Year 2: How Koppell is aiming to raise profile of Montclair State

President, on day of his investiture: ‘We need to shine a light on the Montclair story’

Perhaps lost this week in the release of the seemingly all-consuming U.S. News & World Report college rankings was this nugget: Montclair State University’s graduation rate (67%) was 18 percentage points higher than what was expected of a university of its size and demographic enrollment.

The 18 percentage-point difference between predicted and actual rates is the fifth-best in the nation among public national universities, U.S. News & World Report said.

And, while New Jersey celebrated the fact that it has the No. 1 university on the national list and the No. 5 university on the regional list, this factoid received little attention.

Montclair State President Jonathan Koppell couldn’t help but wonder why. After all, shouldn’t the graduation rate be what matters most?

“Obviously, I’m biased,” he said. “But I’ve often thought it’s funny what schools tell you about: How good their admissions statistics are, the average GPA of the admitted students, the number of valedictorians they have — but, what happens to those students while they’re there? Isn’t that more important?

“To have what your expected graduation rate would be — and what our actual graduation is — is really the ultimate judgment. So, yes, I’m pretty proud of that.”

This statistic is just one of the data points that likely will come up Thursday during the investiture of Koppell as Montclair State’s ninth president.

The fact that so few know about it is representative of a bigger narrative that Koppell aims to disseminate in his second year at the school.

“We need to shine a light on the Montclair story — talk about how good a job we are doing in creating a positive learning environment and positive trajectories for our students,” he said.

Koppell said he’s already got a slogan ready to go.

“I was joking the other day during an address to the faculty,” he said. “I said that every person who comes to the campus — whether they’re reflecting on the physical environment or the quality of programs — always seems to stop and say, ‘I had no idea.’

“Maybe that should be our marketing campaign — ‘Montclair: I had no idea’ — because, when people find out about what we’re about, they’re blown away.”

Koppell admits that includes him.

“It’s been fun this first year to learn about this university,” he said. “I knew this was a really good institution, but it’s really been a pleasure to understand our strengths and just how high the quality is of so many of our programs. I’ll admit it. I didn’t know enough about Montclair. I was in the same category.

“I had no idea.”

Koppell spoke with ROI-NJ on a wide range of topics in the days leading up to his investiture. Here’s a look at some of the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Montclair just welcomed its largest freshmen class (4,065) and now has its largest total enrollment (21,671). Among those freshmen are students from 32 states and 21 countries — totals that easily top previous marks. How much of a push will there be to attract those types of students?

Jonathan Koppell: We will increase the number of students who are coming from outside New Jersey, both out of state and out of the country. You do that to create a more dynamic learning environment. Having kids from outside of the state will benefit those from New Jersey. To add a global mix will do much more. We want to have that, but — at the same time — we want to be creating a pathway for students in New Jersey. There’s a place for them, too. So, it’s not an either/or, it’s a sort of and/both.

ROI: Sounds great, but is there room? How are you going to make this work?

JK: That’s something we’ll have to look at — whether our residential capacity matches what our draw is. But, before we do that, there’s another open question, which, in some ways, is an even more interesting: ‘How will students engage the university in the years ahead?’

ROI: How do you mean?

JK: One of the most significant initiatives that will emerge is what we’re calling Montclair Unbound, which is based on the recognition that people are not going to study in 2025 the way they studied even in 2015. You’re going to have more programs that mix together some face-to-face and some online. You’ll have mixed-residency programs — maybe they’re here for a weekend or week — and then they’re online. What will be the mix of students that are engaged in this way versus a more traditional model?

I tend to think that graduate programs are going to look a lot like that. The idea of somebody moving to a school for two years to get an MBA will still happen at a very small percentage of very traditional universities, but, I think, increasingly, people are going to engage in different ways. What’s the infrastructure that’s required to support that?

Like a lot of institutions, not just educational institutions, but businesses, we are part of the redesign of how people engage the world. That’s why it’s an open question: What is going to be the space requirements for a university, even a dynamic growing university, in the decade ahead?

ROI: When you arrived here a year ago, you talked of increasing your connection to the community — including the business community. How is that going?

JK: I’ve been trying to build those bridges and those relationships by making an argument not just for investment, but for smart investment. And, let me explain what I mean by that.

I think that we, in New Jersey, have adopted a strategy that hasn’t benefited from observation of what’s going on in other states. I think that most business leaders in New Jersey would embrace the idea that having robust research universities are important for the economic development of the region — that the creation of new businesses and new jobs requires innovation driven by research. I think people get that right. What I don’t think people necessarily get is that places like Texas and Florida have been successful in their strategies of research-driven economic growth by building up multiple strong research universities.

Texas now has (11) R1 research universities. (New Jersey has three: Princeton University, Rutgers University and New Jersey Institute of Technology). If New Jersey is going to thrive, we need to have a more distributed strategy. I realized that’s a self-interested argument, because I’m the president of Montclair State University. But look at what’s worked in Florida.

Sure, they have the University of Florida, Florida State and Miami, but did you know the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida International University are all thriving, robust R1 research universities, too, each of which is driving a cluster of innovation and business development in different parts of the state? We need to have that strategy.

(By comparison, Pennsylvania has six R1 research universities. New York has 11.)

ROI: How do we fix that?

JK: I’d like to see the business community become a voice for a nonparochial approach to invest in higher education as a driver of economic growth. That’s where we need to get if we’re going to thrive as a state.

We’ve left this to the political machinery — and the business leaders of the state need to speak up and say: ‘Hey, this isn’t working for us. We want to compete. We want to compete with Texas, we want to compete with Florida, we want to compete with California.’

If we’re going to compete, we have to have that more strategic approach.

ROI: Sounds like you need more attention — which goes back to the start of the conversation. Talk about getting your story out there.

JK: It’s been surprising to me how little is known about Montclair State, even in Montclair. They know us as a university on Valley Road; maybe their kid has soccer practice there. But, they actually don’t know that much about the university.

It’s not that people have a bad opinion; they have no opinion. I don’t think that we’re seen as an asset. And I don’t think we’re embraced as part of the cause.

I think Montclair takes pride in its diversity and its commitment to social progressivism. So, I think the community of Montclair should take pride in being home to a university that is an engine of social mobility, shows that a diverse university can be an excellent university and is pushing the edge of what higher education can do to support democracy.

All of those things should be things that people in Montclair view as important. So, we have to create that connection. We have to get our story out there. And we will.

ROI: OK, Year Two. Sounds like there’s a lot on your wish list. Tell me what you hope we’re talking about if we talk a year from today?

JK: It won’t be hope because it will be happening.

The Bloomfield agreement (a potential partnership that was announced earlier in the year) will be done.

We will have launched the next-generation Service Corps, which is this public service program that will be a signature of this university.

We will have launched a college that’s focused on health, which I think is very much needed in this part of New Jersey, where health care is a core issue.

We will have started the museum at Hinchliffe Stadium and have secured philanthropic investment in our Paterson initiatives.

We will have those things in place, and we’ll be able to point to them and say, ‘This isn’t just talk, this is our commitment to action.’

I want, more than anything else, for you to hear the things that I’m saying about Montclair today from people other than me — that business leaders across New Jersey will be telling you, ‘We need Montclair to be successful in order for New Jersey to be successful.’

I want people calling Montclair State University and saying: ‘We need you to do more here, more here and more here. And we know you can do it, because we’ve seen what you’ve done already.’