How Stevens’ emphasis on technology builds sense of calm, resolve amid pandemic

As COVID-19 ravaged northern New Jersey as significantly as anywhere in the country or around the world, Stevens Institute of Technology President Nariman Farvardin took pride in the response of his school community.

The Hoboken-based university was shut down, like everywhere else, but Stevens did not stop doing what it does best: using technology to solve problems and advance society.

It starts in the lab.

There is group of faculty who are working on the next generation of facemask design to improve its filtration capability, a group of mathematicians who are developing more sophisticated models to measure the spread of the virus in communities and a faculty member who is developing a mechanism to speed up the testing capability, Farvardin said.

Then there’s the group of researchers working on ventilators. One is developing a way to convert a ventilator that serves one patient to one that can serve multiple patients and do it with lower cost — what Farvardin feels will be a significant benefit to regions of the world where cost is going to be a huge driver of care.

Another group is working on a solution that can be injected into the lungs of patients on a ventilator — a process that will limit the internal damage ventilators can do, thus greatly increasing the chances of survival.

Nariman Farvardin, president of Stevens Institute of Technology.

The desire to take on such a great challenge has energized the campus, Farvardin said. And it is a campus, Farvardin said, that is in a unique position to take on the challenge due to its multicultural makeup: approximately one in three enrolled are foreign students, the great majority of which are at the graduate level.

That makes a big difference, Farvardin said.

“We have this advantage of not only having access to talent that come from different parts of the world, having had different experiences, but also the opportunity to bring them together and create an environment where different opinions can be shared and, as a result, complement each other,” he said. “And many of our students, many of these researchers or graduate students, come from countries themselves that have been affected by the pandemic.

“We have a large number of students who come from China, we have a large number of students who come from Brazil. We have Europeans and students from India and South Korea. All of these countries have dealt with this issue in one form or another. And they have come to our campus working together on developing interesting technical solutions for a problem that they and their families have all suffered from.”

Since talking with ROI-NJ, protests over racial equality and social justice have exploded across the country and across the world. Farvardin, in a letter to his community, said the school will take on that challenge with same vigor.

“There may never have been a time in our university’s 150-year history where leaders and problem-solvers were needed more than today,” he said.

“In recent months, our faculty, staff and students have worked intensely and tirelessly and have pulled together to overcome the prolonged disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, in light of the unjust and horrific events of the recent past, we have a responsibility, individually and collectively, to take on another serious challenge: to stand together and against the virulent and violent impacts of racism and hatred in our society. We must model empathy and increase our understanding of the life experiences of each other. And, we must proactively and decisively work to provide a safe, respectful and supportive environment for each and every person, regardless of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin and other characteristics.

“It is a privilege to learn and to work within the remarkable community that is Stevens. We are enriched and strengthened by the diverse talents, contributions and engagement of each member. We are leaders and problem-solvers, and we must use our talents and experiences to denounce injustice and eliminate discrimination within our community and wherever we may encounter it.”

What follows is a look at our recent conversation with Farvardin. It has been edited and condensed for space and clarity:

ROI-NJ: Stevens has long been a Top 100 school in the U.S. News & World Report rankings (it was No. 74 in 2020), but it recently was named the 14th-best school in the country for return on investment in terms of employment compensation over the course of a career. How significant is this recognition?

Nariman Farvardin: Obviously, we are very proud and very pleased to see the university ranked very highly and to be in the company of some of the best institutions of higher education in the world. But, having said that, I want to step back and make a couple of important statements.

No. 1, we are particularly proud of the quality and rigor and the well-roundedness of the educational experience that we give our students. I think that is one of the important contributors to their success. That is one of the biggest contributors to these stellar ROI rankings.

No. 2, we are a technology-focused university. Technology is woven into the fabric of our institution, and we are strong believers that universities that understand the value of technology in everything that they do are going to have an edge over the other institutions, because technology is the key driver of human progress.

So, combine this unrelenting commitment to the importance of technology with a very rigorous and well-rounded education program and that gives you the ROI. So, our focus is not the ROI ranking. Our focus is on the education and on elevating the value of technology, and then a lot of good things come out of that.

ROI: The quality of your incoming class has improved in each of the seven years you have been at the school. But the class entering this fall is unlike any other, due to COVID-19. How are your numbers looking right now?

NF: At the undergraduate level, we are doing unbelievably well so far. Our freshmen class portfolio of 2020 is expected to be 1% larger than the freshman class in fall of 2019, which is amazing. We did admit more students, because we were anticipating a lower yield, but our calculations worked beautifully.

And the number of returning undergraduate students is about 7% higher than last year at this time. So, if all goes well, in terms of undergraduate enrollment, we will be in great shape.

ROI: That brings up the uncertainty of the times. It’s tough to predict how COVID-19 will impact how many students actually will return to campus, even at the undergraduate level, where the great majority of students are from the U.S. How are you preparing for that?

NF: The one big change that we made this year is that students who applied for housing need to inform us earlier than previous years and they need to put down a bigger deposit than previous years, because we wanted to have a higher level of certainty about demand for housing.

There’s a huge demand, both on the part of incoming undergraduates and returning undergraduates for housing. So, the demand hasn’t subsided. In fact, it’s gone up a little bit — that puts us in a very strong position and that we can be sure that all of our dormitories and all the leased buildings that we have outside our campus in Hoboken will be adequately occupied. Now, again, our semester doesn’t start until late August. So, what happens in the next two and a half, three months? I don’t know. But so far, everything looks beautiful.

ROI: Let’s turn to your graduate students, which make up roughly half of the school’s approximately 8,000-student population — and where the large majority of your international students can be found. What is the impact there?

NF: If these international students aren’t able to obtain their visa, that could have a significant impact on our enrollment. So far, the number of applications is actually up 15% compared to last year. The number of students we have admitted is also up. But, we have to wait until mid- to late August to find out how many of them are able to show up.

If these students who plan to come to Stevens aren’t able to obtain their visa, we’re telling them to take our classes online until such time that you are able to obtain your visa. And, then, you’re more than welcome to join us in the middle of the semester.

ROI: This gives a natural transition to the higher-ed topic of the times: remote learning. Schools have been forced to adopt it — and are showing it can work. How will that change higher ed moving forward?

NF: I’ll give you two answers. The first answer is for the shorter term.

In the fall semester, our instruction programs will be a hybrid, with some level of in-person instruction and some amount of online instruction, like most other universities will do. That may last in the spring, depending on whether we have a vaccine.

Longer term, the answer is much more interesting. I have always said there is going to be a more significant role for technology in the delivery of education. This will speed this up. Remember, four months ago, if you asked an average American, what is Zoom, they didn’t know. Today, everybody is a major consumer of Zoom or Zoom-like technologies. People are becoming comfortable with it. So, the technology-based delivery of education is going to be far more influential in the coming years.

That’s No. 1. No. 2 is this: It is technology that is saving all of us these days. It is because of a company like Amazon that we are able to stay home and still get delivery on the most critical items that we need. It is because of Zoom and Google and Apple that we’re able to get a lot of our work done.

I think the role of technology in the way we do business in the years to come, will go up. I think teleworking is going to become much more prevalent. And, therefore, I think the importance of the kind of educational experience that we do for our students is going to be higher than ever before.

ROI: Could you foresee a time when all learning is remote?

NF: Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind. That has already been happening. I think, going forward, you will see more of it happening, but let me just put in a qualifier here. In my opinion, online learning or variations of online learning are going to be far more successful at the graduate level, in particular master’s level, as compared to undergraduate.

When young people graduate from high school, the next phase of their personal and educational development is being on the campus of a university. They need four years of that to further grow. Not all of that can be replaced by online. So, I think at the undergraduate level, the penetration of online is not going to be as powerful as it will be at the master’s level. I think, before you know, master’s programs will be totally converted to online. And I see that getting accelerated now.

ROI: Let’s go back to 2020, a year unlike any other. We’ve talked about technical solutions Stevens has been pursuing; how else is the campus taking on the current crises?

NF: One of the things that we said from the very beginning of this pandemic is that we are not just trying to fight it, but look for opportunities where we can be leaders in the fight. Our school of business has started a lecture series on leadership in the times of crisis. This is yet another indication of how vibrant this place is: You give us a pandemic, we develop ways to provide better leadership in a pandemic environment and many other things like that.

ROI: It sounds as if you are using the pandemic to be an amplifier of actions?

NF: Absolutely. And an amplifier is not strong enough. It’s much bigger than that. A crisis like this brings the goodness and the humanity out of individuals. People are using their intellectual firepower to solve a problem that is bigger than just a simple technical problem. It’s a problem that is affecting the human race. We’re eager to take it on.

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