Dr. Ali Houshmand doesn't understand why all college degrees need to take four years to achieve. Why the school year is still based on a fall-spring calendar that was established more than two centuries ago. Why internships aren't a bigger part of every student's education. Why students too often are taught abstract ideas they can't apply rather than practical concepts that lead to jobs. And why the United States, despite having the finest colleges and universities in the world, is not producing enough of the graduates it needs for its workforce and its future.
There’s a lot the Rowan University president wants to do to shake up higher education.
And it all starts with business.
Houshmand not only wants his students working for companies during their studies so they will be ready to join the workforce, he also wants businesses to help prepare his curriculum so his students are being taught what is needed. The partnership goes deeper. Houshmand wants businesses to run some aspects of his campus, using public-private partnerships to build facilities such as academic buildings, dorms and food services. He wants to share the revenue because, he said, part of something is better than all of nothing.
It’s all part of Houshmand’s grand vision to rebuild higher education.
Higher education, he said, should not only be the driver of the economy, it should be a self-sustaining, successful business of its own. Revenue from the state should not be expected and, potentially, even phased out. And students should not be forced to pick up the tab. But he is not a proponent of free education. In fact, he thinks it’s a terrible idea.
I absolutely believe that anytime you give anything to anybody for free, it becomes an entitlement and eventually will be a massive burden to the economy,” he said.
But he is helping his students graduate with as little debt as possible, in part by keeping in-state tuition under $13,000 a year. It’s all part of doing business, he said.
And it appears to be working.
Rowan has approximately 7,000 more students than it did when he took over as president in 2011. More than 18,000 are expected to enroll in the fall. And Rowan employs 4,186 people, approximately 2,300 more people than it did six years ago. All this was accomplished while Rowan’s appropriations from the state for undergraduates decreased. It has occurred because of Houshmand’s emphasis on running the school like a business.
The suddenly not-so-sleepy town of Glassboro has benefited at the same time, increasing its ratables, he said, from less than $100,000 to $2 million, helping it become one of the few New Jersey municipalities where property values have increased. And this is before the potentially game-changing West Campus is built. Students have not been left behind, either. Rowan graduated more than 3,000 students earlier this month. And a record number of students (nearly 4,500) are taking classes this summer.
Rowan is getting attention. It was ranked as the second-most-innovative school among regional universities in the North and the No. 2 public school among regional universities in New Jersey in the prestigious U.S. News & World Report rankings. The reviews, however, are not all positive. Other New Jersey presidents admit Houshmand is trying to shake up (or is it tear down?) their longstanding models of operation. And some, privately, admit they do not like it. Houshmand knows the criticism is out there, but he is undeterred.
“When they hear we are singing a different tune, it’s a threat,” he said. “I really believe it’s the responsible thing to do. I really believe in higher education, that we have a system that is broken and needs an overhaul. We need to accept that it is broken.”
Houshmand, who came to Rowan in 2006 before being elevated to president five years later, recently sat down with NJBIZ to detail his vision:
NJBIZ: You want Rowan University to be the economic driver of South Jersey, but that’s the goal of many universities. What is stopping other institutions from serving in that role?
Ali Houshmand: (Higher education) never has been in tune with economic policies and the economic ways of managing institutions. We have not been very good at so-called financial analytics or using business principles to manage situations. The reason is because we have always been given appropriations. Tuitions came, and they were like a blank checkbook. We never had to learn to fish because we were always fed. That has gotten higher education to a point where we have become very reactive institutions, and we react to circumstances because we don’t have any control over our own affairs. So, we react when the governor gives us less money or more money, we react when more students or fewer students show up. Based on that, we make policy for the next year. This is a very bad recipe, not only for our region but for our country.
NJBIZ: How is that specifically impacting South Jersey?
AH: Regions such as Glassboro or Camden have become a challenge to the state because other places in the state have to work hard and provide taxation so these regions can be maintained. That’s not a good recipe, because there is only so much you can provide for other people. It’s a challenge, but these challenges can turn into opportunities. Here we are, sandwiched between New York and Washington and Philadelphia in a region where there are 2.5 million people. If we were a state, we would be the 35th-largest state. So, it’s significant. Yet, the institution that was located here was not playing the role it could play in that. It was not making economic decisions that impact the larger population.
We changed that. In the space of seven years, we went from a roughly $180 million operating budget to well over half a billion dollars. And we anticipate in 10 years it could reach well over one-and-a-half billion dollars. And, by circulating that money into the economy, and doing it in a public-private partnership so we do not rely on a handout from the state, we are applying economic principles in the way we manage the institution so that we are much more efficient. For instance, we are outsourcing those parts of the institutions that are not part of our core mission. We let the people who are better at it bring their money and their expertise into it. We partner with them. In a nutshell, what we have decided to do here is say, ‘Let’s use other people’s money to make this institution and this region much better for the good of both.’ It turns out that it actually works.
NJBIZ: How do you attract these partners?
AH: If you build an institution that provides quality education, is priced right, is in a region that is safe and has a campus that is beautiful, it becomes a welcoming and attractive location for students to come and learn. That is the audience these developers and investors want. The more students I bring here, the more economic activity there will be. Jobs are created. People need to get their hair cut or their nails done or have pizza to eat. This is how a region gets lifted. And, as you keep growing your boundary, the next thing you know, you have a region with a 50-mile radius that is impacted. That’s why I believe this model is not only doable here, but is repeatable and reproducible elsewhere.