It was mid-morning on a blustery November Friday here at Cole Hall and the first thing that came up in conversation when I sat down in Montclair State University President Jonathan Koppell’s office was a mutual love of vinyl. Koppell has a collection of 45s LPs in his garage back in Arizona, where his wife and kids are located.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to throw out hundreds of awesome 45s,” Koppell said, sitting down in the chair across from me. “I’ve just had that in my garage in Arizona for probably four or five years. I’m [going to] moonlight as a DJ.”
As for the type of music he listens to, Koppell enjoys a wide variety.
“I like 70s rock, the 80s. But I also like jazz and classical. I won’t change the channel immediately if Nirvana comes on or something like that,” Koppell said. “I will listen, [but I’m not that down on a lot of contemporary stuff], I guess I’m more into melody and in the music than I am the words.”
As we sat, one couldn’t help but notice his red lobster cufflinks. Being a consummate professional, I asked something along the lines of, “So, why the lobster cufflinks?” I’m a journalist, the people must know after all.
But in his words, it was as casual as buying them from a vendor in Shanghai, China where he was a Fulbright scholar.
“I think I put these on because I had a red tie,” Koppell said. “There’s no like, ‘Oh, he’s in a good mood when he’s wearing the lobster cufflinks.'”
Notably, I’m not a psychology major. But the experience of walking and working with Koppell for two days showed a person dedicated to public service — and to wearing some pretty cool cufflinks.
The books in his office show sincere dedication to public service with floor to ceiling shelves detailing public service and government operations, and a copy of “World War Z.”
According to him, the book is far better than the movie with Brad Pitt. In fact, at Arizona State University, back where he was dean, the book was a required reading one year.
“We used that as a freshman read at [Arizona State] one year, which was sort of a fun thing to do, right? You use science fiction to deal with a lot of issues that we have as a society and so on,” Koppell said. “The book is actually more philosophical, maybe slightly overstating, but it’s dealing with some of these big issues about how society works. And how do you put the interests of everybody versus the individuals?”
It was these little quirks that helped clarify the picture of the newly minted president. For example, he almost always takes selfies.
“I’m not against other pictures, I’ve found that people like selfies,” Koppell said. “The engagement in the picture is higher if you’re the one doing the [picture]. I started doing [selfies], especially at our graduations. Go back and look at my Twitter, you’ll see that there are lots of graduation selfies. And the students really liked it.”
To go along with the lobster cufflinks are equally long arms, Koppell pointed out.
“But yeah, I’m also genetically engineered for selfies because I have really long arms, so I’ve got a built-in selfie stick,” Koppell said.
Koppell mentioned that he would have been an architect had he not gone into public service.
“In some ways, what I think I’m doing is designing and how do you design an institution to do certain things? So in many ways, there is an architectural element,” Koppell said. “I like building things. I like getting an idea in my head of what [this could] look like. And then the question is, how do I take the structure here, and rebuild it to accomplish what we want to accomplish?”
In some ways, it did connect to the love of public service fostered in him by his parents. His father was the New York attorney general and a member of the New York City Council, and his mother was a college professor and administrator at Ramapo College. Some of his earliest memories were of walking around the campus with his mother.
“My joke is that I’m the least original person in the world because my father was in politics,” Koppell said. “I averaged my parents and became a political science professor. But the truth is, I don’t remember not being interested in public service. That’s just how I viewed the world.”
The love of public service took him to Harvard University for his undergraduate and the University of California Berkeley for graduate work, where he met his wife. He now has a 17-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son.
He is also not used to the winter weather of New Jersey. When we were leaving a meeting at the School of Business last Wednesday, he almost forgot his jacket.
“I have coats that I’m wearing now that have been sitting in my closet for 10 years that I’ve not touched,” Koppell said.
But beyond the culture shock lies a sincere desire to get to know the students and the school far better. When he had his job interview for the position he currently holds, he was asked what he knew about Montclair State.
“Not nearly enough,” he said.
Despite all the traveling, from New York to California to China to the band room on the second floor of John J. Cali School of Music for a President’s Club donor reception, Koppell finally found a home in Montclair State.
“I feel so confident that I ended up at Montclair State University,” Koppell said. “It is the perfect university for me [and] I believe so strongly in what this university is about.”