Holding court: For its next big upset, FDU interim president Avaltroni has thoughts on how school can help bring meaningful (and much-needed) change to higher education sector

Fairleigh Dickinson University interim President Michael Avaltroni obviously was thrilled by the school’s historic upset in the recent NCAA men’s basketball Tournament, as it brought incredible attention to the school.

“It gave us an opportunity to tell our story,” he said. 

That story is about more than just the little school that could — it’s about a place where the team personifies much of the student body, a sometimes-overlooked group that has overcome the odds with hard work and perseverance.

That story is about how FDU, like so many institutions of higher education in the state and across the country, is trying to bring change to a sector that historically has been slow to adjust its thinking.

That story is about how FDU is working to meet the needs of today’s students in a way few universities are doing.

Avaltroni has worked at FDU for nearly two decades, starting as a chemistry professor (where he helped start FDU pharmacy school) before becoming provost in 2022 and then interim president at the start of this year.

He has been outspoken about the need of higher education to modernize.

And as head of an institution with campuses not only in Teaneck and Florham Park but also international locations in Vancouver, British Columbia and England, Avaltroni brings a unique perspective.

ROI-NJ was invited to one of a series of luncheons he is holding with local business leaders and elected officials. His words were powerful.

“We have missed the mark severely — and I don’t say ‘we’ as in FDU, I mean ‘we’ as an industry,” he told the group. “We have seen students as a source of paying our bills without seeing them as the source of everything that we do — from the time they set foot on campus.”

Graduation shortcomings are just as much a reflection of the school as the student, Avaltroni said.

“Many institutions have graduation rates around the 50% mark,” he said. “We start referring to them as coin-flip universities. That would not be acceptable in any other line of business. If Amazon delivered 50% of their packages on time, how long would it be around? 

“That’s not to say everybody gets an ‘A’ and everybody gets through. But we have to create journeys for students where we say, ‘You can’t be this because there’s a challenge for you getting there, but you can be five other things and we will help support you to get there — rather than saying, ‘Sorry, it didn’t work out, so now you carry FDU debt but no degree,’ which is a terrible story for us to tell.”

Here are more of his thoughts, paraphrased for space and clarity:

On how FDU’s mission has remained the same

We were founded in 1942 as a place for students who were coming back from active military duty to have their next act. That’s the same story as first-generation students coming to us with parents who are non-English speaking.

Our mission is creating this opportunity for them to get that upward mobility to go on and do whatever they want to do next and be set up on that path forward. 

On FDU’s three pockets of students

  • Traditional students: They have very non-traditional histories in 2023. They may look different based upon the challenges of the COVID pandemic, learning challenges or distinct learning styles, including neuro divergence. We need to be attuned to this and create a culture of diversity, which is a diversity of socio and economic and ethnic representations. Frankly, we need to create a community where students feel they belong. 
  • Cost-conscious students: We want to build out a feeder system by creating pipelines through our high schools and community colleges into our four-year programs and five year accelerated bachelors/masters programs, because we know that’s where value lies. If we can get students to begin logging their college credits in high school and community college, and then create a safe lending for them at FDU, they’ll be well ahead of their peers, both in time and money and in other things that are really the value proposition. 
  • Adult learners: This is a space where traditionally we’ve always done very well. And we know that there’s so much more opportunity, as everyone is becomes a lifelong learner, always thinking about needing to retool. 

“We know that the current model is unsustainable,
the current paradigm has to shift. And higher ed
has notoriously stayed in a this is the way it’s always been.

Our day is here. It came for the banking industry and the mortgage industry. It’s come for hospitals and health care. It’s our day. But the problem is those industries were nimble enough to adapt. We better be or there won’t be a future.”

We are working to redefine the workforce development needs that we know are causing the crisis in the workplace — where people don’t stay and don’t engage. We feel this is a way in which education can create a space by which we can essentially partner with the business community and say, ‘We can help you to train your people, upskill your people, retool your people, and keep them satisfied and engaged and loyal to you for the long haul.’ 

On FDU as a workforce development leader

We now have a small business development program for Northern New Jersey housed within the Rothman Center for Entrepreneurship. So, we’re taking that partnership to a new level, where we build out the entrepreneurship, alongside a lot of small business development and workforce development, into a more very strategic arm of the university that’s really focused on getting opportunities into the hands of those who seek it. 

One program that is very successful is our efforts to help veterans launch businesses. We’ve helped hundreds of military veterans and veteran families who have been looking to start an entrepreneurial venture. And we’re developing strategies toward rehabilitating and re-engaging those who are coming out of incarceration. 

We’re also in conversations right now with the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program to sign an articulation agreement to create a pipeline to a degree for someone who’s logging hours experientially. This is needed and it’s being done elsewhere. The fastest growing degree in the state of Florida is a two-year associate degree in agricultural technology.

On the changing mindset of a four-year degree

There’s a huge opportunity for us to simply put entrepreneurial tools in the hands of those who really could benefit from them. They do not necessarily need a degree — and that’s the mindset that needs to shift. Maybe you need a certificate, maybe you need some sort of skill that can be credentialed.

That doesn’t mean we stop caring about degrees. In fact, more often than not, what you see when someone starts down that path — when they realize their efforts can count toward a bachelor’s or a master’s — is that they are more likely to get engaged and pursue that.

If we can combine the day-to-day practical application of skills with the necessary classes to round out a 60-credit degree, that’s great.

On the changing mindset of a major

There is so much less relevance paid out to what a student majors in and much more about what skills they have. We need to make sure they have the right skills that are needed for the workforce. I think it’s a mindset shift. The days of students logging a major just because it’s the thing to do, are gone.

On the relationship between schools and students

For years, we’ve had this mindset about all the ways higher education is the gatekeeper of knowledge. Those days are gone. The reality, what we’ve seen over and over again, is that if you want to be the gatekeeper, the current generation of students is walking around the gate, not through it. 

And we have to be accepting of the reality or institutions like ours won’t have a place any longer.

On FDU being able to adapt and adjust

We’re excited because in spite of all of the challenges, the one thing we’ve always been as a higher end institution is very nimble. I think it’s been our best asset for many years. We’ve created boutique programs that serve specific populations and needs. And I think now more than ever, that’s going to be necessary because higher ed is, as you read every day, really is imploding. 

We know that the current model is unsustainable, the current paradigm has to shift. And higher ed has notoriously stayed in a this is the way it’s always been.

Our day is here. It came for the banking industry and the mortgage industry. It’s come for hospitals and health care. It’s our day. But the problem is those industries were nimble enough to adapt. We better be or there won’t be a future.