At Rowan, ‘Everything is on hold’

Houshmand, in face of outbreak that could devastate South Jersey, says everyone needs to find inner strength to confront COVID-19 crisis

By Tom Bergeron
Glassboro | Apr 7, 2020 at 6:00 am

Before he became the president of Rowan University … before he became a transformational leader who has helped shape the economy of South Jersey … before he even entered academia, Ali Houshmand was an analyst, forecasting flights for United Airlines.

The process, Houshmand said, always started the same way.

“You always looked at the outliers and tried to remove them, because they disturb the data and disturb the conclusion,” he said.

COVID-19, Houshmand said, is a massive outlier.

“There is no way you can use the past data to predict the future,” he said.

For weeks, the brunt of the virus has been felt in northern New Jersey. Now, it’s quickly creeping into a South Jersey landscape Houshmand has spent nearly seven years cultivating.

Houshmand always has seen himself as a business analyst first. Every move he has made has been about building the South Jersey economy — not only preparing his students for the work world, but making sure those jobs existed in the area.

Now, many of his plans have come to a halt.

“Everything is on hold,” he told ROI-NJ.

ROI-NJ, in its continuing coverage of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on business in New Jersey, gave extra attention to higher education this week.

(See our stories on its impact at New Jersey Institute of Technology, County College of Morris, Monmouth University and Centenary University.)

Rowan was exploring developing a school of neurodiversity on its Glassboro campus and a veterinary school in Cumberland County. It was partnering with Rowan College of South Jersey on providing the second two years of education on top of a traditional two-year trade school education.

It also was getting into esports. Nerd Street Gamers is building a facility on the Glassboro campus. This was to lead to other municipalities building facilities where Rowan would be involved in providing educational options.

“These projects are at least $200 million,” he said. “And they hire thousands of construction workers and vendors. All of them are impacted.”

###

Houshmand understands the intersection of higher education and business as well as anyone in higher ed. He has used public-private partnerships to help grow Rowan into one of the top universities in the state and one of the most financially stable.

He built dorms through public-private partnerships. That could be an issue in the fall, when he has guaranteed payments due to the operators.

“How do I know if the dorms are going to be filled?” he said.

He has long prided himself on Rowan Boulevard, the mixture of retail and residential that anchors one end of the campus. The status of this crown jewel is a big issue now, too.

“A $400 million oasis is now closed,” he said. “These are small businesses who came in and were doing well. This is the peak season and they’re not generating revenue. What if these stores close down and never come back? My God, I don’t want to imagine it.”

He has the makings of a plan, starting with freezes on salaries, hiring and almost all spending. He said he can’t imagine there will be raises and wonders if top administrators, including himself, will have to forgo salaries.

He just needs more data. And there’s nothing definitive coming right now.

Appropriations from the state are in question. Rowan has a $12 million shortfall in aid as the result of its monthly payments from the state being cut in half from March to June. And it’s likely such an arrangement will continue for the foreseeable future.

Houshmand has to figure how he’ll make that money up — all while trying to get a handle on the financial status of the families of his students.

“How are they going to pay their bills?” he said. “How are we going to charge people massive amounts of money? That worries the hell out of me, especially when my No. 1 goal here is to enhance access and make it affordable.”

He sees the possibility of many prospective students starting at a county college — understanding such a move would help them, but hurt Rowan’s bottom line.

He worries more about his medical school students.

“Cutting (appropriations would) devastate medical schools, especially at a time when the country badly needs them,” he said.

Then there’s this: He wonders how many of his students — volunteering during this crisis — will return to medical school.

“Some people break under this pressure and they do their calculation and they say, ‘It’s not me,’” Houshmand said.

###

Rowan, like almost every other university, will continue to do virtual learning in the summer. Next fall? Houshmand said he’s not sure yet.

Those decisions, however, do not detail the bigger picture of what is going on.

Despite all his business acumen and knowledge of statistical analysis, Houshmand said this is a situation where our psyche will play the biggest role in how we move forward as a society.

“What will the impact of this be on the way that people interact with each other, live amongst each other, socialize with each other?” he said. “What happens to places where people have to congregate in a small confined area? Is this going to create a long-term fear amongst people?

Houshmand said everyone needs to look within themselves.

“This is the time when we, as human beings, are going to get into our inner selves and see what we’re made of,” he said. “There are so many conflicting challenges that we have never faced before, that we have never practiced before.

“But, even if we have to sacrifice ourselves, we have to do that, because this is our country. This is far bigger than any one individual. We might need to view things like this: As a citizen, what do I need to do to be on the front line and to do my share and my part to solve this problem?”

Read ROI-NJ’s higher education series:

Read more from ROI-NJ on coronavirus: