Why Montclair State’s new president (Koppell) says school is ready for new world of higher ed

Strengthening ties to business and local communities — while reexamining academic structure — is just part of program

Taking the reins of a university after a longtime leader — someone who rightly is credited with literally and figuratively building the school up to be one of the finest in the state — obviously is not an easy task.

Doing it during a pandemic, which shook higher education as much as any sector in the economy, only adds to the challenge.

Montclair State University President Jonathan Koppell sees it as an opportunity. A chance to add to the legacy created by Susan Cole. A chance to use the lessons learned during the pandemic to move the school — the second-largest in the state — to greater heights.

“I think the philosophy at a lot of schools during the pandemic has been, ‘Make it go away,’ or ‘Is it the way it was again?’” he said. “That’s not the attitude here.

“Our attitude has been, ‘That was difficult, but we learned a lot about what is possible and what our students are hungry for.’ And one of the things we learned is that everyone doesn’t want an online degree. There’s more engagement on campus than there was pre-COVID. The students want face-to-face interaction. They want in-person experiences, but they also want flexibility. 

“The question is, ‘How do we build ourselves to satisfy all these new dimensions going forward?’”

Koppell, who started his tenure at Montclair State this summer after being heralded for the work he did as a dean at Arizona State University, said he feels the school is positioned to adjust and transform itself for a number of reasons. Here is one of the biggest.

“We have a substantial residential population, but the majority of our students still don’t live in dormitories,” he said. “Other universities are saying, ‘We’ve got to fill 30,000 dorm rooms.’ That’s their business model. We don’t have that. We have the flexibility to offer degrees in different formats.

Montclair State University President Jonathan Koppell. (Montclair State University)

“Maybe it’s a hybrid model — or maybe it’s mostly online, but intensive on-campus weeks at the beginning or the end of the semester.”

Koppell said there are lots of possibilities. It’s time to rethink everything.

“Why does it have to be a semester?” he asked, then answered. “Maybe we can do a class intensively over one month. And why does it have to be a degree? Maybe people just want to get a certificate in accounting or get updated on the latest developments in finance or the latest technological developments in communications.

“I think that’s one of the strengths of this university. We’re not locked into one model. We have the opportunity, because of our flexibility, to meet the students where they are. And it’s not about what’s convenient for us or what our financial model is, it’s about what the students need to achieve their goals.”

The goals of today’s students are changing, Koppell said. Their time in higher ed is about more than just getting an education. It’s about making change in the world and the local community, Koppell said.

“It always has been here,” he said. “This has been a community-serving institution since it was Montclair State Normal School, partnering with school districts not just to train teachers, but to engage school districts to help grow our communities. 

“That mindset of community collaboration has permeated the other colleges on this campus. Now, how do we take that and make that the hallmark of Montclair State University — that it is the preeminent public-serving institution in the state?”

Koppell had great success doing that at Arizona State, where he was dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. He wants to bring that to Montclair State. He feels the pieces are in place.

“It’s already in our DNA,” he said. “I’m really excited about capturing and translating it. This really is a different university. It’s capable of being a true agent of change in the community.”

It can be a calling card, Koppell said.

“I want people to start to say: ‘I know what Montclair State is about. It’s about community engagement and community service,’” he said. “We can build that into the student experience, so that every student knows that, if they’re really committed to public service — and I think a lot of young people today have a very public-spirited orientation — the place you want to go is Montclair State University, because they have a set of programs and experiences that allow you to serve the community as part of your academic program and as part of your time at the university. 

“I think that’s very attractive to students who look around the world and say, ‘I have to make a difference.’

Koppell spoke with ROI-NJ in an engaging hourlong conversation about his hopes and dreams for the school. And why someone would go from Arizona to New Jersey (spoiler alert: He’s originally from the tri-state area). 

Here’s a look at some of the conversation, which will come out in a series of stories. It has been edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Arizona State is known around the country not only because it is a flagship university and one of the biggest in the country, but because it has an online component that has given it global reach. Montclair State, while large in enrollment, is not as well-known outside the state — or even North Jersey. Will this be a big change for you after 10 years at Arizona State?

Jonathan Koppell: It’s more about the institutions than the region. And the connective tissue between ASU and Montclair is that they have similar orientations. These are public-serving institutions. And that’s not the only thing.

Neither is defined by being as snooty and exclusive as possible. We don’t think that being good is defined by how many people you reject. There are a lot of universities where that’s pretty prominent among the things they want to tell you, which is weird. 

Neither ASU nor Montclair State is going to tell you, ‘We rejected 1,500 valedictorians this year.’ In fact, the opposite would be true. Part of our strength is that we are an accessible, inclusive place. That’s what makes us better. We want to tell you how many first-generation students come here. We want to tell you how diverse our student body is and how that’s what makes us great. 

Coming to Montclair State University felt very comfortable from an institutional point of view.

Connecting with business

New Montclair State University President Jonathan Koppell is eager to increase the school’s relationships with the New Jersey business community.

“We’re eager for relationships that give our students more pathways, because we know they will succeed,” he said. “Every person I’ve talked to in the business world has said, ‘Send us more Montclair State University graduates, they’re among our best.’”

There is a reason why, Koppell said.

“Our students know how to work; they know how to learn. People should get training when they go to companies; you’re not going to graduate from college as fully trained,” he said. “What we want to do is graduate students who know how to learn. And that’s what people should expect from a Montclair State grad.”

ROI: That comfort will be found in other ways, too. You grew up in the tri-state area. Went to high school in the Bronx and college in Boston (we’ll say it, Harvard University). Your mother, Kathleen Sunshine, is a former dean and professor at Ramapo College. Your father, G. Oliver Koppell, is a former New York state attorney general, state assemblyman and New York City council member. So, we’re guessing there won’t be much of a cultural transformation for you.

JK: I feel very comfortable here. And the opposite is true, too. People are comfortable with my sensibilities, my way of talking, my enthusiasm, my energy. People get me because I’m from here — although I’ll have to navigate the minefield that is New York vs. New Jersey (he says with a laugh).

I love this area. And I think that is relevant. I’m not sure I would fit in as well in Kansas. I’m sure it would be fun, but it wouldn’t be quite the hand-in-glove that it feels here.

ROI: Let’s turn back to Montclair State. Talk about where it is and where it can go?

JK: The infrastructure is incredible. There are new buildings and renovated buildings everywhere, and the campus is beautiful, with room to grow. And there are many high-quality programs. I think that gets overlooked a little bit. There’s some true excellence going on, on this campus. Excellence in terms of the quality of the academic programs and excellence in terms of becoming a true place of inquiry as a research university.

ROI: How do you improve on that?

JK: We want to build more academic programs that have hands-on learning opportunities from the beginning. Young people today have a bit of impatience, they don’t want to be told, ‘Sit in the classroom for a few years.’ Today’s students are like: ‘Are you kidding? I’m ready. Now. I want to do stuff now.’ 

Koppell on a campus tour with some students. ­(Montclair State University/Mike Peters)

I think you have to be both respectful of that, and responsive to that, and build that into the time that students are in college and take advantage of that. Some people are a little disparaging of that; they say, ‘These kids today think they’re ready to run the world.’ But, if the tradeoff to this impatience and eagerness to do something comes with a little bit of arrogance, I’ll take that trade any day of the week. We’re trying to build a university that’s responsive to that.

ROI: Doing so will require huge partnerships with the business community. Talk about that?

JK: The university has to be in partnership with business. That’s the way you fulfill this vision of providing hands-on learning experiences and be responsive to what’s going on in the world today. We’re already doing that here.

We have a Green Teams program, where students worked with companies and other clients to come up with solutions. This isn’t an academic exercise where your professor gives you a theoretical Acme Corp. Here, you work with actual companies. You figure out what their needs are, and you propose a solution to them. If they like it, they’re going to implement it. That’s how students want to learn now. 

Students in our communication school are working on the most current equipment and software. How is that possible? It’s because we are constantly working with private-sector partners to make sure that we have the up-to-date, not just equipment, but understanding of practices in the profession in the field.

The Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation gives our students the opportunity to work with real businesses and to develop their own ideas and concepts. That’s what I’m talking about. You want every Montclair student to have access to those experiences. And, I think that’s what makes education come alive for young people today.

ROI: So, let’s see. Community-minded students who know how to learn — and may learn in new and different ways moving forward. Sounds like there is a lot on your plate. Especially in the midst of a pandemic. Are you ready for all that?

JK: We are. I think that the general attitude here is, ‘This is a creative opportunity.’ 

I’m not claiming that it’s just snap your fingers and we’re going to immediately rewire things to accommodate all this. But nobody’s shying away from that, either. People are saying: ‘That’s cool. Let’s figure it out.’

Conversation Starter

Reach Montclair State University at: montclair.edu or call 973-655-4000.