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Kathryn Foster

Mapping the Future of TCNJ

By Wendy Greenberg | Portraits by Jeffrey E. Tryon

Dr. Kathryn A. Foster, who launched her own academic career as an undergraduate geography major, has found her place — as president of The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). She feels it was a good spot to land. “Taking this position was the best decision I’ve ever made,” she said.

Foster’s presidency seems to suit the school too. Nestled in a suburban setting in Ewing Township not far from well-known neighbors Princeton University and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, it could be easy to overlook TCNJ.

Yet the school formerly known as Trenton State College has amassed accolades. Among them, TCNJ is ranked the No. 1 public institution among regional universities in the North by U.S. News & World Report (fifth overall). Its 2006 awarding of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter by the prestigious national academic honor society cemented its status as a selective college. TCNJ maintains the seventh highest four-year graduation rate among all public colleges and universities, and it is ranked by Money magazine as one of the top 15 public colleges “most likely to pay off financially.” Under Foster, fiscal 2021 was one of TCNJ’s strongest fundraising years.

When visitors walk onto the campus with its landscaped walkways, green quadrants, and mix of stately Georgian red brick buildings (adjacent to a new commercial center with restaurants and a Barnes and Noble bookstore), “their jaws drop,” said Foster, who has updated buildings and infrastructure. 

TCNJ’s School of Education was founded in 1855 as the first teacher education program in New Jersey and the ninth in the nation. (Photo by Nick Romanenko/Courtesy of The College of New Jersey)

A dynamic woman in her early 60s, Foster, who goes by the name Kate, became president in 2018.  Having weathered the pandemic with remote classes, she is ready for the fall semester, with (at press time) full residency, in-person classes, and a vaccination requirement, like many other colleges. The enrollment for fall is “strong,” said Foster, during an interview on a bench outside the four-year-old Brower Student Center, with a bronze lion, the school mascot, sitting proudly nearby.

But the lessons of the pandemic are not lost on her. “We have gone through massive disruption because of the pandemic,” she said. “How do you take advantage of the insight gained from COVID? What choice or investment could we make today that will improve tomorrow? We don’t want to lose those lessons.”

“We learned a lot,” she added. “The faculty and staff did a tremendous job, and I know they will continue excellence in a virtual world.” The college allowed remote flexibility to faculty and staff. Foster lauds the online interactions TCNJ has had with alumni, donors, families, and even companies that recruit students for employment — some interactions that the college may not have otherwise had. “The technology opens up spaces of opportunity. We can be mindful of which of those tools and methods work for us.”

The Brower Student Center is at the heart of the campus community offering services, activities, events, and dining for students and guests. (Photo by Bill Cardoni/Courtesy of The College of New Jersey)

The more immediate challenge, she said, is the need for sensitivity to students, faculty, and staff who came through COVID-19 and experienced family issues, and mental fatigue. “We are more mindful than ever to be a supportive community.”

Susanne Svizeny, chair of the TCNJ Board of Trustees, said that Foster’s “principled approach to the college’s response to the global pandemic has kept the health and safety of the campus community in the forefront of every decision.”

As a guest on Princeton University’s “We Roar” podcast in May 2020, Foster asked how the early college experience, skill-building, and early knowledge acquisition happen at home, and she predicted a more hybrid learning format. The planning for that year of quality hybrid and online learning was “so profound and so different from any other kind of planning that I’ve done,” she said.

Having a regional planning background “is profoundly important to what I do,” said Foster. “I am inclined to think the way planners think: What choice or investment could we make today that will improve tomorrow? I think with the same ethos.”

Foster was a geography major at Johns Hopkins University, got her master’s degree (MCP in city planning) at the University of California at Berkeley, and her Ph.D. in public and international affairs from Princeton University. When she was at Princeton, TCNJ had recently shed its Trenton State College moniker. But she had some years to go before she would meet the college she now calls home, and she knew little of the school growing up in Verona, New Jersey, where she still has family.

Kathryn Foster in the atrium of the Social Sciences Building.

Road to a Presidency

A distinguished academic career lay ahead. Foster spent years at the State University of New York at Buffalo as a faculty member in urban and regional planning and was director of the University of Buffalo Regional Institute, a research center of the School of Architecture and Planning. There, she had one foot in the policy world, engaging in strategy, governing, building a team, and for six years, “delivered good work,” she said.

But in her early 50s she began to think, “What do I want to do?” She had built a skill set, and wanted to be a leader.

“There was nothing on my resume to suggest that I would be a college president, but I thought maybe I could be a college president,” said Foster. “A number of people said maybe I needed two more steps to do that, but someone said, ‘Go for it.’ The stars aligned.”

The next stop was president of the University of Maine, Farmington, where she served for six years.

She took the reins at TCNJ on July 1, 2018, replacing R. Barbara Gitenstein, who had served as president since January 1999. Again, Foster put her planning skills to work.

When she first came to TCNJ, she said her thinking was, “’How can we leverage a new president?’ ‘How do we not rest on our laurels?’ But I was also learning from the community.”

As she got to know the TCNJ community, the goals were refined. Today, a priority is “diversity, equity, inclusion — or inclusive excellence.”

Foster said most people “are not always aware of how diverse we are — racially, ethnically, and economically. The entering class is the most diverse in the history of the college.” That class includes 29 percent first-generation students; 21 percent who are “Pell-eligible” (below a certain family income level and therefore eligible for federal Pell grants); 55 percent Caucasian; 17 percent Latinx; 13 percent Asian/Asian American, and 10 percent African American. (Five percent are other ethnicities.)

“This is a more diverse place than most people know,” said Foster. She created a Division of Inclusive Excellence and helped develop an Intercultural Center, among other initiatives related to diversity.

An appreciation for diversity was gained some years ago when, following her master’s degree and before starting at Princeton for her doctorate, Foster joined the Peace Corps and was posted to the former Swaziland, now Eswatini. The Black African nation ranked older white males in importance, she said, and for that time, she was a minority. “The experience was profoundly important,” she said, “to know what it feels like to be dismissed, and to have assumptions made based on my age, race, and gender.”

These days Foster travels mostly to U.S. state capitals, a beloved pastime. This summer she went to Juneau, Alaska, where she added to her collection of photos of herself in front of almost every state capitol building. She just needs Honolulu, Hawaii, and Pierre, S.D. (She has been to South Dakota, but does not have the photo.)

The state capitol building photo quest stems from a fundamental interest in people and place, and “how one shapes the other,” she said. A Pennington resident, she has traveled the region, much of it by bike.  Although she considers herself a “citizen of the region,” she emphasized that “there has not been a capital that hasn’t been interesting, and I’m thrilled that we are near Trenton.” Her office at TCNJ has a painting of the Trenton State House, given to her as a gift by the college trustees.

An aerial view of Trenton Hall, which houses the admissions office and the Department of Nursing. (Photo by Rakieer Jennings/TCNJ)

Trenton Ties

TCNJ has, from the beginning, been connected to Trenton, located on Clinton Avenue until the mid-1930s. Founded in 1855 as New Jersey State Normal School, and changing its name in 1908 to New Jersey State Normal School at Trenton (the first teacher training school in the state), the school was New Jersey State Teachers College and State Normal School at Trenton before dropping the “Normal School” and emerging as New Jersey State Teachers College at Trenton in 1937. Its 1958 Trenton State College name gave way to The College of New Jersey in 1996 (which was the name of Princeton University until 1896).

Today, some 160 initiatives connect TCNJ to the surrounding area, and TCNJ is working to better organize its “Greater Trenton commitment,” Foster said. Students partner with Trenton Central High School, Capital City Youth Violence Coalition, Connect Trenton, and more. The Center for Community Engagement partners with youth activities in Trenton, local environment and food security programs,  ARC Mercer, Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and other organizations.

TCNJ is completing a walking path around the perimeter of the campus. Neighbors also enjoy sporting events (Division III), the Center for the Arts, and The Sarnoff Collection.

The college is also looking toward expanding its graduate programs. Currently TCNJ enrolls approximately 7,400 students, including 6,790 undergraduates and 610 graduate students. In the next few years those students could find more interdisciplinary degrees, combining two fields of study, and more “plus one” programs in which an added year could yield a master’s degree. But Foster has an affinity for the undeclared college experience, wherein a student explores various subjects and discovers a new passion and/or skill. She herself was “undeclared” as an undergraduate, and finally settled on geography because she loved navigation and maps. But for those who are sure of their futures, TCNJ offers seven-year medical school and optometry degrees in partnership with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

Despite all the good news at TCNJ, there are challenges ahead for higher education. Even before the pandemic, a big issue was demographics. The largest market for colleges — traditional students coming from high schools — is a shrinking demographic, due to the birth rate in the early 2000s. That makes the higher ed landscape very competitive, and leads to strained resources. “We’re constantly running to stay ahead,” said Foster, who pointed out that tuition doesn’t cover all the expenses.

“While public opinion asks, ‘what is the return on investment?’ we hear a lot of skepticism about whether college is worth it. There is pressure on colleges and universities to realize the expectations of the public as we continue to be an institution that matters, to further the economy, and civic life.”

In a competitive marketplace, students should have choices, she said. TCNJ is “an excellent choice” for getting “the private college experience at a public price point.”  As a planner and geographer, Foster is happy to be actively engaged in mapping its future.

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