Getting to know Gitenstein

It is estimated that over 50 percent of college students change their major at least once, according to an MSNBC.com article. On average, students switch their majors two to three times.

These statistics have proven true for R. Barbara Gitenstein, who started out studying music at Duke University, went through a series of majors, and ultimately decided on English.

Today Gitenstein serves as the first female president of The College of New Jersey, but retains her collegiate love of literature (Emily Dickinson poetry is her favorite) and music (she’s an opera fan).

She has been at the College for 13 years and has seen the school progress, but still strives for improvement.

President R. Barbara Gitenstein (Photo courtesy of R. Barbara Gitenstein).

“I’ve never been interested in being a leader of a place that was broken,” Gitenstein said. “I like to work at places that are doing very well, but have the opportunity to be even better.”

Noting the ways the College has grown since she began in ’99, she said, “We’ve seen some wonderful improvement in the academic rigor of the institution, and the quality of the students, and the increasing enhancement of the fabulous faculty we’re attracting.”

Education has always been a huge part of Gitenstein’s life. Each institution she attended has provided her with mentors and affected the way she leads the College today.

For high school, President Gitenstein attended an all-girls boarding school.

“(Boarding schools) certainly make you mature very quickly,” she said. “You meet people from all sorts of different backgrounds and I think that helped me develop leadership skills as well as the ability to understand that people come from different places.”

This allowed her to gain self-confidence and observe women in positions of power.

After boarding school, she received her undergraduate degree from Duke University. Reflecting on her Duke experience, Gitenstein said, “I don’t think I knew it at the time, but it’s clear to me when I look back now that I always knew that I belonged in a college environment. I think the work is very exciting and it’s very important.”

Gitenstein then went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned a Ph.D. in English and American Literature.

It was during her time at UNC Chapel Hill that she had the opportunity to work with American scholars, including C. Hugh Hulman, who became one of her mentors.

Other influential figures in Gitenstein’s life include the headmistress at her boarding school and her “very feisty and very bright” grandmother. Her grandma “knew how to make decisions and press the envelope and get things done. She had a great sense of humor.”

Similarly, Gitenstein knows how to get things done.

Since the summer, Gitenstein has written pieces for The Huffington Post with the goal of creating a conversation about the challenges of higher education, including the focus on price.

“Frankly, price is not the problem. Cost is the problem,” Gitenstein said.

Explaining the distinction, cost is the cost of the degree, not per year, she said. Some schools may be cheaper annually but require more years to graduate, thus making them more costly.

Another issue in higher education is the “disinvestment” in state institutions.

“When I came to The College of New Jersey, the state was supporting our general operations at about 60 percent. It’s now about 27 percent. That’s a big drop,” she said.

Gitenstein is thrilled that the Building Our Future Bond Act, which passed on Election Day, will provide much-needed support for New Jersey institutions of higher education.

“The strong support from the legislature and the Governor as well as business and union leadership was remarkable,” she said. “I am truly gratified by the support from the citizens of the state and look forward to TCNJ’s opportunity to be able to confirm their confidence that this investment will make a positive difference for the state and our students.”

Tying into other issues affecting the College, Gitenstein commented on conflict between Ewing residents and students residing off-campus.

She began by saying, “There is often a problem between institutions of higher education and the township in which they are situated. But I think it’s to everyone’s benefit to try and figure out how to negotiate that.”

“There are some of our students who are irresponsible, but the vast majority of our students are responsible and I am offended when the implication is that those who misbehave represent the student body,” she said. “I think that’s unfair. I think it’s an overgeneralization.”

She also explained that some community members may not want to accept the fact that they live in a college town and students will not necessarily be asleep or quiet at 10 p.m.

“My children didn’t when they were that age, so I certainly don’t expect the students to do that,” she said.

Another unrealistic expectation Gitenstein commented on is the idea that students may graduate and automatically find their dream job. “Don’t be discouraged if you have to start out not exactly where you dreamed,” she said.

Expanding upon this advice, she said, “Students need to realize it’s not just this economy, but in general, you might have to start out not where you imagined and then challenge yourself over the next several years to move ahead. That’s what happened to me and I turned out OK.”