Aerial shot of Montclair State University's campus.

The University of Your Imagination

This address was delivered at President Koppell’s Investiture on Sept. 15, 2022

Posted in: Speeches

president koppell at lectern

Let me start by offering a most heartfelt thank you for the kind words and warm reception, not just today, but for the past 12 months. I am deeply grateful for the confidence that all of you – students, faculty, staff, alumni, elected leaders, community members, University trustees – have placed in me. The passion for this university is as abundant as it is obvious, so the trust that has been placed in me is both humbling and motivating.

So you might ask a question about today’s festivities: Why exactly do we need to do all this?

The symbolism of this marker of office, I think, speaks to the purpose of this gathering, and it’s been alluded to already, because nobody can miss out on a good metaphor. I am a link in a chain of leaders who served as stewards for Montclair State University and being represented today by past presidents Susan A. Cole and Irvin D. Reid, who, as we have heard, have played defining roles in the evolution of the New Jersey State Normal School at Montclair into something that would have been inconceivable 114 years ago. Thank you both for welcoming me to this very exclusive club.

Both of them would tell you that the real star of the show today is Montclair State University.

This ceremony is a celebration of a vital institution that has been ambitious and pugnacious, confident and sometimes underestimated, but always focused on its public purpose. Today is a celebration of our power to do great things when we work collectively, ennobling the transformative power of education and remembering that our destinies are intertwined.

So really all of us, all of us are links in the chain, a chain that connects the people who for generations have made this university great.

But most of all I see today as a celebration of imagination.

This extraordinary human ability to form mental images of things that do not exist, that have never existed, is unique in the animal kingdom. It is our key advantage and the root of all progress.

We can describe these visions, share them with others and then draw upon knowledge and understanding accumulated across generations to make real that which has never been. To take something as ethereal as an idea and transform it into something as concrete as this building.

Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, who knew something about imagination, said, “Dreams, dreams with your eyes wide open and your brain machinery whizzing, are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child,” he said, “will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent and therefore to foster civilization.”

Ah, but how do you cultivate the creativity of the child and empower her to take a conjured vision and mold it into something buildable, replicable, usable? At their best, universities are places where people answer this question, where people learn to harness the power of their imagination. Progress in every discipline is ultimately driven by applied imagination.

Fueling the Imagination

Long before we possessed microscopes with the power to see bacteria, scientists imagined that there must be something not visible to the naked eye transmitting disease, and their successors surmised that cells contain the information that guides physiology leading ultimately to discovery of DNA, RNA and the building blocks of genetics. Fortunately, this audacious imaginativeness was cultivated at universities for it ultimately led to the incredibly rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines that allow us to be here today together.

Yes, universities are living, breathing monuments to the limitless potential of human imagination. Even as we work to fill curricula with essential information and introduce students to problem-solving tools, we must remain true to this ideal. Ultimately, we are charged with empowering the creative spirit of everyone who joins this community of learners so that they might be the entrepreneurs, artists, discoverers, iconoclasts that we need to advance as a nation and species. Now, if that sounds funny to hear an academic downplay the importance of knowing stuff, take the word of an adopted Jersey boy with street cred as a scholar: “Imagination,” Albert Einstein concluded, “is more important than knowledge.”

Indeed this very institution is a product of vivid imaginations that said universities can be quite different from the old-world academies from which they descend, but that reinvention is not complete. It’s never complete. Today the need to marshal our creativity for the ongoing project is greater than ever.

We’re gathered at a time of great uncertainty. There’s no reason to avoid that truth. Humanity faces an existential threat in climate change, amidst a host of other challenges. And our ability to respond is hampered by a serious breakdown in American democracy that rightly has a significant portion of the population worried about the future of our republic. More immediate to this proceeding, the value of higher education is being questioned in an unprecedented fashion.

Now it’s natural to push back at this sometimes uninformed criticism that is as unfair as it is scathing. But today let’s do something different. Let’s own it.

The truth is college has failed far too many people. The majority of Americans who have attended college do not actually possess a degree, and about 40% of those struggling with student debt that we’ve heard so much about lately, 40% have nothing to show for it. They’re arguably worse off than if they hadn’t started to begin with. So it’s small wonder that some, even many, are cynical about higher ed.

There’s two ways to respond to this. We can criticize the arguments. We can point out where people are wrong, or we can take the advice of Cicero and criticize by what we create. This is a powerful idea. Don’t respond with words, respond with action. Indeed, I imagine Montclair State University confronting all these challenges head on.

I can see it so vividly in my mind. Together, we can build Montclair State University as an exemplar of a public-serving university, a solutions engine firing on all cylinders to create the world we wish to inhabit.

Now I do realize that using an internal combustion engine as a metaphor, when I just talked about climate change, is a bit off. Please bear with me – the electric vehicle just doesn’t offer the same dynamic imagery. Bruce Springsteen is not singing about strapping anybody’s hands around his battery!

So let’s picture the powerful pistons of our solutions engine, an unstoppable social-mobility slingshot, a research-driven innovation generator, an energetic-force multiplier, a steadfast and responsive community partner and a sustaining pillar for democracy and public service.

Let’s start with social mobility. The accessible, public university became a flywheel of the “American Dream,” but that was not always the case.

Social Mobility Slingshot

The proposition that college education should be available to any person, regardless of wealth, status or privilege was truly radical, an enormous leap of imagination.

Having Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, Chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY) – leader of the ur-access institution – embracing Montclair State University as CUNY’s spiritual partner is so gratifying. It is why I feel privileged to be here. And as proud as I am of his description of Montclair – a majority-minority, Hispanic-Serving Institution that’s becoming more inclusive while growing to record levels – the success of our students is most gratifying.

Recently, we were recognized as one of the best universities in the country as measured by the extent to which our graduation rate exceeds expectations. Now, Montclair has thrived because we devote a lot of energy to helping students prepare to succeed In college. We have one of the most robust Education Opportunity Fund (EOF) programs in this state with hundreds of students every year receiving the support they need to realize their potential. We’ve created and expanded programs to reach students before college even begins and we will try to reach future Red Hawks and their families even earlier if we can.

This is deeply personal. The trajectory of my family, like so many others, was forever altered by access to high-quality college education, and the nation was transformed in turn.

The point, however, is this: To build a real social-mobility slingshot in the 21st century, we have to get beyond the minimum question of who is allowed to enter the hallowed halls of our great institutions of learning. We have to even get beyond teaching others how to overcome the challenges in succeeding in college.

Why not push ourselves to remove the obstacles? Let’s get rid of the hidden prerequisites that emerge as stumbling blocks. Let’s reevaluate everything: how we operate, how we offer degrees, how we organize ourselves – everything – with an eye toward creating a better environment for student success. That includes launching this year an Office of Student Belonging and doing a comprehensive campus climate survey as a step toward building a more equitable community for students, staff and faculty.

It means leveling the playing field of student experience so that life-altering opportunities like Study Abroad or internships are not off limits to anyone. That is a matter of money and we have put more resources into these areas and welcome more, but it’s structural as well. Consider that the typical semester-long program for an international experience is just not viable for those who are caregivers or primary breadwinners. So we’re shaking up the conventional approaches, and we will continue to do so.

But this is really just the beginning. How do we reinvent higher education to take full advantage of the changes in technology and the ways people learn and interact? Our “Montclair Unbound” initiative will answer this question. Through Montclair Unbound we will offer degrees in ways that combine modalities – in-person, asynchronous online, real-time distance interaction – to meet students where they want to learn. This will require significant adaptation on our part. I don’t want to downplay that, but I’m confident in the staff and faculty of Montclair State University and their devotion to our purpose. We will invest in their growth and development so that they have the tools to succeed, and have the opportunities to advance as well. That is our mission. It is not exclusive to students, it’s to everyone who’s part of this community.

But Montclair Unbound is not just a platform, it’s really a mindset.

Our embrace of Bloomfield College is reflective of that mindset. I cannot say enough about my friend and partner, Bloomfield president, Dr. Marcheta Evans. I feel so fortunate that our paths intersected at the right moment.

Bloomfield College will emerge as a critical integrated part of Montclair State University offering a differentiated learning experience yet drawing strength from a robust research community. This is a critical step in the evolution of higher education, a new model that is student-centric, that is designed to overcome the structural impediments to success that have thwarted true access for so long.

So let’s talk about research and scholarship for a moment.

Research-driven Solutions Generator

Even after the doors of some colleges opened to an increasingly diverse population of students, it was not considered plausible that such institutions might do research on a level that rivals highly-selective universities. One could be excellent or accessible, not both.

Public universities that have excelled as research leaders, frankly have often done so while evolving away from an access orientation. That is not to say these institutions are not serving a critical public purpose or that they are not profoundly more accessible than higher education was for most of human history. But It took a leap of imagination to say that an institution can be a driver of research, excellence and innovation on par with the most elite institutions in the world, while retaining a commitment to inclusivity that leaves no one capable of college work on the outside looking in. That is what Arizona State University stands for and I feel privileged to have been a part of it for 11 years.

And that is why I feel so fortunate to find myself here at Montclair State University which shares that access/excellence DNA. From its earliest days, Montclair was known as a national leader: “Harvard on Valley Road” it was apparently called. But it still took some imagination to envision Montclair State Teachers College joining the ranks of “high-research activity” doctoral universities. And yet here we are with an outstanding faculty, securing more external funding every year. Indeed one of our biggest boundary constraints is the limited space to accommodate the many projects our entrepreneurial professors are creating.

But true to our public purpose we must look beyond the conventional measure – dollars spent on research – to gauge our success. Montclair State University must be a research-driven solutions generator. This is already happening. Our Center for Water Science and Technology is ensuring New Jerseyans have access to clean and healthy drinking water. Our Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health is giving school districts evidence-based tools to empower neurodiverse learners. Our Center for Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology is providing access to assessments and therapies. I could go on. New music, new insights, new enzymes, new ways to restore a healthy planet. This is what a research university can create.

It must be fully intertwined with the educational mission. Our fantastic, dynamic, awesome new provost, Junius J. Gonzales, made launching a university-wide undergraduate research program one of his highest priorities, and we are making this happen this year. We will support that with more than 30 faculty searches, the largest number in years as we continue to raise the bar for what this university can be.

Let me say quickly what we won’t do. Some colleges boost their prestige and improve their “ranking” by becoming more exclusive. That is, they get better by turning away more people, (often by ginning up more applications for expressly that purpose). We categorically reject this approach and we always will.

Force Multiplier

Making hands-on learning part of every Montclair student’s education has myriad benefits. Students learn to apply classroom lessons in real time, they feel the satisfaction of making an impact and they deliver on our promise to be a force multiplier for social progress. This is our original purpose. Montclair was created as an academy to train teachers and blossomed in a multitude of directions, but we never lost that orientation. The newer parts of our university, like our still young School of Nursing, embody the same leap of imagination that says a liberal arts education can be fused with career preparation. The bias that says otherwise was elitist and exclusionary in effect, if not intent. We are committed to continually redesign our university to put our students in a position to both thrive professionally and grow intellectually. The two can go together.

To that end, I’m excited to announce that following the recommendation of a faculty committee charged by Provost Gonzales, we will launch a new college focused on the health professions and contributing to community well-being that draws on strengths across the University. At the same time, we will recommit to our core historical mission and create a college laser-focused on education reimagined.

These will be two new powerhouses. Future educators and health professionals will engage with our talented faculty in an environment of inquiry and innovation. They will have practical learning opportunities to reinforce and contextualize classroom instruction. This approach will yield problem solvers and adaptive learners ready to take on all challenges, and it requires deep collaborative partnerships in the communities we serve.

Steadfast and Responsive Community Partner

To achieve our purpose, we must erase the lines that separate campus from community. One hundred and sixty years ago, the Morrill Act imagined this possibility with the creation of land grant universities. President Lincoln signed this law in the middle of the Civil War because he knew the extension of the university into the community would drive the agricultural and industrial development of a growing nation.

Now, we must forge a new model of an engaged university that advances community aspirations, rather than merely tests theories.

It’s truly gratifying to have Paterson Mayor André Sayegh with us. I’m so excited by what is taking shape in this important, dynamic city. We have embarked on a series of initiatives that involve us partnering with local nonprofits, government agencies, businesses, community groups and philanthropies to build a stronger community. In fact, when I was doing research for my interview, as one does scanning Google maps, I came across this really cool looking old stadium, near a beautiful waterfall. You heard about it already – Hinchliffe Stadium and Great Falls National Park. In the coming weeks, we will announce a significant role for the University and the revival of Hinchliffe Stadium that uses the incredible history of Paterson as a teaching tool to advance K-12 students.

This is just the beginning. All of this is fantastic and an extension of the work that the talented and committed faculty of Montclair State University have accomplished all over New Jersey. We need to support, amplify and empower all of those efforts. That is why we will build a first-of-its-kind Community Action Nexus that will serve as a hub for faculty, staff and students seeking to connect, and a front door for those communities that see the University as a potential partner.

Finally, none of this will be sustainable if we do not reinforce the democracy and commitment to public service that has undergirded our country.

Pillar for American Democracy

One of the most impressive demonstrations of imagination’s power is the birth of this nation as a functioning constitutional democracy. The founders imagined a country governed through elections with representation and participation, defined by rules that established and limited authority. Now it was deeply flawed in many ways. Our country’s origins were rooted in the twin evils of slavery and the dispossession in genocide of Native Americans. Many of the prejudices and inequities of that time were hardwired into the system that was created. Still the democracy that was born under the Constitution proved capable of adapting, improving, addressing some flaws through amendment and evolution.

Frederick Douglass is one of the greatest Americans ever, precisely because this remarkable individual, born into slavery without even his personhood recognized by the laws of the land, somehow saw the possibility, somehow possessed the incredible imagination to envision an America where he and his descendants would have the rights and responsibilities … if we make it so.

We should have the imagination to see beyond the flaws in our democracy today. It’s still a young experiment that we’re trying to get right. We will have that democracy if we have the imagination and the doggedness that Frederick Douglass possessed and we have an obligation to do nothing less. This democracy will not be sustained without us reinforcing a spirit of public service. Universities must lead the way. This university must lead the way.

The strong embrace of public service and civic engagement at Montclair with a vibrant Bonner Leader Program and multiple AmeriCorps programs is a big part of what drew me here. My goal is ultimately that every Montclair State University student will have a public service experience as part of their education and we will become New Jersey’s premier public service university.

As an important step toward achieving that aspiration, I am pleased to announce that we have launched the Next Generation Service Corps at Montclair State University. This program builds on an initiative that I led at Arizona State University to establish the first four-year comprehensive public service leadership program for students across the University. We then worked with our partners at the Volcker Alliance, founded by another great New Jerseyan, Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, to set up a national network with the goal of reaching all 50 states by 2030.

Montclair State University’s first NextGen Service Corps cohort is launching right now and I’m extremely confident that with all of your help Montclair students will be leaders in growing a national movement, a national movement of universities that already includes schools like Penn State, University of Washington, Indiana, Georgia State and CUNY.

Our turn to answer the bell

This is the Montclair State University of my imagination. It is a prototype of a public-serving university that we need today. One that expands opportunity, invents solutions, empowers problem solvers, engages our communities and reinvigorates our democracy. We can make it come into being as surely as inventors, artists and scientists have brought their ideas to life for millennia.

I know we can do it because the stories that our students, alumni, faculty and staff have shared prove it. The journeys they have taken to Montclair – and from Montclair – are filled with challenges, setbacks, denials, defeats and disappointment. And yet they are inspiring and hopeful. They underscore the undeniable power of dogged determination, grit and short memory because they end in triumph, success and a reinforced sense of purpose. They illustrate the inability of naysaying doubters to quash unbending will and the sustaining power of support from loved ones.

We must do this. The stakes are high, but I believe that universities – universities committed to advancing the public good – are essential to conquering every problem that confronts us, and I know Montclair State University will be among those leading the way.

Now does all this sound outlandish? Perhaps. But we gather today at a beautiful Spanish mission campus improbably situated on a former quarry in northern New Jersey. Who could have imagined that instead of extracting calcite and other minerals from the basalt bedrock we would be mining human potential and transformative ideas?

You know who? Our forebears, the architects of the New Jersey State Normal School at Montclair and every successive generation that made this remarkable institution what it is today. They imagined the university for which the moment called, and they built it.

Now, it is our turn to answer the bell.

Carpe Diem.