Being Who We Are and Proud of It
When I was in graduate school, my faculty advisors were eager to see me pursue a faculty position at a research university. I had some publication and scholarly presentation success as a graduate student, and my dissertation, Academic Entrepreneurship in Higher Education: Institutional Effects on Performance of University Technology Transfer, was a hot topic at the time as many universities were seeking to be the one who commercialized or spun off the next Gatorade, Google, or cure for cancer.
My choice for a first academic job following graduate school, however, was at Indiana State University, a regional state institution. My professors couldn’t quite understand why I would choose to work at a university that valued teaching before scholarship, and where they perceived my ability to publish in competitive outlets and land large grants would be harder.
Whereas I was comfortable with that choice (which did not, as it turned out, hurt my scholarly productivity and grants attainment), what I hadn’t anticipated was how pervasive a sense of being “less than” permeated the institution. What I commonly heard was, “Well, we aren’t IU or Purdue.” Yet, we weren’t sure who “we” were, a common challenge of regional state universities. For some, we aspired to be more research oriented like our sister regional Ball State. For others, we aspired to be instructional innovators, seeking to place good teaching at the top of our food chain like some regional state institutions, particularly those that enrolled large numbers of historically underrepresented or marginalized students.
Regional state institutions commonly struggle with identity, precisely because they aren’t generally sure who they are, and thus coordinating energy can be more challenging. Since arriving at William Paterson, what I most commonly hear has been twofold, namely “Rutgers gets all the attention and most of the money, and why can’t we be more like Montclair?” There is often pointing to this or that choice that we did or did not make in the past, typically framed from a belief that what Rutgers or Montclair did or does is something we should do too.
This particular topic is on my mind because I recently attended the inauguration of Jonathan Koppell, the new president at Montclair. Wearing my orange tie proudly, and my own bling on my gown, and sandwiched between the presidents of Kean and TCNJ for 3.5 hours, I learned a lot. First, Montclair does have a lot to be proud of and at some level there is envy by others. Second, we aren’t Montclair and shouldn’t try to be. We are William Paterson. But who are we exactly? Here are just a few thoughts:
- A university with no mega classrooms.
- A university with a year-long, cohort-based integration mechanism called Will. Power. 101 and 102.
- Likely the fastest-growing university in New Jersey enrolling adult students.
- Likely the largest producer of nurses in the state once the national data comes out later this year.
- Likely the institution in New Jersey that closed student achievement gaps between white students and students of color the most this past year.
- Damn scrappy and proud of it.