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Reinvented New Jersey College Embraces Minority Identity

BLOOMFIELD, N.J. — Bloomfield College, started in the mid-1800s by the Presbyterian Church as a school for German ministers immigrating to the United States, today proudly stands among the nation’s predominantly Black colleges. It’s a status the small private college did not seek and only fully embraced after a painful evolution marked by racial demographic changes in its target commuter population, race riots in its largest nearby city, a court fight with tenured professors and a conscientious decision to embrace diversity—the welfare of the school requiring it.

“I helped the college understand what it had become and that was kind of a sea change,” says Dr. John Noonan, a veteran educator recruited by Bloomfield as president in 1987. “I knew which way the country was moving. Colleges that didn’t aggressively recruit non-White students were going to become anachronistic. It was not that I came and brought something new. All I did was to help people understand why that was occurring.”

It was important to embrace diversity, says Noonan, who retired from his post in 2003, “because that’s who we were by the time I got there. African-American students saved the school,” he says, pointing to the steady enrollment of Black and other minorities that helped offset the loss of White students who began leaving Bloomfield en masse in the early 1970s.

For sure, the “sea change” is sustaining the tests of time. Bloomfield today claims to reflect American higher education for the 21st century while staying rooted in its core mission of providing access to students who would otherwise be turned away from college. It sees its mission as preparing students of all backgrounds to live in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. Also, it does not see itself in a competitive race with peer schools.

“We don’t have a board obsessed with prestige and performance goals,” says Bloomfield President Richard Levao, adding that the school has no interest in the “rankings treadmill.”

Levao says Bloomfield’s commitment to minority education might cost it popularity points at a time when private donors and lawmakers emphasize retention and graduation rates and schools are more selective in admissions to ensure those hurdles are cleared. Bloomfield’s six-year graduation rate is about 37 percent. That doesn’t mean industry yardsticks are not important at Bloomfield, says Levao, a veteran attorney who also served approximately 25 years as a member and chair of the Rutgers University boards of trustees and governors. It means retention and graduation rates are not the school’s sole measures of how well it prepares students for life in a diverse society.

“We have a small independent college and are unique in the degree to which we are committed to minority education,” Levao says. “We’re very honest. This is who we are.”

The “who we are” includes students like Rosa Salamea, a 22-year old senior, and Amira Onibudo, a 20-year-old junior. Both are local high school graduates. Salamea’s mother is from Puerto Rico. Her father is from Ecuador. Onibudo’s mother is from South Carolina. Her dad hails from Nigeria. Salamea and Onibudo are first-generation  students. Both need financial aid to attend college, as do nearly 90 percent of Bloomfield’s approximately 2,000 students. Both work jobs while in school and are Ronald McNair Scholars with grade-point averages of 3.0 or better.

Salamea and Onibudo say Bloomfield’s diversity—nearly 50 percent Black, 21 percent Hispanic and 16 percent White—is giving them a head start on life in the 21st century.

“The multicultural environment is something I can relate to,” says Salamea, who runs a weekly Spanish-language news program at the school’s radio station. “I want to be a journalist and that’s something I’m going to have to do—be open to new ideas.”

Onibudo, who hopes to pursue her doctorate after Bloomfield, says Bloomfield was her last choice but it grew into her first. She shares Salamea’s sentiments, adding: “It’s not the college that makes you. It’s what you make out of the experience.”

History of Adaptation

For sure, Bloomfield, which still turns away about 50 percent of applicants despite a flexible admissions policy, did not arrive at its station by design. It has a history of reinventing itself to survive. Founded in 1868 as a German Theological School, the college carved a niche for itself offering educational opportunities to European immigrants, starting with German ministers, who were unlikely to be admitted to Rutgers or Seton Hall. The urban school’s enrollment came from predominantly White Newark and its neighboring towns in Essex County.

German immigration began to decline in the late 1800s, so the school began accepting students of non-German background. In 1904, six Germans and 15 non-Germans (all Europeans) were admitted to the all-male college. In 1931, it changed its name to Bloomfield College and Seminary. Later in the decade, it began admitting women and started sororities and fraternities and in the 1950s expanded its curriculum to including accounting and business administration.

The seminary was phased out in 1960, the same year Bloomfield received accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. The school soon after embarked upon an ambitious building program to expand its reach and appeal. Essex County’s demographics were changing rapidly. More people of color moved in and more people of European descent moved out.

The race riots of the late 1960s, with Newark emerging as a literal hotbed of unrest, hastened the White flight as the city and its environs became a crime-ridden, increasingly racially and economically divided region. White enrollment continued to decline while African-Americans and new immigrants from Asia, Cuba and other Latin American nations began enrolling in even larger numbers. The increase in minority enrollment did not offset the pace of decline. Debt service on the school’s new buildings and other expenses were overtaking its ability to remain financially viable. To save money, Bloomfield decided to release several tenured professors.

They sued and won a court order blocking the school’s decision. To avert a total shutdown in the early 1970s, Bloomfield sought protection in federal bankruptcy court.

Using Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, Bloomfield held its creditors at bay while it devised a reorganization plan for settling its debts and negotiating a new deal with the tenured professors. The final reorganization plan included selling a golf course it had hoped would lead to revenue-generating development projects. The sale of the golf course to the town of Parsippany netted the school $4.8 million. With a new deal for the tenured professors and concessions from lenders and vendors, Bloomfield emerged from bankruptcy in 1974 with enough funds to establish a small endowment.

“(The bankruptcy) was a big positive,” says Frank Vecchione, the Newark attorney who handled the case for the school and later spent a decade on the college’s board of trustees. It taught the school to better plan and operate frugally, he says.

Embracing the Diversity Mission

Over the next decade, Bloomfield embraced what it became: its past in a new rainbow of colors.

“The social diversity was not really appreciated,” says Noonan. He says he had to “tease” out from the faculty and staff all their hopes for the college with a new mission statement: “To prepare students to attain academic, personal and professional excellence in a multicultural and global society.”

“Once we said, ‘That’s what we are going to be,’ it was pretty easy,” says Noonan. “We hit a home run with that statement.” 

Noonan gives credit to his predecessor—interim president Dr. K. Roald Bergethon—with setting the stage for his success by taking “the negative out of the air” in the few years after bankruptcy.

“Noonan came in, righted the ship and gave them an opportunity,” says John Wilson, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in New Jersey, a trade group of the state’s 14 independent colleges. “It’s a wonderful, traditional liberal arts institution that knows what it’s trying to do.”

Bloomfield and most of its students are faced with extra hurdles these days, given the slow pace of the nation’s economic recovery. The school’s role, Levao says, is to help students by removing barriers to higher education.

With increased federal aid through Predominantly Black Institution programs at the U.S. Department of Education, participation in the federal McNair Scholars Program, constant courting of potential donors who know little about the school and support from alumni, Bloomfield officials believe the school is poised for the future.

“It’s been an amazing transition,” says state assemblyman Ralph R. Caputo, a member of Bloomfield’s Class of 1963. “In the late ’50s this was the weaker of the schools (in the area). A lot of the transition is they opened up the doors to inner-city kids.”

“It’s reflective of the population you serve,” Caputo says of the school. “This is really unique.”

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