Blazing A Trail Forward with Purpose and Vision
By R.L. Witter
As a teenager making his way through the Carteret, NJ school system, Lamont Repollet had hoop dreams. He envisioned himself playing in the NBA with young people looking up to him for his skills on the court. Fast forward a few decades and while his hoop dreams weren’t realized, young people look up to and listen to him. As the first African American president of Kean University, Repollet’s leadership, advice, and accomplishments are affecting thousands of young people every day.
His path to education and administration wasn’t a straight one though. He took a few turns before finding what would turn out to be both his calling and his purpose. “I went to school and majored in communications,” he explained. “I went to graduate school at NYU (New York University) for a summer program in film and television and then I just realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do because the probability of being successful was quite low.” So just how did Repollet find his way into education? “I coached basketball and I fell in love with the students,” he said. “That helped me realize I should be a teacher. People always talk about God’s plan and I felt that the minute I stepped into my purpose; everything opened up for me in education. The path was clear, my vision was moving forward; everything just seemed to work.”
In early 2020 when COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic, Repollet had a full plate as NJ Department of Education commissioner. “The challenging part was creating a ‘new normal,’” he said about managing NJ schools during an unprecedented event. “The challenge was taking a system that wasn’t designed for virtual learning and creating a system that allowed us to be flexible enough to educate 1.6 million students and have folks going to work and not losing their jobs.”
His focus wasn’t only on keeping people employed and students learning. He also kept mental and physical health front of mind, even when he was installed as KeanUniversity president in October, 2021. “We understood that for two years we had isolation, depression, loss of life, injury, and folks coming in with PTSD. Their minds are not really focused on education; their minds are focused on survival. We’ve created a proven connection. We’ve emphasized our wellness center. We have an initiative right now called ‘Well-being and Worth’ that’s looking at well-being financially, environmentally, socio-emotionally, physically, and mentally.” Repollet is steadfast in advocating for his faculty and students to assure them the best possible experience at Kean. “We have to make sure our students are safe, make sure education is equitable, and access to affordability.”
One of Repollet’s main goals in helming the university centers on making the transition from a liberal arts university to a research university. “I’m very pleased that Governor Murphy and the legislature of New Jersey have designated Kean University as New Jersey’s first urban research university,” he explained. “We’ve acquired the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research, which is the policy arm behind 32 urban mayors—the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association. We are on course to get that Carnegie R2 designation, which is 133 research universities in the country. We’re designated as a state research university, which affords us opportunities, grants, and additional money for our students in Pell grant money.”
This approach has led to investment in additional faculty at a time when other universities are downsizing. Also, Hynes Hall, the new business center, offers a diverse array of state-of-the-art resources for business, public administration and criminal justice students including: smart classrooms and study lounges, Bloomberg business intelligence software, a virtual “library in the sky,” and rooftop deck with views of New York City. “Our goal was to go from a world-class liberal arts university to a worldclass research university,” said Repollet. “If we do that, our diplomas will accrue value.”
On the horizon is a dual enrollment program called Kean’s College Academy where students across New Jersey attend high school and Kean simultaneously beginning in ninth grade, accruing college credits. Another new program called Entrepreneur Education Initiative (EEI) where both students and parents are educated, as well as bilingual education for freshmen foreign students in their native languages, helps ease the transition to college and squash language barriers. “I always talk about access, equity, and creating a pipeline from a young age,” Repollet said.
In addition to his work at the University, enjoys the Harry Potter books and films. “My office lookslike a castle,” he chuckled. “I call myself a Gryffindor with a little Slytherin in it.” If he could talk with anyone alive today, he would choose Barack Obama. “I was on a golf course in Martha’s Vineyard and I shook his hand, but I’d love to have a detailed conversation with him because sitting in that White House, being the first—I can only imagine what he went through.”
Upon being hired at Kean University, Repollet received a piece of valuable advice from David Wilson, president of Morgan State University. Wilson said, “This is a lonely job; understand that. So, find yourself a peer you can talk to.” Repollet reached out to other Black and African American college presidents in New Jersey— a total of nine; each the first to hold the position at their respective institutions. “Now I don’t feel lonely,” he said. “There are eight other people I can call who understand…”
His family is his rock. His wife, Darlene was the breadwinner while he earned his doctorate and made moves to get to where he is now. Repollet also credits his two daughters and his church family at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens for supporting and inspiring him.
When asked about the future and perhaps looking toward a second act, Repollet was quick to answer: “I’m not looking for a second act; you don’t mess with things God ordained. For me, this was my purpose… And if that’s not God’s plan and God’s anointment, I don’t know what is.”