TRENTON — Running a new college wasn't really supposed to be a lifetime thing.
Not just a new college, a new idea of college: one designed for adults, often people who had left college years earlier or never gone, mostly self-directing their own studies at their own pace, often never stepping foot on campus.
When Thomas Edison State College was formed in 1972, the idea was, well, nontraditional. The students, the courses, the school itself — nontraditional.
"When I came here, this place was only 10 years old, and no one knew how to serve adult students," said George A. Pruitt, who joined the school as president Dec. 1, 1982, and is retiring at the end of this year after 35 years.
"We essentially had to create this university from whole cloth, and I think that's why I've been here so long," he said. "I never intended to stay here 35 years. But the nature of the institution is that we are continually reinventing it, and it's been that joy and that opportunity and that privilege to really create an institution almost from scratch that has kept me involved and engaged."
Pruitt has been a fierce advocate for expanding access to higher education and to reimagining how students can best be served, said R. Barbara Gitenstein, the president of the College of New Jersey since 1999.
"George is really the dean of higher education leadership in the state," Gitenstein said.
Thomas Edison still exclusively serves adults over age 21 (the average student age is 36) and is now a university. Its enrollment of 17,500 makes it one of the largest schools in New Jersey.
It was a very different place when Pruitt arrived. There were no online courses, of course — what internet, what personal computers, what smartphones? — so students were taking courses by mail. In what amounted to glorified correspondence courses, students received materials, including VHS tapes and papers, in the mail and sent them back along with assignments and papers.
In the late 1980s, a few years after Pruitt arrived, the school began experimenting with digital courses. Primitive tools such as online bulletin boards evolved into sophisticated environments available today, including a flash-drive-based system that allows military members in remote locations such as submarines to take entire courses on a laptop without internet access.
Pruitt "encouraged and supported innovation throughout the institution, that was his role," said Drew Hopkins, the university's chief information officer, who joined the school in 1977. "He really, really had just extraordinary vision about the direction that higher ed was going in."
Today, only a handful of courses are taught in the university's buildings in Trenton, which constitute the barest idea of a campus. The vast majority of classes are online, with students taking entire degree programs that way. Many of those who show up to graduation are visiting the school for the first time.
Pruitt doesn't come from a technology background, but Hopkins and others said Pruitt has been able to develop Thomas Edison because of an intense focus on mission.
In an interview, Pruitt returns repeatedly to the point that the university is defined not by how it teaches but whom. At one point, he recites the university's mission statement verbatim: Thomas Edison State University provides flexible, high-quality, collegiate learning opportunities for self-directed adults.
"That's who we are," Pruitt said. "These other things are just methodologies that will come and go as the climate changes, as the needs of our students change, and as the society changes."
Some needs don't change. Thomas Edison State University's students largely aren't able to take courses full time during the day — they simply can't put careers and families on hold — and in many cases have been in college before but never finished.
Online courses, taken at the students' own pace on their time, help. So does "prior learning assessment," in which students demonstrate they have learned skills and knowledge in the real world.
"The form in which the learning took place is irrelevant to us," Pruitt said. "We don't care where the student learned it, we care about the fact that the student learned it."
But higher education broadly is changing, and that has created new competition for schools such as Thomas Edison. Community colleges have always had adult students, and for-profit colleges aggressively market their online options and target adults. Some public and private four-year schools have begun creating or growing their adult programs, as well, seeing a demographic shift away from 18- to 22-year-old students.
And the rise of the internet, which transformed Thomas Edison and other schools, also created competition across geography. Today, about 56 percent of TESU students are outside the state, including all 50 states and dozens of countries.
"Unfortunately, as funding has gone down for higher ed, for the publics, it's become a little bit of a game, chasing enrollment," said Merodie A. Hancock, the president of Empire State College, the State University of New York school similarly focused on adults. "One of the things online did is it created competition in whole new ways. We all had state turfs, and online opened it up where competition is suddenly so much higher."
That has made specialization so much more important for the adults-only schools individually and as a group. Pruitt has been a mentor to Hancock, who has been at Empire State for four years.
"I'm thankful he didn't retire until I had some years in here," she said, later joking: "I can't say I'm particularly happy with him retiring, but I wish him the best."
Pruitt plans to stay at Thomas Edison until Dec. 31 or until the trustees find a replacement, after which he will take a one-year sabbatical and return to the university in its school of public service and continuing studies.