A Conversation with the College’s President

“I really do love opera, but I also like Motown music,” admits President R. Barbara Gitenstein

Though one may not suspect it, this administrator originally was a vocal student in college, but switched to studying English after determining she wasn’t a good enough singer. After spending 15 years as a professor, with a concentration in Jewish American Literature, her belief in the importance of higher education spurred her to pursue a career in administration instead.

Gitenstein held administrative roles at other colleges, such as provost at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and became TCNJ’s first female president in 1999. For the past 12 years (it’ll be 13 in January), she’s been in charge of our school. However, she’s quick to admit that there are other individuals that the college can depend on to make things happen.

In fact, her favorite parts of TCNJ are the students and faculty. When asked what her job entails, she explained how it varies day-to-day. "You could have all these plans to meet with students, faculty or administrators, or donors, alumni or the legislators, then some crisis happens on campus and that’s what you’re doing,” she says. “I think it’s part of the President’s role to help people come together and come to a consensus.”

Gitenstein graduated from Duke University with a degree in English and received her Ph.D from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The interaction between students and faculty at Chapel Hill is what inspired her own administrative approach, emphasizing the importance of an accessible and student-oriented staff.

“Chapel Hill is a public ivy…committed to providing high-quality public higher education in the state of North Carolina. I thought New Jersey ought to have the same kind of opportunities,” she says.

Though she planned on being a professor for the rest of her career, she realized she couldn’t sit by and observe the way schools were run without taking a stance herself.

“As a faculty member, I was watching people go into administration and making really bad decisions, and I can’t stand whiners, so I said, ‘I can’t whine. I’ve got to try it myself,’” she recalls.

I just so deeply believe in higher education. I think it really is the promise of the future. And if they will leave us alone, I mean the people who think they know stuff when they don’t…We could save the world,” she explains. “We could save the world because we have people of good will. We have people who know what they’re doing and want to help the students become the leaders that they’re capable of becoming.”

Gitenstein noted how the best students in the state had been coming to New Jersey State Normal School to get their teaching degrees when it began in 1855. Now, though the areas of study have expanded, the dedication to higher education remains.

When asked to describe a typical TCNJ student, she said: “A student that really cares about the community and cares about doing something important in the world. I think our students have a good time and I think most of the time, the fun is good.”

Though the students do have a good time, she mentioned how sometimes they may be too hard on themselves. “I think our students are very committed to success, and sometimes don’t give themselves a break. If they haven’t made an A in every class, it really isn’t the worst thing in the world,” she says. “I worry a little bit that our students are too risk averse and don’t take chances. Part of that is they want to do so well in the class that they don’t want to take a chance in an area they want to learn about or try to find out something new.”

An example of risk-taking included studying abroad in an atypical place, such as Tokyo instead of England. Branching beyond one’s comfort zone could serve as a great learning experience.

In her spare time, President Gitenstein is a big fan of listening to music and reading. “I have so many favorite books,” she says, when asked what books she likes best. “It’d be like choosing a child. I have two children, so I can’t. Though I tell teach of them in front of the other that that the other one is my favorite.”

Gitenstein has a daughter, Pauline, and a son, Samuel, and has been married to Donald Hart for 41 years this December. Her daughter is a social worker, while her son studied game design and now makes music—he even has videos on YouTube. Speaking of videos, the President loves movies and television. She’s a fan of Law and Order and the Soprano’s, and classified “A Fish Called Wanda” as one of the funniest movies ever made.

Though she enjoys cooking, her favorite food is chocolate. "That’s easy to answer,” she replied, when asked what she likes to eat. “Dark chocolate, yes, if I have to choose. I don’t like white chocolate, because it’s not chocolate. It isn’t.”

While she insists that white chocolate doesn’t count, she is equally adamant that whining is a terrible thing. “If things aren’t going well, try to fix it or go someplace else,” she says. “Don’t whine.”

She also offered advice to prospective students. “I think what they should be asking themselves is ‘Does this feel right to me?’ Fit really is so important, because you’re going to come here and join a community,” she says, regarding the admissions process.

Don’t let someone else tell you, ‘Oh, you’ll never get in there’ because of whatever they’ve heard from some kind of rumor. If you really feel that you fit at TCNJ, you should apply and make the best application possible,” she continued.

As far as advice for women pursuing careers that aren’t typically filled with a lot of females, she laughed and said there are a lot of those fields.

You should take chances,” she says. “Recognize that if you’re going to go into a circumstance and you’re going to be the only woman or the first woman or one of the earliest women, there will be people that won’t be happy with you. Try your best to convince them of your value, but after awhile, do your job, because some people won’t change and it’s a waste of time to try to get people to change.”

PS. Curious what the R. stands for? She put the mystery to rest – her first name is Rose.