Everyone understands the start of Jonathan Holloway’s tenure as president of Rutgers was most unusual.
“Fun is not a word I would use right now,” he joked.
Holloway started July 1, in the middle of a pandemic, social unrest and an economic collapse – a combination unlike anything the world has ever seen.
That’s only half the story.
Holloway started his job – overseeing the Rutgers community of 100,000 people – despite only having been on campus a total of six hours.
“I’m not exaggerating,” he said.
It only gets harder to believe. Holloway is now 100 days into the job, and he said he only has been in six campus buildings – and that includes the house in Piscataway.
Holloway, the keynote guest at the 2020 Middlesex County Business Summit Thursday morning, offered the audience a few insights into his hiring and his early days at the school. He talked about his future aspirations – and the leadership that is required now.
He joked that he was “selfishly disappointed” that his tenure would not start the way he imagined – that his to-do list was changed dramatically. But, like any leader, he said he relished the challenge and opportunity the situation presents.
“What was really exciting for me is to see the level of resolve that the university has about finding a way forward,” he said. “This is going to be hard – the global pandemic, social unrest like we’ve never seen in this country, financial disarray – but we’ll get through it. And that kind of resolve and resilience has really resonated beautifully with me.”
Holloway knows it won’t be easy.
“The financial landscape is really hard,” he said. “There’s been some really difficult choices. But I do believe that we’re going to come out of this stronger, a little more nimble.”
The following are more of Holloway’s thoughts, edited for space and clarity:
On his most unusual start
“You can imagine my surprise – and I’ll be honest, my selfish disappointment – when I realized the things that I’d hoped I might be able to do when I started at Rutgers were not going to happen. That I was going to be walking into a very different environment and had to get serious about the work of repair and rehabilitation of the university. This is a nationwide challenge, of course, for higher education. I don’t take it personally.
“It was tough because I was supposed to be visiting Rutgers every other week, starting in April, so I would get to know the state, get to know the counties, the legislators, the business leaders, the campus.”
On ‘campus’ life at Rutgers
“We can hold 25% of our student body, but only around 8% are in the dormitories, which is a challenge for us from the standpoint of revenue, to be quite honest. But on the campus, our positivity rate with COVID is very low. It’s below a half a percent. So, we’re doing great.
“Our biggest challenge now is those students who are living off campus, in New Brunswick in particular. There, the positivity rate is going up. We’ve got to find ways to help educate our community because it’s not just the Rutgers community, it’s the New Brunswick-Piscataway community that we need to be great citizens to. That’s an area of concern.”
On moving from private universities to a public one
“When I decided to put my name in the hat, having been at private universities (Northwestern, Yale) for the previous 20 years, people wondered, ‘Why do you want to come to a public university?’
“Rutgers is a major research university, that’s very important to me. But for me, I’ve reached a point in my life, my worldview, where the public university is the best way in higher education to articulate a commitment to being a good citizen. And Rutgers is amazing in this regard in terms of opening its doors to first-generation students, immigrant families, underrepresented minority students, students from low incomes. (That) we can have a major research university in service of this population, transforming their lives, is incredibly exciting work and really fulfilling work.”
On building relationships with business, government leaders
“During my last interview for the position, the board of governors talked about the fact I’ve only been in private schools and that in public schools, you’ve got to have a relationship with the Legislature and the governor. (They asked:) ‘What’s your experience in that regard?’
“I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. My father was in the military for 20 years, then he worked in Congress for another five years, and was a lobbyist for the next 15. So, I’m comfortable in these kinds of spaces. And I feel great regard and respect for the people doing that hard work, especially behind the scenes, building relationships, building a network in a community of people who care about the greater good of an institution or of a state or of an economy.
“When I think about my role as a leader in higher education, it does require recognition that it’s not just about the scholarship being generated at the university, which is critical. That’s what we do. But we are a major employer, we are a major economic driver for the state economy. So, there needs to be this kind of interaction, building a network of people who are doing the kind of work where the universe is interfaced in all different kinds of ways.”
On leading in a crisis
“A crisis heightens your senses and brings clarity in a way that a non-crisis moment does not. I think leadership skills can translate across all areas.
“I do think a strong leader is unafraid to speak about his or her values, and how those values inform an organization. I do think a strong leader, regardless of the institution, needs to lead from a place of what I call ‘reasonable transparency.’ I know it’s very chic, and has been in Silicon Valley, talking (about) radical transparency.
“I don’t think radical transparency is a terribly effective way to run a large organization, because it’s so hyper-complex. Reasonable transparency is where you and I can sit across a room – even though we know we disagree on something – and have a reasonable conversation about things we share in common and things that we just disagree about, and find a way to get closer in terms of reducing the distance of that disagreement. That requires a reasonable level of transparency, but not radical. We need to be able to lead by developing relationships of trust.”
On leading with character
“I do think a moment like this begs for people of character to stand up. That means being able to deliver bad news personally – to be unafraid to be the one who needs to own the decision, even though you didn’t make it: ‘I’m the leader of this organization. I need to talk to you about this. It’s not comfortable, but this is what we have to do.’
“It means being willing to walk into a tough room and let others speak their pain. I’ve certainly heard this many times at Rutgers. People are nervous, they’re scared, they’re frustrated, they’re anxious – because of this incredibly destabilizing year. And it’s not personal. But their anxiety screams out, and you’ve got to be there, and you have to listen to it and absorb it. And these are the kinds of (ways) that a leader has to step up.”
On when this gets ‘fun’
“Fun is not a word I would use right now. But it will be fun once I see the students that we’re serving, because that’s the point of it for me. To be part of this incredible democratic experiment, where we take students from all walks of life, mostly from New Jersey, and help transform them and their families and do that at such a critical moment in the state and in the nation, that’s a deeply fulfilling job.”