6 minutes reading time (1278 words)

Interview with R. Barbara Gitenstein, First Female and First Jewish President of The College of New Jersey


R. Barbara Gitenstein is a leader, a trailblazer that exemplifies dedication and resilience. Gitenstein, the first female and first Jewish President of The College of New Jersey, grew up having to face and embrace her "otherness" amongst the different groups she's been a part of. From being Jewish, a woman, a Southerner, a liberal, to even having unique intellectual passions that differed greatly from her peers, Gitenstein learned to navigate and thrive in environments where she was often the only one of her kind. Her ability to turn the challenges of being an outsider into sources of strength and vision has been a hallmark of her career.

As a successful leader and women in academe, who has over 40 years of experience in both the public and private sectors, of course, her memoir, Experience Is the Angled Road: Memoir of an Academic, is a book about leadership. But, it does more than just demonstrate her leadership and showcases the obstacles, pain, and losses that she has survived, and details the people in her life that have helped pave her path to becoming the president of TCNJ. Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey, calls Gitenstein's memoir, "a remarkably readable book about the people surrounding a young Jewish girl growing up in the Deep South. …This is an unflinchingly courageous story of love, exasperation, argument, and forgiveness."

Garden State Woman is dedicated to empowering young women. In an interview with R. Barbara Gitenstein, we had the pleasure of hearing her share her wisdom and experience in overcoming challenges, being a leader, and maneuvering through life, all of which can serve to be an inspiration and learning experience for all women.

Q: The title "Experience is the Angled Road" is quite intriguing. Can you explain its significance and how it relates to the book's content? How do you interpret the idea of an "angled road" in the context of life's journey?

A: The title comes from the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem. She is one of my favorite poets and has always been sort of a north star for me because she's so emotionally honest. This poem is about how life gives you challenges, and when you go through those challenges, you also go through different angles and you have to change direction. This idea was very much a part of my life, which is where the title comes from.

Q: Being the only "whatever" in a group can be challenging, especially as a young person who is inexperienced in life. As a young girl, how did you deal with being different from your peers?

A: I'd love to say that I was always very brave and courageous, but that would not be true. I tried to be courageous. I learned to speak for myself and from my inner truth and to hold true to my values. But there were times when doing that was scary, because you had to speak out against what was the majority opinion, whether that majority view was male dominated, anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic. With any kind of rejection of difference that you faced, you had to learn to speak up. And sometimes, you just have to walk away.

A very important experience for me as a young faculty member was when I was teaching at a school in Missouri. While I was waiting in between classes in the faculty lounge, the chair of the philosophy department came in and he said something and used the N word. I told him, 'I don't like that word. Don't you ever use it in front of me again,' and he said to me, 'Well, they need to get accustomed to it in the same way you need to get accustomed to the word kike.' I don't even know what I thought at the time, but my reaction was 'not now and not ever,' and I walked out of the room. I didn't have tenure at that point. I was a very young faculty member, and he was a senior faculty member. I remember people coming up to me afterwards and saying you know you could possibly have lost your opportunity to gain tenure and I said, 'so be it.' Everything turned out fine in the end, but my point is that there are times when you need to speak up for yourself and you just have to come out with it.

Q: Familial expectations can weigh heavily on any child, and even as an adult, one can still be carrying that weight on their shoulders. What was it like to juggle these expectations with your own desires? How have you been able to break free? 

A: That's a very difficult question for someone like me who had a very good family that really cared about me. But some of what they wanted from me was just wrong, and as much as I loved my mother, she didn't understand me very well. She wanted me to grow up and marry a nice Jewish guy and have lots of grandchildren for her and stay at home, and that just wasn't what I wanted to do. But the first obstacle with her was that I actually fell in love with a guy that she was adamantly opposed to. She was very much against my dating him, much less marrying him. Which I did end up marrying him, and I'm still married to him. It's been 54 years, so I think I was right rather than my mother. I know I was right, and that's very painful. We had to learn how to recreate another kind of relationship. My mother came around, but there were still painful moments. There are times when you just have to decide what's the right thing for you, even if it's painful.

Q: You have overcome various challenges and losses in life. What is some advice you can give to young girls that can help them overcome their challenges and use those difficulties to fuel their success?

A: "First of all, don't deny the grief. Acknowledge the grief, acknowledge that this was a hard thing to deal with, because stuffing it down is not healthy. Then think of yourself as a survivor and as someone who embraces courage, and that part of courage is confronting something that is difficult, learning from it, and moving ahead without denying it."

Purchase Experience Is the Angled Road on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Experience-Angled-Road-Memoir-Academic/dp/1646637518

The Ebook version will be ON SALE from 6/7 to 6/28 for $0.99.

About the Author

R. Barbara Gitenstein, President Emerita of The College of New Jersey, has over 40 years of experience as a college professor and administrator in both the public and private sectors. Named president of The College of New Jersey after more than six years at Drake University as provost and executive vice president, she was the first woman to serve as provost at Drake and as president of The College of New Jersey. Currently, she serves as a Senior Fellow and Consultant for the Association of Governing Boards.

She is the author of some 30 academic articles on Jewish-American Literature and academic administration as well as the monograph Apocalyptic Messianism and Jewish-American Poetry. She has made over 100 presentations at literature and academic administrative conferences and was often interviewed on radio and television stations in New Jersey, focusing on higher education issues. She resides with her husband in New York City.

Her next book, Portrait of a Presidency: Patterns in My Life as President of the College of New Jersey, has an anticipated publication date of January 2025.

For more information, please visit https://rbarbaragitenstein.com/.

Purchase Experience Is the Angled Road on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Experience-Angled-Road-Memoir-Academic/dp/1646637518

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