Montclair State president’s take on public service: ‘It’s not extra credit, it’s the assignment’

Koppell says communities should bring issues of need to MSU — and school should be judged on its ability to solve them

Koppell on a campus tour with some students. ­— Mike Peters, Montclair State University

Jonathan Koppell laughs when he explains it. No, he says, he did not create the idea of community service coming out of a college campus. That idea has existing for as long as higher ed has been bringing the best and the brightest together.

But Koppell, the new president at Montclair State University, came to the school this summer with a different take on the idea after a distinguished run as the dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State.

It’s fair to say Koppell may have refined the concept. The statistics — he doubled the college’s enrollment, increased its graduation rate and exponentially increased its fundraising while creating nationally acclaimed projects — speak to that.

What exactly did he do? Here’s how he explains it.

“I think the biggest element of what I tried to accomplish with my colleagues at Watts College was to reshape what the ambition of a university would be,” he said. “What I started doing in Arizona was telling people, ‘If you have an issue or a challenge, call me, and let’s see how I can mobilize the resources of our college to help address those issues.’”

He rattles off examples: Trust in police in communities, domestic violence, human trafficking, parks management, homelessness and one he calls creating opportunity for youth.

“There are a growing number of 16- to 24-year-olds that are not in school and not employed,” he said. “That’s a growing problem in this country.”

Teams at Watts College would search for solutions.

“We would try to figure out, usually successfully, how do we take what we do and make it a tool to address these identified needs in our community?” he said. “To me, that’s different than what universities have said in the past, which is, ‘I have a project, and now I’m going to come and do it in your community.’ That’s not the same thing.

“This is us being a servant of the public interest. And that’s what we were able to do.”

Others saw the success.

“That’s why the college is called Watts, because the Watts family invested in the college because they wanted to enhance the community,” he said. “We were the instrument for them to do that.”

Koppell said such activity already occurs at Montclair State. He wants to amplify it.

“We’re building on an initiative that has some of my roots at Arizona, which is to build a public service academy where students have an opportunity to build a four-year public service training program into their college experience,” he said.

Koppell said he doesn’t want to bring the concept to Montclair State in an effort to seek praise or recognition if it goes well. He wants Montclair State to be held accountable if it does not achieve such success.

“Our mission at Montclair State is to make the world a better place like that — you need to judge us on that,” he said. “It’s not extra credit, it’s the assignment. And we’re going to take it seriously. We’re going to bake that into our mission, and you should judge us by whether we’re achieving that mission.

“Now, you also need to judge us by how well we’re educating students and judge us by the quality of our research. Judge us by that, too. But this is part of the overall grade.”

Koppell said he saw this all-in approach work.

“If we didn’t have that as our mission at Arizona State, the investment would not have been there,” he said. “We were a tool to make Phoenix and Arizona a better place.

“What we want to do here is very similar. Montclair State University can become the instrument by which we make Essex and Passaic counties and the state of New Jersey and the region stronger, healthier, safer and more resilient. That’s the transformation. That follows directly from my experience in Arizona. It’s possible because I saw it.”