pandemic. So be it. Let’s embrace it. All of a sudden there is a new acceptance of alternative ways of learning and engaging. We now have tools to reach learners that were otherwise stymied, kept away from campus, inhibited by costs. But it goes more than just the technological adaptation. Because of the tumult, there’s an impetus and an openness to questioning everything, every way in which we do things, how we organize ourselves, how we understand our purpose. And there’s an openness that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, an openness to different answers to those questions. Here’s the reality. The vast, vast majority of will run away from those opportunities. I’m not kidding. They’ll flee. They’ll pretend it’s not happening. They’ll try as hard as they can to maintain the status quo. Right? To not change because change is difficult, because change upsets routines, right?

And so most institutions, most institutions will look at the possibilities that this moment affords and they will demur.

And they will do more than just demur. They will resist kicking and screaming. “We will not change. We will do this the same way we have done this for 400 years, by gum. We know how to teach a class and it looks the same as it did today as it did for my great-grandfather.”

That’s what most places will do, but it shouldn’t be this institution, for goodness sake. Our motto is carpe diem – seize the day, right? Seize this moment of opportunity. By the way, interestingly, Susan left her desk, I guess my desk, a little stone thing that says [now I’m going to lose my credibility with the classic People]: quam minimum credula postero. I know that’s terrible. But it means basically, “for no one knows what tomorrow will bring.” It’s a funny phrase actually, because it’s kind of like, “Just go crazy because you could get run over by a bus tomorrow morning.”

That’s not necessarily what you want to put on the building where you’ve got a bunch of 18 and 19 year olds gathered away from home for the first time. You’ve got to finesse that with them a little bit, something different, in the context that I’m raising it: “We don’t know that the opportunity will be there for us tomorrow that is there for us to today right?” First of all, because the world is evolving so quickly, and the opportunities may change and the windows may close.

But second of all, because there is something to be said for being first movers and defining who we are and to plant a flag in the ground and say, “This is what a modern public serving research university looks like for the 21st century.” And to claim that as our identity. A lot of people say, “You know, I didn’t know that much about Montclair State University, but once I started reading, wow, all kinds of good stuff going on. I had no idea, right?” That’s the most reaction you get when you say, when you say, and I’m sure many of you have had this experience.

And I think that part of the reason for that is we haven’t defined ourselves. Now is the opportunity to define ourselves around our response to these challenges about our ability to seize this moment and define what we’re going to be now, before I reach the end, which is coming.

I do want to talk about that other group, those 18, 19 year old and other students, our students, who are also gathering today and who I will have the fun opportunity to welcome to our campus in a short while. They’re here to seize the day also. And of course they couldn’t be more excited because they’re finally back on campus and back in school. And I view our responsibility first and foremost to ensure their success. That’s after all, what we’re here to do. The university is here for students. We exist by virtue of their willingness to dedicate their time and resources to earn an education and set themselves up for a future. Were it not for the students, we wouldn’t exist. Sometimes people forget that – that it’s them that make us have this opportunity. That’s the reality. And so, uh, we are here to cultivate their capacity and prepare them to make contributions long after they leave Montclair.

Just so you know, boy, we have a lot of students. So this is the largest freshman class in the history of Montclair State University, more than more than 3,600 students representing 12 states, and 11 other countries. It’s an impressive group. The richness of their profiles speaks to the student body. More generally, I asked for just a couple of examples, because I just think students are this sort of big amorphous blob when you don’t talk about them as individuals.

So just to just a couple that were provided as exemplars to me:

  • Miles Schroeder, as a presidential scholar. He comes from Camden and he’s majoring in TV production, minoring in paralegal studies. He was very active as a high school student, a member of the youth community advisory board for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He worked particularly with health care professionals who are active in the LGBTQ community. He presented at the Philadelphia HIV Prevention Educational Conference on LGBTQ litigation and hopes to take his work here to further efforts on behalf of LGBT communities. In the context, I can’t help but assume that Miles is attracted in part to Montclair because of the reputation of this campus as being a place that is LGBTQ friendly. And so somebody who’s passionate about that cause felt like this would be a place where he would be at home. And to me that underscores the power of building an inclusive and welcoming community, that it becomes a magnet for students. And that’s what this should become: a place that is known as somewhere you want to go, where you’re appreciated and you’re allowed to thrive as an individual and your identity is not an exclusionary characteristic, but actually a basis of warmth and embrace. You should go to Montclair State University.
  • Iliana Mendoza Cobos, I’m particularly excited about sharing her with you, a 39-year-old transfer student who’s coming to the Department of Family Science and Human Development. She wants to become a special ed teacher. She comes from Sussex County Community College. So not only is she a first-generation student herself – this is cool – she and her daughter earned their associates degrees together. I like highlighting Iliana because nearly 10% of undergrads at Montclair are transfer students like her, and I think it’s something that we often forget – that there’s a substantial number of people who don’t have the same experience, the four years, what we saw in our whole life, right? That’s not the college experience for a lot of our students, let alone the majority of students in this country. It’s also worth noting that Iliana is a first-generation or will be a first-generation college graduate, similar to 30% of our undergraduate population, which is something to be enormously, enormously proud of. I’m very excited by that. She did all kinds of work as well as student government, president, student ambassador, a scribe for students with disabilities, a volunteer school reader. Very similar to the third student I’ll describe.
  • Tess Coffey, also like Miles, a presidential scholar coming to us from Moorestown to major in Psychology, volunteered extensively in Appalachia building and repairing houses in Kentucky and Virginia. Also an athlete, in crew and field hockey, volunteered a lot of service, as you can tell, to promote sports inclusion, working to reach out to students with intellectual disabilities, to get them involved in games. Just generally trying to serve by promoting inclusion.

And what strikes me about Tess, and actually this relates to the two other students and to our students writ large, is that she is representative of the deep, deep commitment to public service among our students. And this is something that I think the University has – an incredible richness in programs, whether it’s multiple AmeriCorps programs, the Bonner leader program, and I could go on. I was in this auditorium a couple weeks ago for the Green Teams presentation. That was fantastic.

I believe that this public service theme should be and can be the animating feature of this University. Indeed I think public services is a sentiment that’s gotten kind of dragged down into the mud a little bit, and our young people are unfairly chastised for being narcissistic, self obsessed, only interested in their phones and Tik Tok and so on. Okay, that last part is fair, but not the narcissistic part. Because I actually think that the service mentality of young people is stronger than in many others. Now they’re not super interested in government and politics. That’s an issue we’ve got to work on because they need to be. It’s so important. But they are deeply interested in public service and they’re deeply interested in crafting a life that makes a difference in the world.

My vision is that Montclair State University is defined by that public service impulse that our students demonstrate. And when we talk about a university making a difference in the community. And when we talk about a university that is accessible and inclusive and provides pathways for all members of society to find an education and to realize the full extent of their potential. When we talk about those things, we’re talking about a university committed to and built around the idea of public service. That’s to me what it is. So people talk about public universities and people say, well, what makes a public university, a public university? And, probably the reflexive answer is, “Well, they’re funded by the state.” That is the dominant answer, by the way, as you know, less and less is that true.

The state of New Jersey continues to be our largest investor, that’s one way to put it, and we wouldn’t exist the way we exist now, were it not for that investment. But it’s no longer, I think, appropriate to say what makes us a public university is the fact that a predominant source of our revenue is taxpayer dollars.

To my mind, what makes us a public university, regardless of the level of funding that comes from the state government, what makes us a public university is that we are animated by public purpose and that we exist to serve the public interest. That’s not some happy, positive externality. Let me be clear about that. Like, oh, isn’t that great? Because we have students that they’re doing this cool little project in Newark. Isn’t that awesome?

No, it’s more than that. We exist to do that. We exist to advance the public good. And if we don’t accept that responsibility, then we are not a public university.

That is what we are. It is what we must be. And it’s what the world requires us to be. And by criticizing through our creation, I don’t pretend for a minute that Montclair State University can solve all the world’s problems. We can do a lot, but we can’t solve all the world’s problems. But the greatest service we can do to the public, the greatest way we can serve the public interest is to create solutions and to show that those problems can be solved. That despair and hopelessness is not the right reaction. It’s using the tools that we are giving to our students and that we have cultivated in ourselves to come up with better answers, to achieve the aspirations we have for society.

My fervent commitment is to do everything in my power as president to lead in that direction. I’m so excited to work with all of you to achieve those goals. Thank you so much. I can’t wait to get started.

Jonathan GS Koppell, President, Montclair State University

Watch the video here.