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Following a comprehensive national search in 2020, Kean University selected Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D. as its 18th president and the institution’s first Black president. The Kean alumnus and former Kean trustee is tasked with transforming the institution’s competitiveness for research grants and has vowed to elevate the University to Carnegie R2 research status within the next five years. In November 2021, Kean University joined the list of elite public research universities with its designation as the state’s first urban research university. This achievement will help to provide more opportunities for residents living in urban communities and will further expand the reach of Kean’s research and creative projects within art, science, and humanities. “Our value-driven mission is to become a national model for urban research universities across the country,” says Repollet. “With this prestigious designation, Kean is now well-positioned to test knowledge and research in every field and apply these findings to real-world issues facing our urban communities.”

Investing in Expanding Research
An important element in transforming Kean into a research university included investing in human capital and adding new tenure-track faculty across multiple disciplines. “While many institutions were cutting back on faculty and staff during the pandemic, we looked to grow our number of educators,” shares Repollet. “By this fall, more than a quarter of our full-time faculty will have joined us within the past two years. We’re also offering faculty grants to allow researchers to embark on projects that focus on urban issues and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Additionally, we have redirected faculty bandwidths to allow more time for research collaboration and provide participation opportunities for a greater number of students. By showcasing our students’ accomplishments, we inspire excitement and interest in our research and can take collaborative opportunities to new heights.”

Under Repollet’s leadership, Kean has also invested in research equipment and infrastructure. “Our commitment to our faculty and expanding our research footprint is shown through our budget and how we’re allocating funds,” says Repollet. “We are also expanding our network of affiliated startup companies and building the infrastructure for the commercialization of our intellectual property that has yielded several U.S. patents in areas such as computer science. To achieve our goal of making research more inclusive, Kean is partnering with government organizations on research initiatives that support their work. When we tell our students, ‘You can conduct research that affects your world,’ we truly mean their world. We are exploring everything from education, disparities in health care, and economic challenges within these communities. We want to leverage our capabilities to be a part of the solution to the issues impacting New Jersey’s residents, particularly in our urban centers.”

Building Pillars of Success
Since taking office, Repollet has focused on propelling the University forward by ensuring success within three pillars: safety, academic excellence, and equity. Prior to joining Kean as the University’s president, Repollet served two-and-a-half years as the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, overseeing the shift to remote education amid the pandemic and helping to plan for the 2020-2021 school year. Through this challenging time and moving forward, Repollet says safety is a top priority. “At Kean, we responded to COVID-19 by partnering with the County of Union on testing and vaccinations for our campus and the surrounding community. We also opened our own COVID lab on campus to process test results, and we stand ready to work with the county in any other public health emergency.”

With a goal of providing academic excellence to all students, growing faculty is an important part of the endeavor. “To move forward as a research university and provide support for our students, we needed to create new systems that aligned with our current priorities,” explains Repollet. “When it comes to academic excellence, we focus heavily on bringing in new faculty members and retaining those educators, as well as offering support for students from their first day on campus through graduation. We are now looking to strengthen these systems by looking at data and gathering feedback from faculty and students to ensure they have the tools they need to be successful.”

Among Kean’s top priorities is supporting equity and inclusion and creating an environment for all students to learn and grow together. “As a former commissioner and superintendent, equity has been a cornerstone of who I am, and I have always believed creating a diverse workforce is essential,” says Repollet. “I also believe all students should have the opportunity to pursue higher education. We have built entrepreneurial educational initiatives (EEI) that identify gaps within the pre-K to 12 space to make sure we build the strongest pipeline possible for those students entering into the college level. To offer exposure to more students, we provide college-level courses and have created an academy of scholars. The Kean Scholar Academy is a pre-college program that offers high school students the opportunity to earn college credits and participate in pre-college mentorships and internships.”

Strengthening the equity pillar of Kean University also requires making higher education both accessible and affordable. “By design, Kean is the most affordable comprehensive 4-year university in the state,” says Repollet. “We also make sure our policies are inclusive, where everyone has an opportunity to move up without being hindered. We also established our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which is dedicated to promoting representation and inclusion at Kean. We want to assure we bring equity into everything we do, from academia to the student experience across campus.”

Kean is one of the most diverse universities in the northeast, where 77 percent of the students are students of color and 46 percent are first generation. “We celebrate the diversity among our student population and our faculty,” shares Repollet. “When you have an emphasis on diversity, you have an emphasis on diverse interests, and as a result of that approach, the research breaks out of the cookie-cutter model. The culture at Kean is changing, and there is an excitement among students and staff to be part of this shift to a renowned research university.”

Creating a Sustainable Research Enterprise
To continue Kean’s advancement toward Carnegie R2 status, the University is working to expand its research portfolio and gaining insight and expertise from the education community. “We formed a Presidential Advisory Committee that includes students, faculty, staff, and community members,” explains Repollet. “The committee will make recommendations and advise me on the steps we need to take to reach our R2 goal. For example, the group recently shared a recommendation for a $3 million investment in supplies and advanced research equipment. We approved this investment because funding research, supporting staff, and pursuing grant opportunities are all essential to moving the needle in the right direction.”

In the past, Kean would often hire faculty during the winter and spring months. Upon the recommendation of the Advisory Committee, the University has recently moved that timeline, with new faculty members starting in September. “We now have faculty members joining us with research grants and opportunities,” says Repollet. “Many individuals are just out of post-doctoral fellowships or are looking to relocate to the east coast. To ensure we remain on track and show our growth, we’ve created several benchmarks. The first was to gain recognition by our own state as a public research university. We are very thankful to Governor Murphy for signing legislation designating Kean University as the fifth research university in New Jersey, and the first urban research university focused on finding real-world solutions. Kean recently moved up to Doctoral University status, one step away from the R2 designation. This accomplishment shows that the work we’re doing and the investments we’re making are paying dividends and because of this, I’m very confident we will achieve our goal. More importantly, we are creating a sustainable research enterprise to ensure continuous growth for years to come.”

With technology being a key item for researchers to advance their projects and collaboration opportunities, Repollet says Kean University is looking forward to becoming more involved with Edge as the University continues to advance its research mission. “The pandemic has highlighted the central importance of technology and education,” says Repollet. “From pre-K to college and beyond, technology allows students to connect with educators. But at the same time, the pandemic has stripped bare the disparities that exist among different groups and their access to technology.  This issue is one that Kean is working hard to address. With technology often being costly and evolving so quickly, Edge helps keep our institutions cutting edge in a way that is much more efficient and cost effective than any other organization could accomplish.”

“We are very thankful to Governor Murphy for signing legislation designating Kean University as the fifth research university in New Jersey, and the first urban research university focused on finding real-world solutions. Kean recently moved up to Doctoral University status, one step away from the R2 designation. This accomplishment shows that the work we’re doing and the investments we’re making are paying dividends and because of this, I’m very confident we will achieve our goal. More importantly, we are creating a sustainable research enterprise to ensure continuous growth for years to come.”

— Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D.
Kean University

Advancing Community Research and Education
Edge and Kean University have recently joined forces on a proposal that will provide infrastructure support and additional computer capacity for research in New Jersey. The National Science Foundation (NSF) Campus Cyberinfrastructure Regional Connectivity program invests in networking and cyberinfrastructure improvements, innovation, and integration for research projects. “Edge is pleased to partner with our member organization, Kean University, and to offer our solutions and services as they work to achieve their R2 status,” says Forough Ghahramani, Ed.D., Associate Vice President, Research, Innovation, and Sponsored Programs, Edge. “Through collaborations such as the NSF proposal and Edge’s advanced high performance network capability and access to regional and national resources, we are excited to help advance research and education within the community.”

Due to Kean’s commitment to building infrastructure and continuing to climb toward R2 status, the University is now becoming eligible to apply for more research grants and collaboration opportunities. “Our accomplishments as an institution are passed on to our students,” says Repollet. “As an urban research university, we are able to close the tuition gap and provide higher education opportunities to more students. Plus, the impact goes far beyond our campus. Our focus is on applied research that finds solutions to real-world challenges that are faced not only by the state’s urban residents, but all residents of New Jersey. The skills and expertise of our faculty and students support the greater community, and their influence permeates throughout the state.”

Promoting Economic Growth
To further build upon the University’s commitment to scholarship and community service, Kean established the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at the University in March 2021. “The Institute has an over 30-year history of urban policy,” says Repollet. “We’re delighted to have the Watson Institute installed at Kean and to be able to explore gaps in education and health care, economic challenges, and environmental justice. These challenges can now be addressed in a safe space where our faculty and students can come together to find solutions to some of the issues affecting urban communities. Now, as a state urban research university, we can further tap into their networks and embed urban policy within our colleges.”

The Institute works closely with the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association (NJUMA), which is now affiliated with the University and includes mayors from 32 urban centers across the state. “We now have built-in connections to government leaders across New Jersey, and we look forward to working with them to provide policy research and solutions on important issues in their communities. The Watson Institute gives us credibility and has provided a seat at the table that we wouldn’t have had in the past. Our goal is to harness all the expertise at Kean and channel that knowledge toward achieving these important goals and driving change within the region.”

Kean was among 25 institutions selected by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) University Center for a 5-year grant to promote innovation and strengthen regional economies. With $1 million of funding, the plan is to create the Center for Business and Workforce Development, Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship. Housed at the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at Kean, the University Center will address regional needs such as agriculture in South Jersey, advanced manufacturing in the central region, and small businesses in North Jersey. “We are very proud to receive this grant and be a partner in this collaborative effort to strengthen regional economies and promote economic growth, especially for minority-owned small businesses,” shares Repollet. “Our involvement supports who we are as a research university, and it is exciting being at the forefront of spurring this economic change. We are working to create the first data trust and ensure that these urban centers have the information, tools, and resources that they need to be successful. Most importantly, our students from these areas will be working as interns and will have the opportunity to help their own communities flourish.”

Inspiring through Leadership
President Repollet says his diverse career experience, including educator, coach, principal, superintendent of schools, and New Jersey Commissioner of Education, has helped him perfect how he looks at leadership and strategies for achieving organizational goals. “Each stop along the way has allowed me to view leadership from a micro to macro level. You must look at the quantitative and qualitative data to form who you are and to support your mission of being a provider of a world-class education. I’ve been developing smart goals for every endeavor and ensuring the members of our team understand their role. Each person is an expert in their lane, a cog in the system, so when everyone is fully engaged, we have touch points across multiple areas that bring us together.

“In regards to being the first Black president of Kean, this is about leadership, and being a successful leader comes down to whom you serve,” continues Repollet. “I always say to whom much is given, much is required, and I take that sentiment to heart because I understand the circumstances that our students are in. The pandemic health crisis has brought to bear the role and the moral obligation we have as a University and what we need to do. I believe passionately in the mission of our institution to provide access to a world-class education for all students, regardless of background, and I think people are excited about the culture we are creating. We aspire to be a model and a source of inspiration.

“People can see that we are investing in them and their communities, and the system has started to change because the processes that we put in place are starting to produce the results that support our mission, our vision, our values, and our goals. I’m excited about where we are at this moment and where we are going. My University, my students, and my community can feel the bus moving in the right direction, toward a culture of inclusivity that rewards and promotes excellence. I’m honored to be in this role and to help Kean climb higher on its path from great to elite.”