On a mission: 1 year into the job at NJCU, Acebo says aim is clear

President says school has found financial footing without losing sight of purpose: ‘Everything we've done has been about anchoring ourselves in an outcomes-based mission of mobility’

A year into his role as interim president of New Jersey City University — the beginning of an effort to not only rescue, but revive a vitally important institution — Andrés Acebo knows he will be judged in one of two ways.

“There will be folks that may laud what we’ve done as brilliant — and others who see it as foolish,” he said. “And neither will be correct.”

More importantly, neither interpretation will matter to Acebo.

“What I’m most proud of is how the campus and its internal and external stakeholders have really anchored themselves around a mission,” he said.

“All I care about is that, a year later, everyone knows who we serve, unequivocally: an overwhelmingly proud community of first-generation, working-class students. We have the most socioeconomically diverse student population, and everything we’ve done has been about anchoring ourselves in an outcomes-based mission of mobility.”

So, while so much of his tenure has been tied to the numbers — most specifically, how to dramatically reduce the $23 million operating debt he inherited when he began this role Jan. 17, 2023, just months after the school declared a financial emergency — Acebo has made sure the university community has not lost sight of other numbers:

  • NJCU has, by far, the most diverse campus in the state;
  • NJCU has, by far, the most first-generation students in the state;
  • NJCU has, by far, students who come from lowest economic levels.

Acebo, an Ivy League-educated lawyer on the fast track to success as a partner at an influential New Jersey firm before joining the university, understands the struggles. He said it mirrors his own childhood in Hudson County.

“I grew up breathing the same air and walking the same streets,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve tried to honor. I never lose sight of the students who I’m privileged to serve. I see myself in their stories and experience.”

The challenge has been actually serving them — doing more than just offering phrases and banners, he said.

Andrés Acebo said conferring degrees on graduates at commencement was a highlight of a lifetime.

That started with not only changing its transfer credit policy (making if far easier to bring credit earned at other colleges and high schools) but creating a pathways partnership with Hudson Community College where students, from Day One, can see themselves on a journey to get both an associate and then a bachelor’s degree.

Of course, the changes also included dramatic reductions in staffing and degree programs offered (down by approximately one-third) that he did in concert with unions, an incredible achievement that shows the strength of his leadership.

It’s all part of the mission to reach and serve more students than ever, Acebo said.

“What if we eliminated all those traditional roadblocks that exist in higher education — and found institutional partners and affiliations where we don’t have to reinvent the wheel?” he asked, and then answered. “My goal is to bring resources to students of this community that too often have been beyond reach in the past.”

Success in Year One can be measured in a number of ways.

It starts with the operating budget — the school, amazingly, is forecasting a balanced budget for Fiscal Year 2024.

It includes graduation — Acebo called conferring degrees on 1,135 undergraduates, 406 graduate students and 46 doctoral candidates last June a highlight of a lifetime.

But, it’s mostly about attitude and spirit, he said.

“There’s no question that the resolve and the focus on the mission is far stronger today than it was this time last year, of that I’m certain — and of that I am confident — because we have that unequivocal focus on our mission,” he said.

“I believe that when you have that in focus — notwithstanding how daunting or seemingly overwhelming the challenges that we had to confront appeared to be, and the ones that still remain — you can move forward. We have to, because this work is never truly done.”

All of which begs two questions:

  • What’s ahead in Year Two?
  • How long will Acebo, who agreed to a two-year interim role when he took over, stay in this role?

The first question is easier to answer.

NJCU will soon unveil a new academic master plan that not only addresses curriculum, but retention — one that address issues that disproportionately impact NJCU students, including food and housing insecurity.

“There will be a premium focus on retention and persistence of meeting our students where they are, attempting to satisfy their basic needs, things that can plague academic persistence and progress,” he said. “That is the work that strengthens our institutional mission.”

Sen. McKnight offers praise

Sen. Angela McKnight. (File photo)

State Sen. Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City) has been impressed by the efforts of New Jersey City University interim President Andrés Acebo.

“President Acebo’s leadership in his first year is truly admirable,” she said. “When many others decided to run away from NJCU, he chose to run towards it — and remained incredibly positive while immersed in crisis management — all while focusing his energy on bringing NJCU back to its core mission and making sure the students and the community it indelibly serves remained at the forefront.”

McKnight praised Acebo’s personality and professionalism.

“For Andy, it’s never ‘I’, but rather ‘we’ — that’s how he leads,” she said. “He leads with an open heart and open mind. He is approachable. He is open to ideas. And, being from the community, he truly understands who NJCU serves. He works well with and is well respected by everyone — including his faculty, board members and community groups.”

NJCU remains committed to righting its financial house, which Acebo said still is a work in progress, despite the budget aspiration.

“This is not a spike-the-football situation,” he said. “But, at this time last year, we were talking about making payroll and fueling an operating budget and seeking stabilization funding to just basically plug those holes.

“Now, we’re in a position where we can talk about our long-term debt obligations and our capital needs on our campus. There is a lot of deferred maintenance on this campus.”

This takes time.

“I’ve always framed that this is a three-year endeavor,” he said.

Acebo’s place from start to finish isn’t as clear. And he said he doesn’t mean to duck the question as much as show he shouldn’t be the focus of the question.

“If it was about security, I’d still be a partner at a law firm,” he said. “This has been about purpose.

“At a certain time, that will be a conversation that needs to be had, but the work that we have done, and are doing, has always been about doing things that were going to outlive me. That hasn’t changed. My focus isn’t me. My focus in the immediacy is to get more folks talking about our students’ future — not only what jobs they’re going to land when they graduate, but their willingness to invest in this campus for our population.”

It’s all about the mission of NJCU, Acebo said.

Even that is being streamlined. In the coming weeks, the school will announce a mission refresh, Acebo said.

“It will be incredibly on point about who we serve, why we serve them and where we serve them,” he said. “It will be about a very noble proposition that is quite unique — that you don’t have to change your ZIP code to find your promise.”