The Baristanet Interview: Dr. Susan Cole, MSU President

Dr. Susan A. Cole came to Montclair State University almost 18 years ago with a vision for transforming what was once a teacher’s college into a robust, high-quality academic institution. Since then, enrollment has increased by nearly 50 percent, and she has spearheaded a $650 million campus master plan that began in 2010, with the University completing over $100 million in capital projects in 2015 alone. Underlying this vision, Dr. Cole told Baristanet in a recent interview, is her mission to make higher education accessible to everyone. What follows are excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Cole, which ranged from her upbringing in Brooklyn Heights to the often unrecognized quality of state schools to how Montclair and its surrounding communities can benefit from the school’s many resources.

Since you came to Montclair State in 1998, you have transformed the school. Under your leadership, the university has developed a new school of communication and media, a new business school, an increase in enrollment (including enrollment of minorities), and received a doctoral designation, among other significant strides. Is there one initiative or milestone in particular that you are most proud of?

When I arrived we were granting about 2,200 degrees a year. Now we are granting 4,600. That is an over 100 percent increase. The heart of the matter is giving as many students as possible the opportunity for high quality education. The marker of that is their walking down the aisle with that degree in their hand. Today we are making that possible for thousands more each year than before. That above all else is the thing that I point to as what pleases me most. The other thing I would add is that if you look at those 4,600 grads, they are fully reflective of the society that we serve. If you look at them, you see the world we live in.

You were quoted in a New York Times article in 2007 saying, “I’ve spent my life trying to provide higher education to people who for most of the country’s history did not have access to it.” Where do you think this mission comes from?

My parents were both immigrants to this country. My father was from Ukraine, my mother from Russia. They came to this country (to Brooklyn Heights), having had the most minimal formal education of any kind. They had to work and educate themselves. They worked all day in various industries and businesses until they married and started a shop of their own. At night they went to free classes offered at Cooper Union, went to free concerts provided at the stadiums in New York, and they read books. They did everything they could to educate themselves. They were bound and determined that their kids would have that opportunity, too, because the journey from where they came was a journey seeking life that offered possibilities and opportunities that they did not have. From the very beginning, being an American and getting an education was drummed into my brother and me.

I began my first teaching job at CUNY, which was the picture of immigrant populations and the disadvantaged trying to find their way into society. I essentially developed as a Jeffersonian democrat at heart. I really believe most profoundly that what I do every day is get up and create the foundation for American democracy. Like Jefferson, I absolutely believe that people cannot be both ignorant and free. If you look at world today, and the ills of society, I believe that a major causative factor is ignorance. Every day is a struggle to provide as many people as possible with the highest quality education and consequently the opportunity to be citizens in the truest meaning of that word.

How do you think Montclair State is different from other state universities? 

I think our distinguishing characteristic is our focus on the equally double important role of faculty in both being excellent scientists and scholars and deeply committed teachers. Also, the really deep diversity of our campus. When I speak to grads who may have graduated in 1935 or 1955 or yesterday, they all tell me the same three things about the university. The first is that they felt the quality of the teaching and their relationship with faculty was deeply important, and that they felt faculty knew them and were really committed to their success.

2006, University Hall, campus, building
Photos by Montclair State University

The second thing they say is they really loved the diversity of the campus. It should be obvious to anyone who lives in New Jersey that this is an extremely segregated state. It is divided into very discreet communities – the Hungarians live here, the Italians here, the Hispanics here. It’s very divided – people kind of grow up and live in their parish and stay there. When kids come to Montclair State from different areas, they come here and they have a community. It’s a large university but it feels like a small college and an integrated community. Every class of grads says that they had friends from all different backgrounds and that was an extremely valuable part of their experience here.

The third thing they say is about the rigor and the quality of the education they get here. Some grads still say they still have they (have to deal with) the onus of going to a state school – (a sentiment that is) much less (prevalent) today than it was 50 years ago. But they are out there in the working world, competing with people who went to fancy private institutions and they look at me and they say, ‘We got an education that enabled us to compete with anybody.’ That’s what we aim to do. Access to education is meaningless unless its access to high-quality education.

I went to a state school in California, and out there, no one passes judgment on you for going to a state school. They think of it as a good education. But here, in the New York metro area, it sometimes feels as if you’re looked down upon if you didn’t go to an Ivy or a private school.

What you are talking about is a Northeast phenomenon. If you go to other areas around the country the state college is a respected institution. The bulk of the population, the bulk of the legislature in those states, have gone to state schools. The Northeast has a very deep portfolio of private institutions that is unlike the rest of the country and a much higher percent of the population goes to those institutions. So there was never that passion for the state university in the Northeast. It was the “other” place where you’d go if you didn’t get into a private institution. That’s why a lot of New Jerseyans spend a lot of money to send their kids to what I would call second rank private institutions in states around New Jersey: because they think that’s better. But the public institutions in New Jersey are better.

I had lunch with a senior person from one of the major pharma companies in New Jersey recently, who essentially asked me why he should be recruiting students from Montclair State. He said, we have students from all the Ivies who are dying to work for us. However, later in the conversation, he said that all the people from fancy institutions expected to earn $100,000 the first day they came in, they didn’t know anything, he had to spend two years training them, and then they left for the next highest offer. I said, that’s why you recruit from Montclair State – because our students are just as smart, they’re determined and they don’t expect to earn $100K on the first day. They do expect to have to prove themselves, and they are going to work hard and they are going to be loyal. They start and they stay because they love New Jersey, they have loyalty to the companies that give them a chance, and they’re not off on the first offer. Now that company does recruit students from Montclair State.

What is your next biggest goal for Montclair State?

Next on the horizon is the completion of the spectacular new facility for our new school of communications and media, and our partnership with Sony. The Sony partnership will equip the new school with the most state-of-the-art emerging technology in communications and our students are going to have the opportunity to work with that technology. Sony will demonstrate that technology here – to use it for information and training in the industry generally – and the students will be part of all of that. We are ideally situated for the industry and the partnership is engendering a great deal of interest. It’s very attractive for students wanting to come here and be in that field.

The other major thing for us is a new school of nursing which will begin life next fall with its first program and a formal opening around January. It’s in a new renovated, rebuilt facility and (will offer) a succession of nursing programs that will grow from all levels – from RN to BSN to MSN doctorate – with very close relationships with a number of healthcare industry providers. The excitement around that actually surprised me. When I began talking about the school to alumni and people out in the community – the donor and corporate friend environment – they were very excited about it. Nursing is a profession people feel quite strongly about. The thing that’s really exciting, though, is that the provision of healthcare has changed dramatically and the nursing profession must also change dramatically. So it is the perfect time to start with a clean slate. Which is why we are working very closely with the healthcare industry around us to say, ‘What is it that you need? What will you need tomorrow that you do not have today?’

What kind of economic impact does the university have on its surrounding communities such as Montclair?

People don’t realize how important an impact it has both on the state as a whole and on surrounding communities. For one thing, we employ thousands of people and they live here. Our faculty and staff live in these communities and they participate in these communities and they pay taxes. We also utilize a lot of the businesses as vendors for us. Our annual operating budget is $385 million every year. That is money that gets spent in businesses both small and large in the region. Of course, the biggest thing we do is put educated people back into these communities. They work in the businesses and corporations here, they teach in the schools. They do all of the things people do when they are well educated, which means they can buy houses and buy nice things in the shops and do all of those services that are available. All of that goes back to the economy of the region and the quality of life. I can assure you that if we went away tomorrow, it would immensely noticeable.

Higher education has made many headlines over the last year for a variety of issues: the high cost of tuition/student loans, campus rape, diversity challenges, trigger warnings, etc. Could you speak a little on the state of higher education in the country right now, and what you think the future holds?

You are right that there has been a great deal of churning about higher ed in the public media, both at a national level and a local level. Part of that is because higher ed is now seen in a way it was not 50 years ago – as an absolute necessity if you are going to participate fully in the economy. If you look at the history of higher education, and how it’s developed over the last 50 years you find a very rapid increase in the number of high school grads who are seeking higher ed. Now about 80 percent of high school graduates go to college. It was closer to 20 percent not that long ago. So it’s been a massive change. In making that massive change, what has happened is that the halls of higher ed have been opened much more broadly to populations that had been excluded. That brought with it issues and costs and problems and changes that people were not always ready for. What has also happened in the last 10-20 years is there has been a gradual disinvestment by government, particularly state government, in higher ed. So at the very moment where the demand for it is growing, the states, under budget stresses, have looked to where they can get money, and higher education has another revenue source, which is tuition payers. So it has been disinvesting in higher ed. Then it blames the institution for raising tuition fees and asks why the cost is so high. I remember when most public institutions were very cheap. Tuition at Montclair State in the 1970s was about $700. In 2006, we got $50 million a year in annual operating support from the state. We had maybe 14,000 students. We now get $35 million a year, and we now have over 20,000 students. And that, in a sentence, tells you what has happened.

When we got that wonderful anonymous $20 million gift for the school of business, it meant everything to us because it directly supports the quality of education that we can provide to the thousands of students who are here studying in all the business disciplines. So we are always working hard to get funds.

You spoke to NJBiz last year about the confidence gap between males and females, and how college women still doubt themselves in a way that men don’t. What can universities do to help address this problem? Or is there a greater societal/cultural issues going on here?

I grew up in the age of feminism. It was very important to me. What I discovered in this now post-feminist world is that young women coming in to universities across this country assess themselves as less competent in all the important areas in life then did young men. Men consider themselves significantly better at leadership skills, at speaking in public, influencing people, in all of the academic studies, in everything really. I said, ‘What is this?’ Especially since women enter college with better grades, get better grades in college, they have higher graduation rates and take less time to graduate than do young men and they come in not believing in themselves in the same way boys are taught to believe in themselves. That’s a fact.

The cause of that is that loving parents and families, well meaning teachers, doctors, community members, etc., carefully teach girls to have less confidence in themselves by protecting them. Baby girls are born courageous and little girls are courageous. But they are told all the time to be careful. Boys are not told that; they are led to explore, to climb, to jump and to dare and be brave. It is all done out of love, but young women are growing up with these invisible restraints that have been placed on them over the years. When they arrive at the university we have to undo those restraints and that’s very difficult. It’s hard to make up for years of acculturation. But we do everything we can to provide leadership rolls, provide roll models, encourage young women and to be conscious of the fact that they need some extra encouragement to seek out the full potential they have as individuals. We have lots of leadership programs that speak to that. When I speak to students about leadership, I always talk about the necessity to be brave. We don’t talk to women enough about the virtue of courage. About the fact that if you are going to achieve anything in this world, it means that you have to exercise courage, you have to be willing to take risks, exercise courage, climb out on that limb. A life lived fearful of doing that is, in my mind, not a life worth living. So that’s a message I try to convey from the top down.

How can residents of Montclair and other surrounding communities get more involved with Montclair State?

One of the things that has been difficult over the years is creating that relationship (between the community and the school). It’s on the north side of Montclair and a lot of people for a lot of years had no sense of what’s here. I’m happy to say that’s changing. The people of Montclair and the communities around are making much better use of the university. There is so much up here: incredible lectures on science and emerging research of the day that are open to the public; the Montclair State Film Institute has wonderful presentations; the Kasser Theater is fantastic; the athletics that go on up here. Lots of writers in town use library quite regularly. There are innumerable things for people to do.

There is a rich resource here on campus. Many parents send their kids to the gifted and talented program, the music prep program. They take their kids to the hockey arena. We just opened a wonderful center for clinical services and lots of people are coming to get services in areas like psychology counseling, autism, and educational assessment. So it’s a very open and welcoming campus and we would love to have more and more interaction with the communities around us.

Also, because we live in a reasonably prosperous community, I’d like to see more financial support for the university. It is not unusual for people who live in a university town, as it were, to contribute within their means to the university, which I believe does a tremendous amount to serve the society in which they live and the quality of life they enjoy.

And, by the way, I think Mayor Jackson is doing a great job. He’s been very responsive and a good friend to the university and I have a lot of respect for him.

You have been a Montclair resident since you came to the university in 1998. What are some of your favorite places in town? 

My favorite place is Rose Cali’s house. That’s where you go if you want to eat the best food and get the warmest welcome – not just in New Jersey, but probably on the continent. If I can’t eat at Rose Cali’s house, there are terrific restaurants in Montclair. My favorite is Halcyon.

What do you read on a day-to-day basis?

I have to read the Star Ledger. I can’t say that’s a pleasure. But I have to read it because it’s the inside sheet for people who have to deal with Trenton. And I read the New York Times – a real newspaper. On the web, I read the Chronicle of Higher Education, and a variety of other higher ed pubs and other New Jersey publications, like NJBiz, because I just need to know what people are doing and saying and thinking around the state.

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  1. Your lede is misleading:

    “Dr. Susan A. Cole came to Montclair State University almost 18 years ago with a vision for transforming what was once a teacher’s college into a robust, high-quality academic institution”

    Montclair State stopped being merely a “teacher’s college” in the mid-1960s, over 50 years ago.

  2. A great interview. Cole’s answer to women in higher ed is right on the money and doesn’t just rack it up to “sexism.” She rightfully details how women are killing men in all categories, yet still find themselves in jobs that pay less.

    Look at any of our Elementary schools, how many men are there? Why?

    Certainly a lot has to do with, as she mentions, treating little Sally as a precious, fragile thing, while little Johnie is told that rough-housing is boy’s play.

    And as a grad of Montclair State (College), the school makes me proud.

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