Mission-driven: How NJCU has moved from crisis to recovery

6 months into his role as interim president, Acebo reflects on how far school has come — and where it’s headed

Andres Acebo. (File photo)

New Jersey City University interim President Andrés Acebo can quickly rattle off the long list of people and organizations that have helped the school “right the ship” in the past six months — taking it from a period of intense financial crisis (where its future was in doubt) to stability (one that potentially can be viewed as an example for higher education in the future).

“We have moved from crisis to recovery,” he said.

Acebo credits the school’s faculty and staff, labor unions representing a vast number of organizations, chambers of commerce and businesses, and, of course, elected officials — both locally and in the State House — for the ability of the school to reduce its operating deficit from $23 million to $8 million in under six months. And, based upon the additional state funding, NJCU will end this fiscal year with at least a $5 million operating surplus.

Acebo credits a willingness for all parties involved to be mission-driven.

As the university emerges from the most troubled times in its nearly 100-year history, it does so with a greater understanding of what the institution is about — and who it serves, Acebo said.

NJCU, founded in 1927, is the largest Hispanic-serving institution in the state (45% of its enrollment is Hispanic, as opposed to 18% of all New Jersey college students), but it also has a well-above average Black enrollment (20%, as opposed to 12% elsewhere). Simply put, it serves the underserved.

Even more descriptive, the majority of NJCU students not only identify as first-generation students, but they also come from household incomes that are easily the lowest of any school in the state. And they primarily come from Hudson County — serving as the greatest vehicle for generational advancement in the area.

“Before this crisis, no one really talked about who this institution serves,” Acebo said. “Everyone knows who this institution serves today. And the conversations are appropriately focused on how that community is best served as we seek the right partnerships — and innovation.

“Crisis, without question, reveals opportunities. And that’s what we’ve embraced at NJCU.”

In order to survive, the school made major cuts in its staffing and offerings, but it did so while implementing a number of educational changes, including a plan to make NJCU the most transfer-friendly school in the state (a direct nod to the community it serves).

More than that, NJCU made these changes in partnership with labor. Acebo helped drive an empathetic approach to labor relations that helped rescind about 50% of faculty and professional staff layoffs.

This, Acebo said, is how NJCU is showing not only a brighter future for itself, but for higher education in the state. NJCU, after all, is not the only school facing financial challenges.

“I would be remiss to not acknowledge the resiliency of the campus community and the surrounding community that champions it,” he said. “A lot of the focus in the first six months has been on cost containment — managing a distressed institution. But I’d like us to be known as the hallmark of sound labor relations that can actually strengthen an institution’s outlook. We have been able to overcome things that, at first blush, might seem insurmountable. 

“I’m humbled by the opportunity to serve and lead in this role. To be able bring together what have traditionally been constituencies and stakeholders with competing interests under a uniting banner to an institution’s mission and its responsible role to the community that it serves, has been incredible. 

“It’s been about realigning ourselves to a mission.”

The school saw two major moments in June: 

  • The state appropriated an additional $13.8 million ($10 million in stabilization aid earmarked as an investment in NJCU’s recovery plan, to address its structural operating deficit, and a $3.8 million increase in its Outcomes Based Appropriations) funding in its 2024 budget — an expenditure that will have a major impact;
  • The school graduated more than 1,500 students — including 452 at the graduate level.

Acebo, who started a two-year term as interim president Jan. 17, talked about all this and more in a wide-ranging interview with ROI-NJ — an effort to examine where the school is six months into his time in the position. Here is more of it, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the cost-cutting measures the school had to undertake in the past six months. How difficult was it to make those cuts — and are they over? Have you righted the ship?

Andrés Acebo: The work is daunting. It’s been distressing at times. It causes me to lose sleep, but it’s important work — and some of the decisions to right the ship means that you have to make decisions that are going to impact a lot of people. And, so, I don’t make those decisions lightly. 

But I will say two things: One, it should be noted that roughly 50% of the original layoff notices were actually rescinded. So, we’ve actually been able to keep a significant number of the people that originally we may have lost.

And two, I think I would frame it this way: This has been an investment in the institution’s recovery. It’s not just been about cuts, it’s been about being innovative, overhauling our general education curriculum to becoming the most transfer-friendly public university in the state of New Jersey in the midst of a crisis. Good luck getting a plurality of support on anything — we got 95% of the vote on that.

So, yes, I would say the university is moving from crisis to recovery. It’s been hard. But you’re emboldened when you see those efforts recognized and championed and supported. NJCU has an impact. What we’re doing now is showing that how you recover from crises, by anchoring yourself to a mission. And I think that that resonates across the board.

ROI: As you’ve said, this mission is working because of the partnerships you have been able to form. Talk about that.

AA: I’ve found fellowship with a lot of people that I never thought this time last year I would even meet, let alone be in a room with. Folks have shown up and showed out for our students and the faculty and staff that served them.

The partnerships that we’ve struck, especially the ones that we will be announcing in the weeks to come are significant. I think there’s a there’s a collective ownership of NJCU’s mission — and wanting to see it be successful. 

I think the mission of this institution has become one (that) people have been fiercely protective of. It’s not about brick and mortar, it’s about the people that it serves. That mission needs to be anchored and protected and enshrined. That comes with a heightened degree of responsibility that this institution is committed to. My administration certainly has welcomed oversight and the partnership that comes with it to ensure the long-term sustainability of that mission.

ROI: A lot of organizations have rallied around the school — which groups would you want to highlight?

AA: The Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has been phenomenal, and the Hudson County Chamber has been an incredible partner. RWJBarnabas Health has been a dedicated partner, particularly when it comes to health care and nursing education, at a time when the state needs at the most. Hackensack Meridian, PNC Bank, Fidelity have been great partners with our foundation. 

And our foundation is comprised of extraordinary individuals that dedicate their time, their contacts and their treasure..

The Supreme Court decision

We asked NJCU interim president Andrés Acebo about the impact of the recent Supreme Court eliminating affirmative action on admissions.

Andrés Acebo: I think it’s a consequential decision — one that will have dire consequences for members of traditionally underserved communities. But it also underscores the importance of institutions like New Jersey City University, a historic minority-serving, Hispanic-serving institution where working-class kids can pursue a shot at economic mobility — the true promise of a higher degree of higher education, to be an equalizing force.

At the time of the decision, Acebo offered a powerful reflection of how affirmative action impacted his personal journey. Read that here.

But, again, I would be remiss again to not acknowledge our partners in organized labor. From the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) both nationally with Randi Weingarten and locally with Donna Chiera, to Charlie Wowkanech with the AFL-CIO, to leaders in the CWA, IFPTE, the Hudson County Building and Construction Trades, the Hudson County Trades Council, the Central Labor Council — and all the construction trades.

In addition, there have been a number of politicians, including state Sen. Brian Stack, Assemblywomen Annette Chaparro and Angela McKnight, Assemblymen Raj Mukherji and William Sampson, Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, Sen. Nellie Pou and the Latino Legislative Caucus, and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter and the Black Legislative Caucus.

Special thanks also goes to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Senate President Nicholas Scutari for their stewardship of the budget.

The university is fortunate to be anchored in a community that supports its mission, including Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and the city council and Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise and the board of commissioners, including Bill O’Dea. And, of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration.

They all mobilized and rallied in support of an institution’s mission — and the significance of this institution’s mission in Hudson County. Equity is not just defined by affordability, but access. These groups have been fiercely protective of that. And I’ve been privileged to get to champion it along their side.

ROI: Of course, the substantial help from the state has been a big key, too. Talk about the connection with the state and higher ed that you’ve seen.

AA: No public institution that is so heavily dependent on tuition revenue can eliminate a structural operating deficit on its own. The state’s aid is an investment in our recovery effort. Look what we’ve been able to do in five months. Imagine where we will be in two years’ time?

This has been an unprecedented turnaround. A lot has been said about some of the shortcomings of former leadership, but equal attention should be devoted to the circumstances that disproportionately impacted institutions like ours, which were exhibited throughout the pandemic. There are micro and macro trends in higher education — declining investment, declining public dollars for public higher education. You’re seeing a response to that. 

Part of our story should be that all of the public universities are seeing increases. Kudos to the Legislature and the Murphy administration for investing in outcomes-based appropriation recognizing that there are inflationary costs and labor increases.

ROI: Sum up where NJCU is today.

AA: Our outlook today is significantly stronger than it was this time last year, without question, and our students should be emboldened by that. Our staff and faculty should be emboldened by that because they delivered on that. 

When I was first appointed, I said — without reservation — that I believe that this is going to be one of the greatest professional honors that I’ll ever have. To be able to lead this institution as a product of this community at this particular moment, is incredible. And to have this community, almost in Churchillian fashion, prove to all stakeholders far and wide that it’s got the lion’s heart, is amazing. I’ve had the fortune to be its roar.

ROI: The fight is not over, though. In many ways, the heavy lifting is just beginning. You have asked a lot from many — and they have responded. Is it possible to keep asking?

AA: My leadership style has been one about empathy and transparency. And, so, the charge has always been not about today, but tomorrow. The folks that are doing the hard work know that we’re going to have our fair share of setbacks and false starts as well as victories. The ultimate goal here is to strengthen an institution and develop the internal controls so we never find ourselves in these dire circumstances again. 

The moment we all aim for isn’t just the ribbon-cutting of fancy new buildings, it’s the thousands who cross the stage in late May, early June as the first in their families to graduate and receive a degree and change the trajectory of their lives. And that’s what everyone is unrelentingly focused on. I can say, without any reservation, this entire community has rallied to champion that mission. That work never ends. It’s always ongoing. But we welcome the challenge.