When Susan Cole ’62 became president of Montclair State University in 1998, she saw untapped potential. “In an environment with tens of thousands of unserved students, the university was not addressing its fundamental mission as a public university to educate as many people as it could,” says Cole, who was Montclair’s first woman president.
Nearly 20 years later, Cole has transformed the New Jersey school: The student population went from 12,000 to 21,000, and the operating budget grew from $120 million to $400 million as the school built new facilities and hired hundreds of new professors. The business school has expanded, the already strong performing arts programs have been strengthened, and a state-of-the-art facility for the new School of Communication and Media opens this fall.
Cole is proud of the fact that the student population fully reflects the racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of the state of New Jersey. In addition, the school estimates that about 40 percent of students come from families with incomes under $50,000, and about a third are the first in their family to attend college. For families that cannot afford to send their children out of state for college, “we had an obligation to provide a place for them,” she says.
Attending college was transformative for Cole, who arrived at Barnard when she was 16. “It was an entrance into a really interesting world that I knew very little about,” says Cole, whose parents were both immigrants without formal educations. She threw herself into theatre, writing the junior and senior shows and soaking up music at Carnegie Hall and jazz in the Village. After earning a PhD in English literature from Brandeis, she joined the faculty at the City University of New York and later moved into administrative posts at Antioch and Rutgers before serving as president of Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis–St. Paul.
A confirmed workaholic, Cole has not entertained thoughts of retiring. “You keep getting better,” she says. “There’s still much more to be done.”