Profile: First African American and First Woman President of Bloomfield College

Marcheta Evans, who has taken the helm of the 151-year-old college, recognizes the challenges — and opportunities — for this ‘hidden gem’

Who: Marcheta Evans

Hometown: Mobile, AL. Currently living in West Orange

Family: Married to Ed Evans, six children

Job: President, Bloomfield College

The installation: On Dec. 6, Marcheta Evans was inaugurated as the 17th president of Bloomfield College, a private liberal arts institution known for its diversity — more than 83% enrolled are people of color — and helping low-income students enter the middle class and beyond. Many Bloomfield College students are the first in their families to attend college, as Evans herself was, and her ceremony was intentionally designed to transcend trumpet fanfare and a sea of academic regalia.

At the installation, Evans’ story of growing up poor and often hungry, yet pursuing her educational goals was told by people who know her best: her sister, two college friends and a colleague from the American Counseling Association, who, like Evans, served as president of the organization.

Her path to Bloomfield: Evans wove her interests in counseling and education into four degrees, culminating with a Ph.D. in Counseling Education and Supervision from the University of Alabama before joining the faculty at Auburn University and then the University of Texas system. At Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, she took positions of increasing responsibility as a dean, vice president of academic affairs, and last, provost.

The next step — becoming a college president — was the steepest of all, as nationally, only about 5% of college presidents are women of color. “When you’re of color, you have to be exceptional to even be considered,” said Evans. But to show current Bloomfield students what is possible, she chose to focus in her inauguration not on the arduous process, but on the people who supported her. “I wanted my village to be part of it [the inauguration],” she said. “And it does take a village. If I didn’t have Cathy, Ralph, Cookie or Crystal, or the rest of my support system — if we didn’t have each other — I shudder to think of what might have happened. I am confident,  though, we would have found a way.”

Won over by the students: Bloomfield College was not on Evans’ radar when she began pursuing a college presidency. A few seemingly chance conversations with peers brought her to campus, but once there, its main characters — the students — won her over. She’s especially empathetic toward those first-generation students blazing personal trails through the complexities of college life, beginning with the application process and completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form. What might be second nature for students from families with college degrees can be especially difficult for first-gen students. Once on campus, students can avail themselves of Evans’ open door policy. “Many have never been in a college president’s office — and so I listen to them, and then say, ’Let me tell you the real person who can help you with that.’”

Helping struggling students: Evans often refers to students as “my babies” while fully realizing they are young adults — albeit some with serious challenges. Those struggling with hunger will benefit from a second food pantry opening on campus; yes, the homeless students, too. She advocates for students who can’t afford a $300 textbook, asking faculty to consider using open-source books that are both free and refereed, or peer-reviewed. For students who break the rules, she favors a developmental education. “I’ve worked in the [higher education] system as a counselor for many, many years. I know students. I know their behavior, and there have to be consequences for poor behavior — it’s a question of how those consequences are managed,” she said.

Many small private liberal arts colleges in the United States are in a precarious position. According to Education Dive, more than 20 have closed or merged since 2016 (none on the list are from New Jersey), often the result of slumping enrollment, small endowments and rising costs. Bloomfield College faces many of these same challenges, plus those endemic to predominantly black institutions of higher education and Hispanic-serving institutions.

Evans firmly champions a liberal arts education. “We have to make sure we are educating students from a holistic perspective, which is what liberal arts does, but also prepare them to be work-ready and have a job when they finish,” she said, embracing a blend of new cultural exposures and practical work experience through internships and skill-building. This year, for example, a program will give Bloomfield College students free admission to the Montclair Art Museum. On the practical side, Bloomfield’s Student Leadership Development Program offers retreats, workshops and seminars, including a series called LEAD for first- and second-year students.

Financial realities: “Even though Bloomfield College has the lowest-cost tuition for private institutions in New Jersey, we’re not cheap, for lack of a better word. About 75% of our students will not receive any financial support from their families,” said Evans. While $17 million in scholarships as well as other funding mean that many students don’t pay “sticker price” for a Bloomfield education, affordability — and even the perception of affordability — can remain a challenge.

Two other concerns Evans faces: One, Bloomfield’s student retention rate is currently at 68%, and while not as low as some colleges, Evans’ first-step goal is to raise it to 72%. Second, Bloomfield has a low graduation rate of about 33%.

Planning for next five years: Since arriving at Bloomfield in June, Evans formed a 30-member steering committee, sent surveys and conducted listening tours and town halls with faculty, alumni and students to gather information integral to the college’s next five-year strategic plan. She’s intent on building strategic partnerships with community organizations, improving town-gown relations and most important, strengthening relationships with local school districts.

Everything is relational, Evans believes, especially with the schools, where from her own experiences as a counselor and an educator, she can connect with guidance counselors as gatekeepers of students’ post-high school plans. “They’re the ones funneling the kids this way or that way, and my hope is they’ll trust us enough to send us more students,” said Evans. Of one thing she is certain: “We’ve got to turn the tide. We’ve got to start sooner. We can’t wait till the senior year to start recruiting students.”

A ‘hidden gem’ with opportunities: Bloomfield College’s strategic plan is still being developed, but Evans sees several opportunities for what she considers New Jersey’s “hidden gem” among higher education choices. For one, getting the word out about Bloomfield’s strongest programs: among them, a Game Design major that is ranked No. 1 in New Jersey by the Princeton Review, and a nursing program that has a 94% licensure exam pass rate. Evans is also interested in developing an undergraduate criminal justice degree with a social justice emphasis on restoration and a graduate program in educational leadership, as well as adding online courses and creating a comprehensive wellness center focused on healthy eating, exercise and mental health.

Footnote Texas to Jersey: While Evans still favors Texas brisket over Jersey Taylor ham/pork roll, she and her husband Ed are appreciative of the warm welcome they’ve received in New Jersey and enjoy living in a state with four true seasons.