Why Allen and Joan Bildner and the
Bildner Family Foundation Funded a Statewide Diversity
A conversation between Allen I. Bildner, president
of the Bildner Family Foundation, and Caryn McTighe
Musil, project director of the New Jersey Campus Diversity
Initiative and senior vice president for diversity,
equity, and global initiatives, AAC&U
Allen and Joan Bildner
Musil: Why should anyone care about promoting
intergroup understanding? As long as we don’t
bother one another, why do we need to understand or
engage across differences?
Bildner: Whether here in New Jersey or elsewhere
in our nation or the world, we are dependent on people
different from ourselves in both our personal and business
lives. How is it possible for us to interact without
understanding our personal differences?
We are, for instance, already on our way to 2050 in
demographic population change that will result in one
of every two Americans being people of color—Latinos,
Asian American/Pacific Islanders, African Americans,
and Native Americans. If we cannot live and work together
and follow and lead people different from ourselves,
we are in for a world and life of conflict.
Musil: You are a successful businessman
with a lifelong investment in the well-being of New
Jersey. How did those facts influence you?
Bildner: New Jersey’s speed of demographic
change has been very great, and this has been true of
supermarket costumers and the workforce. As a businessman
and the chairman and CEO of Kings Super Markets, I am
very sensitive to the diversity among my company’s
customers, associates, and employees. The company sought
to build a culture that valued and respected differences.
We developed orientations, training, policies, and accountability
that rewarded and reinforced our commitment to diversity.
By doing that, we achieved greater teamwork, two-way
communication, and productivity, and an enormous competitive
advantage. Kings’s well-known culture attracted
a waiting list of recruits, especially young people
who wanted to join the company.
Musil: You have talked publicly about your
personal experiences and indicated eliminating bigotry
was no abstract matter. Can you talk more about that?
Bildner: When my mom and dad moved our family
from Long Island to a New Jersey suburban community
in 1936, I entered fifth grade. Before that time, I
had never experienced anti-Semitism. Within the first
week of school, two of my classmates beat me up on the
way home from school, yelling, “Go home Jew boy.
Go home rabbi.” I went home crying and didn’t
Right through elementary and junior high school, I
was a top student, class officer, vice president of
the senior class, president of the student body, and
all-state athlete. However, my achievements and the
respect I had earned did not mean that I would be invited
to enter ballroom-dancing school or that parents would
allow me to date their daughters when they found out
I was Jewish.
It took me years to realize that being Jewish was not
my problem, but that of the bigots that I encountered.
It taught me that you don’t have to be Jewish,
African American, Latino, Asian American, or any other
minority to fully understand how dehumanizing and demeaning
prejudice and bigotry are—but it sure helps.
Later in life, when Joan and I were married, we would
be in a business or social setting and sometimes hear
people making anti-Semitic jokes or comments because
Bildner is not a typical Jewish name. Joan always interjected
quickly, “You may not be aware that we are Jewish.”
Perhaps our response was enlightening.
Things are better today for Jews and minorities, but
bigotry and prejudice are alive and well. When we have
recounted our own personal experience with anti-Semitism
to others, especially white, non-Jews who have known
us, they are shocked. Talking about these experiences
opens eyes and minds to the personal realities of prejudice
Musil: You and your wife Joan thought long
and hard about how to structure this initiative to have
the greatest impact. Can you talk about the evolution
of your decision to organize it as you did?
Bildner: Peter Karoff, founder of the Philanthropic
Initiative (TPI) in Boston, began to serve Joan and
me as our philanthropic consultant many years ago. When
we first met Peter, he argued that charity was giving
money, and philanthropy was about effecting change.
In 1991, Joan and I created an endowment at my alma
mater, Dartmouth College, for human and intergroup relations
and prejudice reduction designed to bring about comprehensive
change with respect to diversity. That reinforced for
us the obligation and enormous opportunities of colleges
and universities to influence the next generations.
We then turned to higher education in New Jersey as
a locus of attention.
We retained Peter Karoff and his TPI associate, Joanne
Duhl, to research and study higher education elsewhere
in our country. The most important information we learned
from them was about the Association of American Colleges
and Universities (AAC&U), which has years of leadership
in diversity working with hundreds of its member institutions.
Joan and I had decided to make a set number of three-year
grants totaling no more than $75,000 per year to a few
colleges and universities in our state. We invited every
college and university in New Jersey to submit a proposal.
Of the forty-seven institutions invited, twenty-seven
submitted proposals. We soon realized we could not undertake
this statewide venture alone. We needed AAC&U as
our consultants and partners and Joanne Duhl and TPI
as managers. We also invited a blue ribbon committee
of advisers to review proposals and select the eight
From the very beginning, we entered into a firm agreement
with each of the colleges and universities, laying out
our expectations and the conditions under which the
funding would proceed during each year of the grants.
During the second year we decided that the presidents
and top academic and student affairs leaders were too
removed on some campuses from what was actually going
on in the work of their teams in what we had named the
New Jersey Campus Diversity Initiative. So we invited
the presidents to meet in the fall, and six months later,
we brought them back again but also invited vice presidents
for students and academic affairs officers to a separate
meeting that same day. Galvanizing top leaders proved
Musil: What advice would you give to a college
that says it wants to promote intergroup understanding
and reduce prejudice and bigotry?
Bildner: A college or university should not
undertake such an effort unless the president is willing
to drive the engine with support from the board and
from other top administrators and academic leaders.
My experience has taught me that diversity is the only
responsibility a CEO cannot delegate fully and for which
he or she must continue to bear responsibility. The
president should surround him or herself with a small
group of administrators, faculty, and student affairs
leaders to research diversity practices at other institutions.
If I were the president, I would immediately turn to
AAC&U for assistance and consultation.
Musil: I know that Diversity Digest
readers wish that every state had an Allen and Joan
Bildner—or dozens of them. How might readers identify
people like you and Joan in their state?
Bildner: They should look to foundations with
a mission that includes diversity and prejudice reduction
and for leaders in business or other areas with a history
of fighting prejudice and bigotry and a demonstrated
interest in higher education. It is also possible that
a college or university capital campaign that identifies
diversity as a priority might discover an alumnus or
alumni with the capacity to fund it.