Houshmand says colleges must emulate businesses

The Interview Issue

By Tom Bergeron
Glassboro | Dec 26, 2017 at 12:03 pm
From our print edition

Ali Houshmand became Rowan University’s seventh president in June 2012, after serving approximately six years as a provost and interim president.

The rise of Rowan during his time at the top has been nothing short of spectacular.

Enrollment has risen by more than 6,000 students, to 18,500. And the average SAT score of regular admitted students during that period has jumped 70 points (to 1223 from 1153).

Rowan has completed $1.5 billion in Rowan and university-affiliated construction projects in the past five years (including the transformative Rowan Boulevard) with $850 million more planned in the next five years (including a major athletic complex).

And Houshmand has accomplished this while keeping tuition and fee increases below the rate of inflation.

His vision and leadership are at the heart of Rowan’s success. Simply put, he is a disruptor in higher education.

Houshmand recently made a trip to North Jersey to extol the virtues of his Glassboro-based school and his grand vision for Rowan — and higher education. ROI-NJ was there. Here are just some of his thoughts:

ROI-NJ: What are you hoping to get out of this trip to North Jersey?

Ali Houshmand: The idea is to tell the entire state that Rowan as a public institution is here. It has capacity, it’s growing its capacity and would love to have more students. We want to let people know that we have assets in this state that can help prevent people crossing the river and leaving the state. Our performance the past six or seven years shows that; we have (dramatically increased) our enrollment, which means 8,000 or 9,000 people who very well could have left the state are staying.

Here’s why they are: The typical 17-, 18-year-old likes to have a few miles between them and their parents when they go to school. So, it’s no surprise that kids from North Jersey were going to Pennsylvania and New York. Now, they have the option of going south. It gives them the distance, but still gives them the price of in-state tuition. That’s one of the reasons people are looking at us. They are saying, here is a good program with great engineering and science and medical schools. So, if I want to go to one of these programs, why do I need to leave the state? I can stay here and pay a lot less.

ROI: Enrollment is up approximately 50 percent since 2012. How are you doing this — and are you concerned the school is hurting itself by growing too quickly?

AH: There are two approaches to our growth. First is the research aspect of it, where the future economy is going to be. Very soon, we are going to invest $50 million in research for life sciences and health care in Camden in collaboration with the hospitals and Coriell Institute and MD Anderson. The state has invested in two buildings that are being built there. We need to populate the buildings and we need to invest in them in order to do research.

At the same time, there’s the area of workforce development. That’s the other side of our focus. We’re going to be working very closely with the county colleges to really try to provide access and affordability to as many students as possible. We’re dealing with the masses of people who currently are having a hard time paying for their school. Both of them are equally important to me.

ROI: Not many universities take on both roles. Why are you trying to do so?

AH: An institution doesn’t have to be one or the other. I don’t want to be one who brags that I’m a very selective institution and I’m only going to accept certain students and I’m not going to deal with kids who go to county college.

That’s an approach, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not our approach.

Our approach is both of them are equally important. And that’s why you see not only the quality of our research, but the profile of the students that we recruit are increasing. For example, in six years, we have increased our SATs by 70 points. But, at the same time, we have increased our relationship with county colleges for the kids who cannot get into Rowan.

I don’t see anything wrong with that. I don’t see the university’s ranking or reputation being damaged as a result of that. The way I see it, these are public institutions that were paid for by the public. I think the least we can do is to provide the ability for the public to come and benefit from it.

ROI: Getting more people in higher education is one thing. Finding a way for them to pay for it is another. How can schools better control costs?

AH: Every year, everything goes up in terms of price: salaries, maintenance, equipment, etc. But, when you look at the appropriation, the amount of money doesn’t go up. Schools then charge the kids more.

There are three things we should be doing.

One, instead of constantly focusing on the revenue side of the ledger, we should just say that revenue is limited and fixed and only concentrate on the expense side: Watch what it is that we are spending and see where we can be saving. It’s amazing. When you do that, you really can find many inefficiencies. I’m willing to bet every single one of us has millions of dollars of savings.

Secondly, we need to be creative and find alternative sources of revenue. There is advancement, research or just making hot sauce and selling it (something Rowan has done).

The third thing is public-private partnership. Why do we have to keep borrowing off the backs of students for infrastructure? Why can’t we do more public-private partnerships? In the areas that are not part of our core mission, we let others do it.

ROI: We know Rowan has been a leader in public-private partnerships, including Rowan Boulevard, which has helped transform the campus and the town. How else are these partnerships working at Rowan?

AH: Start with housing. We have outsourced (a large portion of) our housing, and no harm came to us. I don’t have to worry about deferred maintenance anymore. The kids don’t have to pay for me to fix the roof. And, the beauty of this is, we have created thousands of jobs. Other people’s money has been invested, they are making profits, they are creating jobs and we have better infrastructure.

Why can’t we do that in every facet of higher education except where it is in our core mission, which is creating knowledge and imparting knowledge?

Because of the massive amount of investment put toward higher education, schools became big and powerful. They became towns within towns, and we decided to do everything ourselves. The fact is, we can no longer. And we have to come to that realization and move away from that. And I’m certain, if we do that, we’ll go a long way to solving our problems. I honestly do not believe that the only solution to the higher education problem is infusing more money. That is not the solution.

ROI: Earlier this month, Rowan announced the start of what it hopes to be another massive public-private partnership when its board of trustees approved a letter of intent with West Campus Fields. If the company gets its financing, it will lease 300 acres for a multisport athletic complex, including a 4,500-seat arena, more than 50 indoor and outdoor fields along with hotel and retail space. How will this impact the school?

AH: This is a $300 million project that has big rewards. The moment they open, I (will begin moving) our athletic facilities on campus and turn some of those facilities into academic facilities.

I’m taking the lands that are sitting idle and turning them into a magnificent athletic facility at no cost to us. And we are getting benefits. They are going to collect rent on those facilities and deposit significant moneys, millions, for scholarships and internships for students for generations to come.

That’s the smart thing to do. Why do I want to build an arena that I’m going to use 20 times per year? They are going to build an arena for us and let us use it 20 times per year rent-free and pay us for the other parts of the year.

ROI: Makes sense to us. Is the concept scalable?

AH: This is what we need to do increasingly in higher education. Run it as a business, treat it as a business. It actually happens to be a $550 million business at our university with 4,000 employees. Treat it as such, and watch every penny that we spend.

This should be the direction for all of higher education. We need to do this systematically, not just in terms of infrastructure, but also in terms of content and what we deliver. We need to partner with the outside, especially with industries that employ our students.

Think about higher education right now. Kids go away for four, five, six years, get a degree, then go out and apply for a job. The employer takes the kid and says, ‘You’re not ready, I’m going to spend six months, a year, to two years to train you to make you productive.’ Wouldn’t it be better and wiser if the guys who are going to hire these students are at the table when we develop the curriculum and say, ‘These are the skills I want you to teach our future employees’?

We don’t do that. That should be our mission. And, if we do that, we save millions of dollars of expense.

ROI: Sounds as if you have big goals and big ideas.

AH: It is time for higher education leadership in this country to start a serious conversation about how to restructure. And I want to be one of those voices, whether it is Rowan or not. At the end of the day, as a citizen of this country, if a kid is getting educated by anybody, that’s good enough for me.

Read our interviews