Seton Hall University’s plans to build a mixed-used residential building across from the main entrance to campus, renovate Boland Hall into a new standard of living and learning for first-year students, and build a new basketball practice facility have been temporarily halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like all colleges and universities in the state, Seton Hall is adjusting to some new financial realities. But not all expansion opportunities for the school are on hold.
Seton Hall President Joseph Nyre said the school is looking to expand its brand across the country — whether it be with increased partnerships and affiliations that could include joint programs, taking over back-office duties or the complete acquisitions of struggling schools.
Nyre, in his first interview with ROI-NJ since assuming the leadership role last summer, said such arrangements quickly could become commonplace in higher education, a sector that was facing financial struggles long before COVID-19 wrecked everyone’s business model.
“There are institutions that are struggling mightily,” he said. “I don’t name names, but we’ve talked to several institutions that were struggling before the pandemic — and now realize it’s going to be very difficult to make it through the next academic year — about how to come together.”
Nyre said Seton Hall welcomes the conversations.
“Expanding high-quality Catholic education is an open question for us,” he said. “It’s one that we think we should be exploring. So, we actively meet with other college presidents. We go to other university campuses and learn and assess what’s happening there and try to determine if it might be a good partnership in the short term or the long term.
“You’re going to see a lot more of that activity in the coming three years at Seton Hall and elsewhere.”
Any such acquisition, Nyre stressed, would come complete with the Catholic education and values that Seton Hall holds so dear.
“Seton Hall is a Catholic university,” he said. “It’s one of the few diocesan universities in the country. So, if we brought Seton Hall to another campus — let’s say a school in the Southeast is going to fail and were able to acquire that school — it would be Seton Hall. It would be Catholic. And it would stay in our Catholic identity.”
Nyre said Seton Hall is continually looking to upgrade is academic opportunities, quickly rattling off a number of new academic programs that are about to be launched — a B.S. in fintech, a joint B.A./J.D. in religion and law, and a global affairs certificate in diplomacy.
“We’ve got plans in each of our schools and colleges to launch new academic programs that we think are both true to our liberal arts history and our Catholic identity, but are driven by the changing landscape of employment,” he said. “We’re making big investments in academic quality. We want to continue to see the gains we’ve made, sustained and continue to rise.”
The ability to do so on its own will be a challenge, Nyre said. More and more, colleges and universities are turning to partnerships to increase their offerings.
Seton Hall partners with Hackensack Meridian Health on their new school of medicine. It’s a partnership where up to 25% of the students enrolling in medical school will be from Seton Hall.
“Those types of partnerships create pathways for great success for our students,” Nyre said. “We have students apply to Seton Hall that know they want to be doctors and … they’re incredibly well-prepared for college, great academic pedigree. And we provide a great undergraduate experience and they go right into Hackensack and become a doctor — keeps New Jersey students in New Jersey. And it starts growing doctors in New Jersey, which we think is vital.”
Then there’s the coming partnership with Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, where students will be able to get B.S./M.S. degrees in various engineering disciplines. This will start in the fall of 2021 and will replace a similar program the school has had with New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Nyre said the school is looking to grow these types of partnerships outside of the state, too. And that the new technology the school is installing this summer — technology that will enable all classes to be taking online if needed or wanted — will help the school expand its reach.
“We have 10 colleges and schools currently under the umbrella of Seton Hall,” he said. “You may well see more of those in the future that won’t be in South Orange. They may be in the Northeast or in the South, but you’ll see more institutions come under the Seton Hall umbrella.”
Not all of these partnerships are in the classroom. Some will be less visible, but perhaps more profitable.
Nyre talked of an aspect of higher education that’s not commonly talked about: the enormous regulatory burden that universities carry.
“It’s the most regulated sector in the country, more than banking,” he said. “And, small institutions struggle with that regulatory apparatus. So, we also see partnerships where Seton Hall may do the back room, regulatory work: finance, HR, etc. The university would retain its identity, but Seton Hall may be doing the back room or the regulatory support for an institution. It’s a revenue stream for us. And it would be more efficient for a small school.”
Don’t be confused, Seton Hall — like nearly all institutions of higher education — is facing financial challenges, too. Nyre estimates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the university for the next academic year will be $33 million.
The good news, if there is any to such a number, is that the total includes the approximately $3 million the school is spending to retrofit each classroom (to give it the ability to go to distance learning at any moment) and to teach the faculty how to use it.
Of course, any interruption is costly, he said.
“When a university has its students leave in the middle of the semester, like all universities did, people mistakenly think that the university is saving money,” he said. “That’s not the case. The university has all of these contracts with food service, etc., and you have to meet all of those. We have to maintain the campus. Health care costs are still there. We have to advance additional services to provide all the remote supports, etc.
“It actually costs us more money, but it’s counterintuitive because, naturally, you think about the students out there, they must be saving a lot of money. This last semester was over $15 million.”
Nyre said he hopes the COVID-19 disruption will not slow the school’s growth plans too much. That’s hope is fueling decisions.
“We’re out in the bond markets right now with a $110 million bond issuance,” he said. “That was made public and the four projects were articulated in the hearings as we went through the process, but we’ve not put it out there with renderings or with a lot of fanfare.”
The economic opportunity is too good to pass up, Nyre said.
“We thought that, the markets being what they are, it was a good time to go after funds because the rates are low, (because) there weren’t a lot of universities moving to the bond market during the pandemic. It ties with our fundraising plan, but we’re not going into campaign mode until we get past the pandemic. We just think one thing at a time.”
Nyre, however, can’t hide his excitement.
The mixed-use residential hall not only will help with housing but with branding.
“When you come into South Orange, it’s clear you’re coming into Seton Hall and South Orange,” he said.
The building will support South Orange businesses with commercial use on the first floor and students in apartment-style settings above that, he said.
The renovation of Boland Hall is about the students, too, Nyre said.
“We want students to have more to do on nights and weekends on our campus,” he said. “We think it’s a beautiful facility, but, with renovations, it will be a centerpiece for the campus.”
And, then, of course, there’s the basketball program. The school was poised to challenge for the Big East Tournament title, a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and had a legitimate shot at its second Final Four appearance when COVID-19 shut down the season.
Nyre, who is grateful the school does not depend on football for athletic funding like so many other major universities, said he is determined to ensure the basketball program can compete with those schools and all others.
“We were ranked in the Top 10 this year and we kept (head coach) Kevin Willard,” he said. “It’s a great program, but it’s a program that needs a new practice facility.
“If we’re going to stay at the top of the Big East — and it’s certainly our intent to do so — we’ve got to make sure our facilities support the quality of the program we have and provide Coach Willard the tools he needs to sustain his excellence.”