Leading with purpose and authenticity is not always easy—but it is necessary, especially as women in higher education look to advance and bring others with them along the way.
That was just one of the many important takeaways shared by three New Jersey college presidents at the NJ ACE Women’s Network recent leadership conference, hosted at Seton Hall University on March 24. Nearly 150 attendees joined NJ ACE for a full day of candid conversation, career and branding advice, and professional networking.
Dr. Marcheta P. Evans, president of Bloomfield College convened a frank conversation about the journey to becoming a president. Dr. Cindy R. Jebb, president of Ramapo College of New Jersey, and Dr. Kathryn A. Foster, president of The College of New Jersey, were equally open about the experiences that shaped their career paths. Psychologist, author, and branding expert Dr. Michelle Callahan also helped participants better understand how to strengthen their brand presence—personally and professionally, whether they seek a presidency or other roles. The conference was filled with laughter, intense listening, productive dialogues, and practical insights gleaned from the speakers. They were at times hilarious and lighthearted, but dead serious about the counsel they received and generously shared.
“People are looking for leaders they can believe in—leaders they can get behind. You want to be the one to get that opportunity.”
Dr. Michelle Callahan, Founder of 360 Degrees/branding and executive coaching expert
‘To whom much is given’: Dr. Marcheta P. Evans
Dr. Evans, who also serves as the NJ ACE Presidential Sponsor, traces much of her success to her upbringing. She was raised in rural Alabama by a caring but stern grandmother who embraced the maxim, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Her grandmother also emphasized the importance of giving back and the importance of service.
“She drilled that into us,” said Dr. Evans. “Education was seen as the key. She would say, ‘When you have an education, no one can take that away from you. They can take your house, your car, the clothes on your back, but once you are educated and your mind is free, no one can ever take that from you.’”
That wisdom never left her, even as she acquired degrees, raised a family, conducted research, taught, won national awards, and seized opportunities to lead at minority-serving institutions.
“That was important to me because I need my students to be able to look at me and say, ‘If Marcheta—who was legally adopted by her grandparents and who dealt with food insecurity—can become a college president, I can as well, right?’”
The choices she made were intentional.
“Looking at my life trajectory, I became very purpose-driven, because I needed to be in the seat that made the decisions,” Dr. Evans said.
“Not only did I want to be in the seat or at the table, I needed to be at the head of the table… not just in the room,” she said of her leadership journey. “Sometimes you have to be at the head of the table to really transform what needs to happen.”
“Authenticity comes by saying, ‘I know what I am and who I am. I know what I can bring.’ If I’m sometimes asked to bring things that I maybe don’t have…I’m able to say, ‘Let’s find somebody else to do that.’”
Dr. Kathryn A. Foster, President of The College of New Jersey
A path guided by values: Dr. Cindy R. Jebb
Dr. Jebb, president of Ramapo College, is a retired brigadier general and former dean of the United States Military Academy She credits her longstanding values as the driver of her success.
“My journey really is all about people, mission, and values,” she said. “And when I think about those values that really motivate and inspire me, it’s things like developing the whole person, service, teamwork, family, justice, the liberal arts, and a sense of humor. Those things resonate.”
Throughout her days as a three-sport college athlete, military intelligence officer and researcher in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and the Horn of Africa, those values have been constant. And after 39 years at the Academy, they guided Dr. Jebb toward another goal: becoming a college president.
“When it comes to higher education, there is no other institution that brings together people from all different backgrounds and lived experiences to learn and grow, to become engaged citizens and to become leaders,” she said.
“I know this is a Navy term, but we are ‘all hands-on deck,’ and together we’ve developed the goals that are going to bring us forward as we think about the challenges ahead,” Dr. Jebb said. “It’s all about developing the next generation of leaders.”
Mapping the journey, one move at a time: Dr. Kathryn A. Foster
For TCNJ President Dr. Kathryn A. Foster, the journey to leading a college began with a degree in geography and dreams of becoming a cartographer.
“I like people and I like places. I went on for my master’s in city planning, which is a great degree for people who are interested in place and people and how places shape you,” she shared. She went to work as a city planner and evening adjunct professor.
That’s when she had an epiphany.
“It happened within 30 seconds of walking into the classroom. This young person in the front row picked up his pencil and started writing down what I was saying, and I was like…,” Dr. Foster said as the room erupted in laughter. “I decided at that moment I needed to get the doctorate. That would be my ticket into the academic world.”
After a Peace Corps stint in Swaziland and then earning her doctorate, she spent the next 18 years at the University of Buffalo as a scholar, researcher, teacher, strategist, institute director, and policy expert. In her early 50s, she wanted a change and confided in a female university leader.
“I’d gone to her and said, ‘This might be a delusion, but I have got in my head that maybe I’d like to be a college president.’ Her response was: ‘Kate, if you want to be a college president, go be college president.’”
“I had never signaled to the academic world I was ‘in,’” Dr. Foster said, referencing traditional indicators of aspiration—being a full professor, dean, or vice president, or joining prestigious leadership development programs.
Soon, she surveyed job openings, worked with a search firm, and transformed her traditional CV into a leadership resume. She followed another recommendation: craft an exceptional cover letter.
“It got me into the room for the presidential interview,” she said, passing along the same advice to other women leaders in the room. “After that, use whatever you bring to [the role]—who you are, your authenticity, your purpose, why you’re in the room.”