Imagining the unimaginable: Houshmand’s 10 years as president of Rowan are marked by successes — and growth — that go well beyond even his biggest dreams

By the time he became president of Rowan University in 2012, Ali Houshmand already had lived the American Dream many times over.

A mathematical scholar from Iran, he had studied in England and the U.S. (earning a Ph.D. along the way), worked in private practice (at United Airlines as an analyst) and served as a leader in higher education (at both the University of Cincinnati and Drexel University).

But that didn’t stop Houshmand from “imagining beyond the imaginable,” as he puts it. He envisioned a Rowan University that no one else saw. One that one would make Rowan an anchor for both higher education and economic development in South Jersey. One that would see Houshmand go from being a disruptive rebel to a visionary emulated by college presidents around the state and the country.

As he celebrates his 10th anniversary as the leader of the Glassboro-based school, Houshmand continues to prove that he still is ahead of his time.

“People have referred to me as the rebel, a crazy person who comes up with these wacky ideas, but I really think that, in order for humans to progress, you have to imagine beyond the imaginable,” he said. “You have to go to a place where your spirit and your soul have the confidence to reach the ultimate goal.

“I know, in most cases, it’s beyond our reach. But there’s nothing wrong for us to dream that big.”

Houshmand’s greatest hits

Since 2012, Rowan University has transformed from a well-regarded regional institution to a Top 100 public research university ready to confront the challenges facing the next generation under the direction of President Ali Houshmand.

Rowan created a new, collaborative culture and adopted an entrepreneurial outlook, one that’s transparent, fiscally responsible and cost-conscious. Tested and resilient, Rowan now stands as a “model for institutional transformation.”

In the last decade, Rowan University has:

  • Become home to two medical schools, making Rowan one of only three institutions in the nation to grant the M.D. and D.O. degrees;
  • Formed innovative “3+1” partnerships with community colleges, a model now standardized statewide;
  • Earned classification as a Carnegie R2 doctoral university with high research activity, a distinction shared with just 135 universities out of 4,300 higher education institutions;
  • Worked with Glassboro and private developers to complete Rowan Boulevard, a $426 million mixed-use corridor, transforming the borough’s downtown and expanding the university’s residential student population;
  • Established the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, the first university in New Jersey and one of few in the nation with an administrative division working to build a safe and welcoming environment for historically marginalized populations;
  • Announced the establishment of New Jersey’s first veterinary school;
  • Partnered with southern New Jersey’s largest health system to create the Virtua Health College of Medicine & Health Sciences of Rowan University;
  • Spurred $1.58 billion in construction projects, both developed and in design.

Houshmand’s impact at Rowan has been all that and more, as the university has seen massive increases in the student population, scholastic opportunities, research dollars and national recognition.

Enrollment has grown from 12,183 in fall 2012 to 19,080 in fall 2021, and the number of programs has increased from 52 bachelor’s and 23 master’s to 91 bachelor’s, 49 master’s, eight doctoral and two medical and professional.

And, while Houshmand has been at the forefront of this growth, he said the change that has come to the school and region is the result of a concerted team effort from the faculty, the town and the local politicians, including former state Senate President Steve Sweeney, who was a supporter from the start.

“It takes a whole community to create this type of cultural transformation,” he said. “Our faculty and staff were willing to take risks, and there were some very brave people in the leadership of the borough of Glassboro who really wanted to get involved. And I was willing to be open and transparent and inclusive.

“I think the combination of all of that has been the key.”

Houshmand’s efforts at Rowan are everywhere. Already a leader in engineering, the school is now a champion of medical education, too. Not only does it have two medical schools, it recently announced a partnership with Virtua Health to create the Virtua Health College of Medicine & Health Sciences of Rowan University.

With an $85 million investment to Rowan University, Virtua is establishing an endowment that will help support the partnership — fueling investments in faculty, educational programs and the construction of a state-of-the-art research facility that will help further distinguish South Jersey as a regional hub for innovation, research and clinical discovery.

Partnerships, of course, have been what Houshmand has been all about from the start.

He has creatively connected the school to the area community colleges — and was a leader in creating a 3+1 model where students can do the majority of their work at community colleges, thus making their four-year degree more affordable.

Houshmand also has partnerships with outside companies to help him manage the noneducational aspects of the schools — because, why wouldn’t you hire professionals to run the things you aren’t an expert in, he said.

It sounds intuitive, but Rowan has been a leader in these way of thinking in higher education — a sector Houshmand said seemingly is destined to stop innovation rather than foster it.

The result, Houshmand said, is a Rowan/Glassboro community that is working together so all prosper.

“We have had $1.5 billion of projects in Glassboro,” he said. “Think about that: Who would have thought that Glassboro, with a population of 20,000, could have that much in assets.

“And with that has come thousands of jobs. Rowan University employed 1,600 people 10 years ago — we now have 3,900. And all these people pay their mortgages, send their kids to school and put food on the table. That is extremely gratifying.”

Other schools need to follow this lead.

“Our campus and our community are much better as a result of all these partnerships,” Houshmand said.

Ten years is now an unusually long time to be a college president. Most move on after just five years. Houshmand, however, said he’s not going anywhere.

“I want to stay here and do the best job that I can,” he said. “My contract runs until 2026, when I will be 71. I’ll have to decide then whether I want to continue.

“But, I have no ambition to be a president someplace else. And I have no ambition to run a big business. Even after I retire, I’d like to still stay around Rowan and be a faculty member and teach.”

And see the unimaginable come to life.

For all that he has accomplished at Rowan, Houshmand said he still has high-in-the-sky goals.

“I really believe that, five years from now, we will be amongst the Top 100 universities in the nation, have over $100 million of research expenditure and a very healthy and very beautiful campus,” he said. “I think the next five years are going to be amazing.”

A cap to an amazing career in higher education.

“As a naturalized citizen, getting the opportunities to be able to dream big has been the glorious part of all of this,” he said. “The opportunity to be able to show who I am and what I can do as a person has been tremendously valuable. I am forever grateful.”