Q&A: New NJCU head on supporting Fort Monmouth campus — while remaining true to Jersey City

Acebo speaks on number of issues regarding future of New Jersey City University — and assures: It is not closing its doors

At a time in which New Jersey City University is in the midst of a financial crisis, it might seem likely for the school to pull back from — or even pull out of — its expansion to Fort Monmouth, where the school has a small satellite campus.

Andy Acebo. (File photo)

Andy Acebo, who was named interim president of the school Friday morning, said NJCU’s commitment to its Fort Monmouth campus remains strong.

“Our commitments there are long-term,” Acebo said. “We will actively work to build that campus.”

The answer comes from two reasons:

  • The school needs the enrollment: Although there are only a few hundred students there now (approximately 200), the school’s aim is to have 750 students there. NJCU remains well below its target of 8,000 students for the entire school. (It has approximately 5,500 now.)
  • The opportunities are tremendous: Acebo is eager to interact with Netflix and RWJBarnabas Health.

“When you see that they are going to be our neighbors, that strengthens the value of our institution and the synergy and the partnerships that can manifest there,” he said. “In the coming weeks and months, I hope to engage those relationships, to be a good neighbor, to welcome them on board as an anchor institution.”

That being said, Acebo made it clear that the school needs to maintain its anchor in Jersey City and Hudson County.

“One of my focuses is not one of contraction, but of reallocation,” he said. “And I think that that’s not a distinction without a difference.

“The reallocation means we need to own our backyard. Jersey City is our home. We’ve got to own it; we’ve got to be cemented in that community — especially our partnerships with our K-12 districts and county college.”

It’s a differentiator, Acebo said.

“The higher education landscape in New Jersey creates needless competition amongst our sister institutions,” he said. “I applaud the efforts made by some of our big brothers and big sisters. The NJCUs of the world have a role to play that doesn’t take away from anyone else — and we build those partnerships by planting our flag where we belong, our own yard.”

Acebo spoke with ROI-NJ on a number of issues. Here is more of the conversation:

ROI-NJ: You came to NJCU as the chief of staff to former President Sue Henderson in February 2021 — and almost immediately stepped into a financial meltdown, which led to Henderson stepping away a few months later. Describe what that was like.

Andy Acebo: I would characterize it as a period of crisis management. It was like drinking out of a firehose. Now, I’d say we’re moving toward a recovery.

ROI: You’ve cut the $23 million deficit nearly in half — what will be the sign for you that the school has turned the corner?

AA: I would turn to when our rating agencies take us off a “negative” watch because they’ve been invigorated and believe in the competence of leadership taking seriously the challenges and taking aggressive, bold steps to right-sizing itself. That’s important.

ROI: Were you looking to take the job?

AA: This is not a trajectory that I ever fancied myself in pursuit of. And, when asked to serve, I’d be disingenuous to say that there wasn’t reluctance. But it’s hard not to say ‘yes’ to your community.

I’m a proud product of this community. I’m a first-generation son of immigrants from Union City. My wife is an alum of this institution. My mother-in-law attended this institution when it was then Jersey City State College.

This place has been for my own family what it has been for many in the community: A signpost of success and economic mobility — a place that I think is indispensable to the community we serve, one where the profile of our students is one that I see myself reflected.

I ran to the NJCU mission. I didn’t run from it. And, every single day, as trying as these last couple of months and year have been, my conviction has only been more emboldened.

ROI: You have agreed to serve for two years. Have to ask: Do you think you could stay longer — or leave sooner?

AA: I will say this with respect to my role and my future — and I’m going to regretfully sound somewhat political here, because it’s like when a candidate gets asked, ‘Do you have other aspirations?’

Too many institutions that are similarly situated have executives that are worried about keeping their job instead of doing their job. I’m focused on doing the job of the next 24 months.

I stepped into the fray without the title or authority. I’m tied to mission. My objective in these 24 months is to help position this institution to attract the best leadership possible, regardless of where the person may come from or who it proves to be. The goal is to make NJCU reach a point where there’s going to be a line of people walking to take the helm here.

ROI: How will this job fit into your career?

AA: I can’t imagine that I will ever encounter something grander, or more humbling, in my professional life than being able to be this place’s champion and advocate for the short time that I get to lead it. The focus for me is to deliver this place a step closer to its promise.

What I’ll say, with humility, is that I alone will not do that. This campus and the community that supports it, the legislative delegation that rallies around it, the administration, the stakeholders, businesses and community leaders, families, staff and faculty, students that live for it, are going to move this place forward. My job is to block and tackle for them.

NJCU is not closing its doors. We are the state’s oldest minority-serving, Hispanic-serving institution, with a legacy that is not encumbered by an individual in office. The legacy is the individuals that come across this campus — and the stories that they weave and the impact that they have on the families that they shape and the communities that they elevate. That is worth fighting for.

There’s an embarrassment of riches on this campus, that historically and perhaps not been leveraged in the best ways. I want to help change that.