Fresh Face: Kathryn Foster is the new president of TCNJ. She replaces Barbara Gitenstein, who retired after 19 years in the role. (Photo by Peter Murphy)

Kathryn Foster has established a quirky pattern in her career: taking over from a long-tenured woman president of a college or university. Three months ago, she became the second woman president of The College of New Jersey, succeeding Barbara Gitenstein, who retired after a 19-year tenure. Before that, Foster was president of the University of Maine at Farmington, once again succeeding a woman president who had been on the job for 19 years.

“I definitely think the new president coming in after a long tenure like that should continue their momentum,” she says. “You don’t come in to fix things that aren’t broken.”

But at the same time, she says, a new leader brings a new perspective and a chance to evaluate everything afresh, she says, like having a guest come over to your house and see everything with the eyes of an outsider. “After 18 or 19 years, people get into habits,” she says. “Institutions have a sense of inertia.”

Foster grew up in Verona, where her father was a lifelong employee of Prudential Insurance in Newark, working with data, math, and computers. Her mother was a homemaker and later an administrative assistant at the Verona Recreation Department and a long-time part-timer at the Verona Public Library. Foster majored in geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins and got a master’s in urban planning at Berkeley. Finally, she earned a doctorate in public and international affairs at Princeton, graduating in 1993. Her education included a stint in the Peace Corps between 1987 and 1989. She visited Swaziland and helped the small country’s ministry of natural resources and energy computerize its records. She also helped launch a women’s magazine in that patriarchal society.

Before becoming president at the University of Maine, Foster worked for the University at Buffalo, part of New York’s state university system. There, she was director of the Regional Institute, chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, and associate chair for undergraduate education and director of undergraduate studies.

Throughout her long career in New York, Foster says she has always come back to New Jersey to visit her family. “I came here two or three times a year,” she says. “New Jersey’s evolution, how it’s changed over the years, is something I’ve observed by visiting fairly frequently. Returning to New Jersey is really exciting. It’s a chance to re-learn some of the communities and places I’ve known from different times in my life.”

Kathryn Foster has a chance to bring a new perspective and evaluate things afresh while keeping the momentum gained by her predecessor.

Foster lives in Pennington and has been exploring Mercer County in her first months on the job: getting ice cream at Halo Farm, going to a Trenton Thunder game, visiting the Pole Farm at Mercer Meadows, and going for walks. An avid cyclist, Foster plans to trade her road bike in for a mountain bike so she can cycle on the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail. (She says the roads near TCNJ are not nearly as bike friendly as those in Maine, so she is staying away from traffic.)

Foster also has an unusual hobby: visiting state capitals. She has photos of herself at 44 state capitol buildings, including Trenton’s.

But mostly Foster has been getting her bearings in her new leadership position. “I’ve been watching for preparations for the Class of 2022,” she says. “I’m awed by the talent and excellence that’s already here.”

One of the most visible change in TCNJ’s campus that took place during Gitenstein’s tenure was the creation of Campus Town, a mixed-use housing and shopping development on campus. Foster says it’s too early to say if she will support more development like that in the future.

Foster views her role from the perspective of her planning background. To her, leading TCNJ is not only deciding the future of an educational institution, but it is also a lot like being the mayor of a small town. After all, TCNJ is the size of many municipalities in New Jersey. “We have to make sure the housing stock is appropriate, the infrastructure works well, and all kinds of technology and services and transportation networks,” Foster says.

As a planner, Foster says she is always looking at the long-term effects of today’s decisions. “Actions have a ripple effect into the future,” she says. “There are multiple futures out there, multiple ways of doing things and multiple outcomes. Thus we have alternatives in the present. We have different pathways we could begin to walk down … we should always be looking to the future and taking actions

“I have spent most of my career, whether inside a university or college or the academic world, with one foot in the policy world,” she says. “My personal research does revolve around policy and governance and regional issues and regional economics.” Foster says the town-gown relationship is of paramount importance. “Having the campus and community care about one another is something I care about deeply,” she says.

The town-gown relationship has become more important due to economic trends. The College of New Jersey is now one of the biggest employers in the region — part of a general shift in American cities away from the old 20th century industrial economy and towards “eds and meds” — schools and healthcare facilities — being the dominant employers. (Gitenstein took charge of TCNJ in 1999, the same year GM closed its manufacturing plant on Parkway Avenue for good.)

Many universities in the region have cultivated closer ties with the business world. Princeton and Rutgers have both started several “incubator” programs to help students and faculty launch businesses based on their university lab discoveries.

Foster said she would have to talk to students to see if they would be interested in a business incubator program.

One issue that Foster may be called upon to deal with is that of how to deal with controversial speech on campus. Several universities have been embroiled in disputes over issues of free speech and hate speech. Foster says she is committed to creating an environment of open but civil discourse.

“There’s no college president who isn’t paying attention to the kinds of issues going on around free speech,” she says. “Many of us believe deeply in the power of our colleges to enable free speech to bring different perspectives to issues. We have to figure out how to have civil discourse around a number of issues.” Foster says she has been talking to student government leaders as well as faculty and staff to figure out how to accomplish this.

Foster says her proudest accomplishment in her previous job were the improvements made to the UMF campus during her six-year tenure. “When I arrived it was a campus that was a bit down at the heels. It needed refurbishment and I worked hard on the grounds and on the buildings and interior spaces of campus,” she says. “When an environment looks like a place of excellence, and when people can take pride in their surroundings, everything is lifted up by that.”

The campus also constructed an environmentally friendly biomass heat plant, which, taken together with existing geothermal heating systems, meant that the campus was able to take 90 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources.

Foster believes the biggest challenge of the coming years will be a demographic one. “The number of 15 to 25 year olds is on a steady decline,” Foster says. “That will drop off a cliff by 2026.” Foster says TCNJ must make itself distinctive in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Foster says she also plans to strengthen ties with high school guidance counselors in New Jersey and surrounding states.

But she doesn’t blame New Jersey students who want to leave their home state to experience something different. After all, that’s what Foster did. “I can speak from experience on that,” she says. “I went to public high school in New Jersey and I wanted to get away from home. I wanted to try something new and test myself to see how resourceful I could be on my own.”

For Foster, the result of that test is pretty clear. And now, after 25 years, she’s coming back.

The College of New Jersey, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing 08628. Kathryn Foster, president. 609-771-2131.

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