Looking ahead: Seton Hall President Nyre explains how school stayed focused on future, not just pandemic

When the pandemic reached New Jersey, most companies, organizations and institutions waited for others to act before charting a course of action. Seton Hall University did not. It was one of the first schools in the country to announce plans for remote (and then hybrid) learning, as well as how it would reopen.

“There wasn’t guidance on how to do that, we weren’t being told to do it and we knew there was going to be a significant financial consequence for doing so — but it was the right thing to do,” Seton Hall President Joseph Nyre said.

It wasn’t the only question the university faced.

“We had to make another decision as the pandemic came ashore — and it was a very important one as a university: Do we strictly focus on the day-to-day aspects of the pandemic, which could be all-consuming, or do we also set strategy for the future and envision Seton Hall beyond the pandemic?” Nyre asked, and then answered.

“We chose the latter, and I think it was the right decision. So, we finalized a strategic plan, we finalized a campus master plan in terms of what we think our campus should look like 5, 10 and 20 years out — set a strategy and moved to the execution phase.”

The efforts can be seen all over campus: The school is completely renovating its student center, it’s in phase two of renovations to Boland Hall, its oldest residence hall, and it has mapped out a plan for a mixed-use development across from campus that will have commercial spots on the first floor (to benefit the students in the community) and residences on the floors above it.

The school just finished a renovation of Walsh Gym and has planned upgrades to other athletic facilities — including new practice facilities for men’s and women’s basketball that will then impact all other sports at the university.

“From a physicality perspective, the university’s leaned very much forward during the pandemic and has a lot of construction underway, and about to become underway,” Nyre said.

The efforts are having impact.

The school’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign in more than 15 years is off to a good start — and its applications for admission continue to soar. Last year, the school had more than 23,000 applications, helping it bring in its biggest (and most highly rated) freshman class in history. Speaking of ratings, the school jumped 12 spots in the latest and all-important U.S. News & World Report ranking system and now stands at No. 127 among national universities.

“All of those things are signs of the university’s ability to lean forward and continue to deliver its educational mission through very unique and difficult times with the pandemic,” Nyre said.

ROI-NJ recently spoke with Nyre about all things concerning Seton Hall and higher education. Here is a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the pandemic. Higher education has been one of the most impacted sectors in the economy. Talk about leading in this time of great turmoil.

Joseph Nyre: Higher education has often been criticized for being very slow to change. We can no longer say that. Higher ed moved early, before any government guidance, to ensure and protect the health and well-being of their students and their employees. Seton Hall worked very hard at this. We had 140 faculty and staff and experts working on multiple sets of contingency plans as the virus was unfolding.

I don’t see many bright sides to a worldwide pandemic, but it forced higher education to become much more adaptable and much more nimble.

Two questions

Name a significant New Jersey figure, dead or alive, real or fake, famous or infamous, well-known or unheralded.

There’s an awful lot of pretty interesting and impressive people that have come from New Jersey, but I narrowed this down pretty quickly. Although he passed in 2002, our legendary Seton Hall basketball star Richie Regan stands out to me.

You can’t help but notice his impact on Seton Hall is everlasting. And it’s something that we all recognize. We named a recreation center in his honor.

Many people are aware he helped us win the NIT in 1953 (back when many felt the tournament was of equal stature as the NCAA Tournament). He played in the NBA and became our athletic director, but he also, impressively, served our country as a Marine.

He is Mr. Seton Hall. He was clear about his faith and his humility. Even at the height of his athletic career, he always made time to connect with people or for a kid who just wanted an autograph. He inspired a generation of fans and still impacts the university. We see it in his family, who are ever-present at Seton Hall, either at events or attending Seton Hall as students.

What is your favorite New Jersey food or meal?

I have a pretty robust meeting schedule, so I’ve sampled restaurants all across the state. It’s a pretty diverse cuisine. I’ve been really trying to spend more time in the Ironbound section of Newark at Fornos and the Spanish Tavern, but I have to say my favorite restaurant, without question, is the Highlawn.

I was there for the grand opening. I was there the Friday night after Thanksgiving with my extended family and I’ll be there many nights ahead. I think the renovations, the food, the service — everything that is going on at Highlawn — is fantastic. So, hats off to the Frungillo family.

As for a specific food. I have to admit, on occasion, I eat more than one pork roll, egg and cheese sandwich. I find them to be an incredible contribution to cuisine from New Jersey.

ROI: The need for so many contingencies not only is apparent today (as schools determine the impact of Omicron on the spring semester), but also last summer (when things were looking good). Talk about the journey.

JN: There was a moment this summer where the country thought this was behind us. We planned a series of outdoor barbecues for the faculty and staff to say ‘Thank you’ for the incredible effort. By the time we held those barbecues, it was clear that we we’re going to be in this for a longer term. We went from thanking them for all they had done, to thanking them for all they were about to continue to do.

I can’t praise enough the efforts of the faculty and the staff — and the resiliency of the students. Their flexibility and resiliency have been crucial.

ROI: Let’s talk about two other huge issues facing higher education: Battling for students at a time when fewer are attending college — and graduating the students you get with less debt.

JN: Without question, it’s a hyper-competitive time for enrollment. There is a demographic shift in the Northeast from here to Vermont, where there’s just fewer students in high school. It’s not a function of lack of access to high school, just a function of a demographic shift in the population. That certainly constricts the number of available students — and it comes at a time when New Jersey is an outmigration for college students.

And higher education was in a liminal moment, or a state of disruption, pre-pandemic. We had many saying that college and universities were too expensive, students were carrying too much debt, there was too much regulation, too much money spent on non-instructional expenses, etc. Those are unique challenges.

ROI: How did you — do you —address them?

JN: We think the best thing we can do is to invest in the quality of the student experience and the quality of instruction. And we did that by increasing our scholarship funding from an average of $149 million a year to $158 million.

Seton Hall is one of the most affordable universities in its national peer group. We’re very focused on ensuring students graduate with as little debt as possible. When they graduate, we want students focusing on their future, rather than how to pay for their past.

It’s working. We’re pleased that our student retention rate exceeds pre-pandemic levels, which is a testament to our faculty and student engagement team. And, while we welcome students from everywhere — and feel they are part of the fabric of our community — we are a New Jersey school; 73% of our students come from the beautiful Garden State.

ROI: Seton Hall certainly is a New Jersey school, but it’s also a Catholic university — a designation the school is eager to promote. Talk about being a faith-based institution?

JN: We always lean into our faith at Seton Hall. We welcome students from all faiths, of course; it’s an inclusive environment, but we don’t shy away from our Catholicism. We’re proudly Catholic. And we believe being Catholic means serving everyone and leading and serving in our communities.

We just completed an economic and social impact study and we found that, each year, our students contribute 50,000 service hours to the community. And we also looked at our economic impact, and we were pleasantly surprised and pleased that we contribute $1.6 billion of economic impact every year to the state of New Jersey.

So, investing in Seton Hall is having a significant return for our local community and for the state. And having a large, faith-based institution, and what that means for our communities, I think is without question, of strength.

ROI: Seton Hall also is well known for its men’s basketball team. (This interview took place right after Seton Hall defeated No. 7 Texas and Rutgers in the same week.) Talk about its importance to the school.

JN: There’s no doubt that college basketball at Seton Hall contributes to the university and the university experience. It’s important that we come together — and there’s not many activities at Seton Hall that have 19,000 people coming together with a singular focus, and that is to see the Pirates win.

But, it’s more than that. Our games are broadcast across the country. Every game that is televised nationally raises awareness of who we are and what we do. And it introduces so many people to Seton Hall for the first time. In many ways, it helps us with student recruitment.

And, I have to say, while I’m really proud of the team’s big wins, I’m also really proud of their accomplishments in the classroom. They have the highest GPA we’ve had in university history and are winning in what I call the three C’s: in competition, in the classroom and in the community.

ROI: Of course, the ultimate win in higher education is to have students graduate — and find a job. We’re a business publication; talk about the connection Seton Hall has with the business community and how that helps students.

JN: The experiential learning opportunity is immense at Seton Hall. The ability to obtain internships and real-world experience while you’re studying, the ability to apply the things you’re learning in the classroom to real-life career pursuits, is something that we hold as a very high priority.

This is a perfect place to highlight Bob Ley, a Seton Hall alum who recently made a very large gift to the university to support a Center for Sports Media that we’re in the process of launching. That’s a great example of an alum who had tremendous success — he helped launch ESPN into what it is today — coming back and making our students not only have a first-rate classroom experience, but have the ability to apply those skills immediately.

ROI: This leads to an obvious follow-up question: If individuals or businesses want to build a better relationship with Seton Hall, how do they do so?

JN: Any business leader who wants to have a great pipeline of talent coming into their company, that wants to work with the university on unique and specialized curricula, should contact the Office of the Provost (973-761-9000), who oversees all academic programs, or an individual dean.

We’re very excited about how we can continue to work with New Jersey businesses to have more of the New Jersey community stay in New Jersey and go on to be great employees and entrepreneurs.

Perhaps most importantly to the health and well-being of our business sector in our state, is that we produce graduates who are critical thinkers, who are well-rounded, who have a strong moral compass and who are willing and able to help companies succeed here in New Jersey. How we continue to build Seton Hall will be vital to how we continue to help build New Jersey.