A workhorse university becomes a thoroughbred

President Susan Cole refuses to lower standards or reduce access as she grows her higher ed institution

MONTCLAIR, New Jersey—Montclair State had been a university for only a few years when Susan Cole took over as president in 1998.

She wanted the job—her second presidency—because she saw vast, untapped potential on the campus of 12,000 students. She also felt certain that she could, pretty quickly, ensure the institution lived up to its new name.

“It had a good, committed faculty and a reputation for providing students with a high-quality education, and it was sitting right in the heart of North Jersey, surrounded by a grossly underserved, highly diverse population in the densest state in the nation,” Cole told me during a recent interview in her office.

“But it was too small, and it was not serving enough students. It was not resourcing its programs adequately and it didn’t have contemporary facilities.”

So, Cole launched an aggressive building plan that continues to this day on a campus that overlooks the New York City skyline. She also went on a recruitment drive to fill those new classrooms, dormitories and labs with students.

This required hiring significant numbers of quality faculty who could attract those students, while also bringing in fresh millions in research funding. This boost in tuition and other revenues allowed Cole to issue bonds to pay for her ambitious construction plans.

“I felt we could really grow this institution to meet that hungry need out there—and I was right,” she says.

Montclair State now serves 21,000 highly diverse students and has evolved far beyond its origins as an under-the-radar teachers college for commuters.

“I’ve argued quite strenuously that this notion of a very limited mission for New Jersey’s public colleges and universities was putting us way behind the rest of the nation,” she says. “We need to think about what students in the 21st century need and how many of them are going to need it.”

Staying connected to the real world

Like a growing number of her students, Cole is the daughter of immigrants, a product of public K12 schools and the first in her family to attend college.

And though her parents—her mother came from Russia and her father from Ukraine—didn’t receive a formal education, they took advantage of cultural events in and around their home in Brooklyn, from college lectures at Cooper Union to free concerts in Manhattan.

Cole earned degrees in English and American literature at Barnard College in New York City and Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Initially, she had planned to go into the theater, but like many who have considered a career in the arts, Cole wondered whether she could make a living.

So, in the early 1970s, she began teaching literature at the City University of New York and—though she enjoyed the dynamics of classroom interaction—she moved toward administration pretty quickly as she began to have some doubts about how the institution was being run.

Cole joined task forces and other groups working to improve the university’s academic programs. “It caused me to realize something about myself—that I was always happiest and most productive and at my best when I was in charge of something,” she says.

She eventually became a vice president at Rutgers University and, before returning to New Jersey and Montclair, served as president of Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“It was a very interesting time to go there—the Twin Cities were just waking up to the fact that the majority of the students in their public schools were students of color,” Cole says.

At Metropolitan State, she added freshmen and sophomores to a student body that had comprised only of juniors and seniors, and she got one of its first centralized buildings built.

Though a strong sense of philanthropy existed in the Twin Cities, Cole felt she couldn’t move the university forward as fast as it needed to grow.

But that stretch in the Midwest—along with her days at CUNY during its open admissions period—fired a passion for serving the broader world of students outside the highly selective environment that was the setting for her own experiences as a student.

“Figuring out how to serve this larger and intensely important population was just a much more exciting challenge,” Cole says.

“The elite at the top are exactly that—they are sitting on top of the mountain, but it’s the mountain that defines the world we live in. If we’re not attentive to that, we will lose connection with the real world—and that’s a great danger.”

Leader at a glance

Susan Cole, a native of New York City, has been president of Montclair State University in New Jersey since 1998. Undergraduate study: B.A. in English, Barnard College (New York)

Graduate degrees: Master’s and Ph.D. in literature from Brandeis University (Mass.)

On the way up: President at Metropolitan State University (Minn.); vice president for university administration and personnel at Rutgers University (N.J.); associate dean for academic affairs at Antioch University (Ohio); literature instructor at City University of New York.

Outside the institution: Honorary trustee of the Liberty Science Center; serves on the boards of the Montclair Art Museum, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center Council of Trustees, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Penson Center for Professional Development. Appointed by Gov. Chris Christie as New Jersey’s representative to the Education Commission of the States, and by the U.S. secretary of the interior to the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park Advisory Commission. Also served on Christie’s executive transition team and chaired its education subcommittee.

When not running the university: Cooks and hosts great meals for family and friends, with beautiful scenery (preferably including water), stirring conversation and a few laughs.

Freedom to grow

A major change in New Jersey’s government paved the way for Cole’s work at Montclair. Part of the reason Cole says she took the job was that, a few years earlier, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman had abolished New Jersey’s department of higher ed.

It had been this kind of centralized bureaucracy that had slowed her efforts to expand Metropolitan State, she says.

The greater autonomy given to New Jersey’s universities jump-started Cole’s three-pronged plan to boost enrollment, fortify the faculty and substantially upgrade the university’s facilities.

“I’ve never been short on audacity—my mother taught me courage and I am intensely grateful to her for that,” she says.

But Cole and her leadership team refused to lower the university’s standards in enrolling more students. So she made an immediate commitment to hire 20 to 30 new tenure track faculty every year while launching the university’s first concerted recruitment efforts.

“It was not as hard as one might have thought because Montclair State always had a good reputation,” she says. “No one had asked this institution to grow, even though New Jersey was not serving its population. We said, there are people out there who need us.”

While pats on the back came from state officials and others as Montclair grew, financial support did not follow. Cole’s solution? The increased tuition revenue from growing enrollment allowed the university to issue bonds to support new construction.

Those up-to-date facilities—such as new laboratories and technological capacity—enabled the university to get serious about research that brought in even more funding to support the academic mission.

The annual operating budget has grown from $120 million to $400 million during Cole’s tenure. And in 2016, Montclair was for the first time designated a level 3 research doctoral university. “Access to mediocrity was never our goal,” Cole says. “Access to the front edge of the highest-quality education always has been the goal.”

Cornerstones of diverse democracy

Cole remains a firm believer in the critical role public colleges and universities play in expanding access to higher education and, in turn, educating a citizenry that’s invested in elective government. So she grows frustrated when she hears people say that not everyone needs to go to college.

“When they say that, I know they’re not talking about their own kids—they’re talking about somebody else’s kids,” she says. “Ask the guy who works at 7-11 or the woman washing dishes in the Chinese restaurant whether or not they want their sons and daughters to go college.”

She has held tuition below the average for similar institutions, and the school now hosts recruitment programs in Spanish and Korean. Another socioeconomic obstacle the university has removed is the SAT, which is now optional for its applicants.

A 10-year study by administrators found that students’ success in college could be predicted far more accurately by their performance in rigorous high school courses.

“If you rose to the top of your high school, whether it was the least well-endowed urban institution or it was a fancy suburban school, you have a good chance at succeeding at Montclair State,” Cole says. “You have demonstrated that you will take advantage of whatever opportunity is offered to you.”

The university, because of its Latino enrollment, was recently designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution. And another must for Cole is ensuring that her students resemble the people in the communities surrounding the university—though some of the neighborhoods themselves may not be as mixed ethnically as is her campus.

“This institution is what I believe it should be, which is an institution that is wholly and entirely focused on what is needed to ensure a free and democratic society,” she says. “There are lots of institutions out there that are struggling toward that same vision.”

Looking ahead, looking back

Cole expects enrollment growth at Montclair to be less traditional—that is, growth in both the students and in the ways instruction is delivered. Along with hybrid courses and online learning, for example, the university may provide direct instruction to employees in their workplaces.

And just as she hopes to see continued efforts to make higher education free for at least the neediest students, funding remains a major challenge, Cole says.

“Large public universities that seek to provide an excellent education to a highly diverse student population—many of whom cannot afford college—have to be rethinking the funding model as we go forward,” she says.

“I refuse to give up the battle for state funding, but we need to continue to use all of the mechanisms available to support growth.”

At Montclair, Cole and her team know that alumni philanthropy should be one of those revenue generators. Public institutions everywhere have had more difficulty getting graduates to give back, as many still assume the states provides their alma maters with sufficient funds.

In fact, Montclair gets only 17 percent of its funding from state government.

On the academic side, Montclair’s instructors will work even harder to show students how what they study relates to how they will function as U.S. and global citizens—and how graduates will be able to improve societies with the skills they have acquired, Cole says.

“I’m not sure that the connection between those two is as clear, as vibrant, as alive for students as it needs to be. That needs to be on the future agenda, as well.”

Looking back on her professional and personal accomplishments, Cole regularly asks herself if she has led a fulfilling and purposeful life. The answer can never be determined with any finality, she says, but on most days—and for most of most days—her answer is yes.

“It was important to me to have a family, to have kids and grandkids, and a companion in life called husband, but it was equally important to have work in the world that was worth doing,” she says.

“It never ever gets old to me when I see 4,600 students stand to be graduated at the end of the year. I love doing the best we can to prepare them and send them out into the world to do the best they can to make it better.”

Breakdown of a building boom

Montclair State University has opened several major facilities within the last few years, including the towering seven-story University Hall that created a new hub for a range of academic programs. From its higher floors, it also offers a clear view of one of the world’s most famous skylines, just 15 miles away.

On my visit in November, Cole and some members of her leadership team were dismayed to see rain and clouds blocking our view of Manhattan.

However, when we returned for a breakfast with the dean of students the next day, a mid-autumn sun had emerged to shine on the Freedom Tower, the Empire State Building and the surrounding skyscrapers.

Montclair has also opened a new business school and a performing arts center with a theater that rivals those found on Broadway. The theater, President Susan Cole says, represents the university’s deep commitment to the arts.

It’s also one of the few universities where students pay an arts fee that entitles them to attend all campus performances for free.

“Not only are we invested heavily in creating the next generation of great performing artists, but we also have historically been invested in creating great music and theater teachers,” she says. “We are also invested in creating the next generation of audiences who appreciate the human component of the arts.”

Cole has entered into a number of public-private partnerships to build new dormitories and outfit other facilities as well. These initiatives required her to convince the state legislature to pass a law that would allow projects such as the two 1,000-bed dormitories the university built with a private developer.

Public-private partnerships have also brought the campus a station for a commuter train to Manhattan and a brand new energy system that—despite all the new facilities—has reduced Montclair State’s carbon footprint by about 40 percent.

Currently under construction is the new School of Communication & Media, where a partnership with electronic giant Sony will provide students with broadcasting technology more advanced than the equipment found in many Manhattan TV studios.

Sony will provide its products at a discount and will get to use the school as a commercial demonstration site.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

Most Popular