By Connor Smith
In nearly two decades as the College’s president, R. Barbara Gitenstein’s many accomplishments have shaped the College’s growth in a profound way.
From transforming the College into an academic leader amongst public schools by increasing the four-year graduation rate from 58 percent to 75 percent, to leading major campus fundraising and building projects, Gitenstein has built a legacy that would be easy to coast on in her final year.
But the College’s first female president is not done yet.
The Signal sat down with Gitenstein on Wednesday, October 11, in Green Hall, where she discussed her final initiatives that will close the latest chapter in the College’s 162-year history. She also addressed several student, faculty and alumni concerns.
The major initiatives
Gitenstein outlined three major initiatives for her final months as president: to ensure the College makes significant progress on the action plan that came out of The Advisory Commission on Social Justice: Race and Educational Attainment, to make sure the College meets its 18.19.20 fundraising initiative of over $7 million this upcoming year and to preserve the College’s special status.
Last fall, students discovered the then-namesake of the College’s admissions building, Paul Loser, was a prominent figure in enforcing segregation in Trenton public schools while serving as superintendent. This sparked several critical conversations about the College’s relationship with Trenton, New Jersey.
Gitenstein responded by appointing The Advisory Commission on Social Justice: Race and Educational Attainment, which released a detailed report that was approved by Gitenstein on Sept. 5. This report included many goals to improve the College’s relationship with Trenton, starting with changing the admissions building’s name from Loser Hall to Trenton Hall. But the issue is much larger than that, according to Gitenstein.
“If you look at the commission’s goal, it was to deal with something much larger than just a name, but to deal with the relationship with Trenton,” Gitenstein said. “I hope to see some progress on that.”
Some alumni voiced concerns on The Signal’s website and social media pages that the name change was a part of a larger trend of altering historical monuments. Gitenstein challenged that notion.
“If you look, as I’ve presented in my letter to the board, the issue with regard to changing the name had to do with the history of an individual who was a public employee who broke the law,” Gitenstein said.
As for fundraising, the College has consistently outpaced estimates, which Gitenstein is excited to continue through the 18.19.20 initiative.
“I really love fundraising,” Gitenstein said. “I get to talk about what the students and faculty do. I’m not talking about what I’m doing, I’m talking about what you guys are doing. The faculty are doing. And there’s just a lot of good news. People don’t gift to me, they gift to you.”
The final major initiative, to preserve the College’s special status, deals with the College’s niche as institution meant to provide the highest quality education possible for a public college, a concept which came from former Gov. Thomas Kean.
“What we need to do is to provide for the students with that kind of capacity,” Gitenstein said. “The kinds of experiences that they might have at a private institution. Close relationships with faculty, the undergraduate research, all those signature experiences you hear us talking about which at first wasn’t a part of Thomas Kean’s concept, but to me, that means that we should get treated differently.”
Gitenstein pointed to the College’s graduation rate, which is the fifth highest amongst public colleges, and its exceptional faculty and student body.
“I think you should be rewarded for that,” Gitenstein said. “I don’t mean ‘us’ as in the College, I mean the community, so that we can do more.”
Aside from these issues, Gitenstein believes advocacy for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which she supported in a letter to New Jersey Chamber of Commerce as an executive committee member, the expansion of Title IX around the nation and the acknowledgement that the violence that is “observed in the black community by officials is just disproportionate to what we experience, those of us who are white,” are long-term issues she will “certainly give a lot of attention to.”
After outrage sparked by the scheduled closure of TCNJ Clinic, the College reevaluated its plan and requested an external report to determine the clinic’s fate.
“I absolutely understood the feelings I heard in conversations I had with multiple students having to do with the clinic closure,” Gitenstein said. “What I think was lost in that conversation was the recognition that the College had in fact been investing more and more resources over the last four or five years in this very thing that people were so concerned about.”
While the final TCNJ Clinic decision, based on the external report, has yet to be made by Jacqueline Taylor, the College’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, Gitenstein discussed several other plans to address mental health concerns on campus.
“(There are) new counselors who have been hired,” Gitenstein said. “They’re going to be in Forcina (Hall).”
These counselors will provide long-term care, in contrast to Counseling and Psychological Services, which focuses on short-term care. CAPS will receive additional resources, including a counselor with special expertise dealing with individuals from underrepresented populations, according to Gitenstein.
“(This is) completely separate from the Urgent Care, which we are still working on,” Gitenstein said. “That has not moved as quickly as we had hoped.”
When asked if she was disappointed by the lengthy process, Gitenstein responded, “Yes.”
“We’ve added lots of partnerships because of the question people were asking about long-term counseling, because we know we simply cannot staff an office for long-term care on campus,” Gitenstein said. “We can’t do it. We have too many students. These individuals who need long-term care do need long-term care — there’s no question about that. But it would basically eat up not just the Student Affairs budget, but the entire College’s budget.”
Gitenstein discussed studies conducted for the College that marked a downward trend in “emotional resilience.”
“What I worry about is in the culture today, in the kind of students that we’re attracting, you’re sort of not allowed to fail,” she said. “Yeah you are! You’re supposed to!”
Gitenstein said she wished she could give a presentation on her many failures that helped make her into the leader we know today.
“Oh my goodness, have I had a lot of failures,” she said. “And I’m proud of every one of them.”
Gitenstein’s replacement, the College’s 16th president, will be picked by an 18-member committee established by the board of trustees. Gitenstein looks forward to the future, but feels the process has been a bit strange.
“My husband has been retired for about 10 years and so he’s really chomping at the bit,” Gitenstein said. “I knew that, but it’s just been a little strange because this whole semester I’ve been going through like, ‘this is the last time I’ll welcome the freshmen. This is the last time … (etc.)’ it’s sort of weird. Of course, I’m not really involved in the search. I know who’s on the committee — it’s a great committee. The chair (alumna Susanne Svizeny) is fantastic. She was on the committee that hired me and the search consultant they hired (Julie Tea, a partner at Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates) is someone who knows us very well, and knows us recently. But it’s a little strange. This has been my life for 19 years.”
Gitenstein believes the College will gain more national recognition in the next 10 years.
“During my tenure here, 66 percent of the individuals who are faculty members here were hired,” she said. “So we’ve got this incredible group of new faculty members who are very excited about where the institution is going and that’s why students come to a college. They come because of the academic programs. They come because of the faculty, so we’ve got this young group of faculty and of course, those who will succeed them. I have no doubts that your diploma will be worth more when you graduate, and worth even more in 10 years.”
Gitenstein pointed to downward trends in high school populations, which contrasts the College’s growth in incoming freshmen.
“It’s particularly going down in the northeast, so we should have had a smaller class,” she said. “But we had not only a larger class, but we had a larger than what we expected class. So what it suggests to me is that the market out there — allow me to use that term — it’s saying that there’s something special happening at The College of New Jersey.”
Gitenstein, who sang when she was younger, looks forward to retirement in New York City, where she can finally make her way to an opera in the middle of the week.
“That would be very nice,” she said. “I’ll probably do some writing.”
That said, Gitenstein said she’ll miss the College “very much.”
“I’ll miss the people,” she said. “I won’t miss the anxiety of the job and worrying about my students all the time. I will miss being around students and being around faculty and being around my colleagues. But it’s important, I think, for a former president to sort of give it up and get out of the way for the next person.”