Rowan University President Ali Houshmand has an ambitious plan for the future
Ali A. Houshmand grew up poor — very poor — in Iran, and even as a doctoral student in the United States with a wife and two children, he said his family received food stamps.
But Houshmand eventually became a teacher, then administrator, and rose to the top of Rowan University, where he celebrated his 10th anniversary as president this month.
Under his leadership, enrollment and employee numbers have grown significantly, making Rowan the fourth fastest growing university in the nation in each of the past three years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
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Growth is matched only by Houshmand’s ambitions for what lies ahead. He wants to transform Rowan from a Glassboro-based public school into a top-tier research university with a Division I athletic program and nearly doubling student numbers, mostly through online programs. And he would like to do so by the end of his contract in 2026.
“Maybe people think I’m crazy,” Houshmand, 67, said in an interview earlier this month. “But what can I say? I’m crazy. I think you always have to imagine the unimaginable. If you don’t, you’ll never give yourself enough confidence to achieve things.
He said it’s a philosophy he developed through his tough upbringing, which also taught him that failure is a friend.
“It makes me enjoy success more,” he said.
Fall registrations stood at just over 11,000 when Houshmand became president in 2012; as of fall 2020, there were nearly 19,700 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. (Like other schools, Rowan lost enrollment during the pandemic, falling to nearly 19,100 last fall.) Job listings have shrunk from about 1,600 to 3,900. Rowan added two schools in medicine during his tenure, one of them osteopathic, becoming the second university in the country to have both. And he will soon be opening a veterinary school, the first in New Jersey and one of many new investment projects Rowan has in the works.
Houshmand oversaw Rowan’s partnership with local community colleges, which partly took over the university’s name, while remaining independent. It has made the transition from one to the other almost seamless and allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree for $30,000. He is also credited with leading the $426 million Rowan Boulevard development, which connects the Glassboro campus to downtown.
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Houshmand has earned high marks from students and faculty leaders, who say he has significantly raised the university’s profile.
“It’s cooler to say I’m going,” said Paige Bathurst, 20, president of the student government association.
Current and former faculty leaders say they have great respect for Houshmand, citing his collaborative approach. Even when there was disagreement, solutions were reached as amicably as possible, said Joe Basso, a communications professor who is in his ninth year as president of the faculty and professional staff union.
“His vision has been very aggressive and bold, and for the most part I’m okay with a lot of the things he’s done,” said Basso, who has a long history at Rowan, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. in 1983 and 1985. when it was still Glassboro State College.
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But faculty are worried about the rapid growth and the availability of sufficient staff and facilities to accommodate it, Basso said. Students have complained that the university is not providing enough mental health support, holding a rally to demand more in November.
While crediting Houshmand for managing growth well, Basso said, “I still think there’s still a lot to do in terms of infrastructure growth.”
Growing up in Tehran, Houshmand was one of 10 children. Her parents could not read, although they worked hard to support the family. Her father sold water, walked across town to fetch it from jugs where it was more readily available, and brought it back on foot. Houshmand was admitted to the University of Essex in the UK where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in statistics. He then pursued master’s and doctoral studies in industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“I had to devote myself completely to university,” he said. “I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I cleaned the floors and the toilets.
For a time, he worked as a personnel analyst for United Airlines, but later joined the faculty at the University of Cincinnati, then moved to Drexel University, then became provost at Rowan in 2006. The university was already on its way to becoming bigger, having received a $100 million gift in 1992 from Henry Rowan, the university’s namesake.
“I hope to make it a household name,” he told New Jersey Monthly magazine in a 2014 interview.
Houshmand said he first had to gain the trust and support of faculty and staff and get them to accept the change.
“Without that, it’s really impossible to do important things in universities because the faculty just won’t let you,” he said.
He did it, he said, through “honesty, transparency, openness, inclusiveness and determination,” bringing as many employees as possible “into the tent” to get their opinions.
“You’d be surprised how brilliant some people are and how quiet they have been for all these years,” he said.
Karen Siefring, former president of the faculty and professional staff union, recalled those early days and how Houshmand’s ambitions turned into realities.
“We would have conversations about how Rowan had so much potential that he just hadn’t reached yet,” said Siefring, deputy director of the Office of Career Advancement. “He helps us reach that potential.”
Last year, Rowan became a Research University 2 (R2), a designation by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education that means the school has “high research activity”.
But Houshmand does not want to stop there. It targets research 1, meaning “very high” research activity. Drexel, Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania are among others in this classification.
“We think we have a very, very strong critical mass of excellence on our campus in the fields of medicine, science and engineering,” he said.
While some schools have avoided designation because they want to continue to focus on teaching, Houshmand said. Rowan’s emphasis on teaching will be no less rigorous.
Basso, the union’s president, said while exciting, the move presents challenges for faculty and would require more graduate assistants and tenure-track positions. Houshmand said the university plans to hire 50 new faculty over the next five years in key research areas.
He hopes to increase enrollment to around 40,000, mostly through online courses, which are seeing dramatic growth and increasing revenue, he said.
Online education brought in $54.7 million this year, more than the university’s basic state appropriation and more than double what it is online classes gave when he became president, the university said.
Houshmand touted Rowan’s affordability, though he raised 2022-23 tuition and fees by 4%, leaving in-state students to pay $14,951 next year. Rutgers rose 2.9%; Although tuition fees vary by school and campus, a typical arts and science undergraduate student will pay $16,112 at Rutgers University Camden.
When asked if there was one thing he wished he had done better, he replied: “I wish I could have raised a lot more resources so that I could give a lot more opportunities to low-income children. .”
The university will soon launch a new fundraising campaign for half a billion dollars, he said.
Houshmand would also like to move from Division III sports to Division I. As part of that effort, he envisions the need for a 5,000-7,000 seat sports arena built through a public-private partnership. He had applied for public funding for the project, but it fell through, he said. Now he said he was in conversation with private developers.
“Even today I have two emails expressing great interest,” he said.
Although Houshmand has said he has no intention of retiring or seeking another job, he cannot guarantee that all of his ambitions for Rowan will materialize.
But, he said, if they don’t, “it won’t be for lack of effort. I can assure you of that.