Extreme Makeover

Transforming a small state college into a major public research university

It happened suddenly – on the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education – read as, industrialist Henry Rowan placed a $100 million strategic bet on creating a new kind of engineering school – i.e. reengineering engineering education for the better. Rowan’s legacy transformed the Glassboro State College into a major public research university that would change the lives of South New Jersey citizens and businesses.

Like the award winning Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, higher education insiders wondered whether “if you build it, they will come” would ring true. Now, 25 years later, the jury is in and the answer is an amazing yes.

In the sixth episode of Revisionist History entitled “My Little Hundred Million,” Malcolm Gladwell compared the economic impact of Rowan’s gift to history changing moments in American higher education philanthropy. A controversial and disruptive thinker, Gladwell developed a unique appreciation for the revolutionary impact a mega gift could make in elevating an under-recognized local state school – to the level of a major public research university. In making this unprecedented gift, Rowan jilted his own alma mater, MIT, and in so doing ignited a gush of mega gifts from billionaires to American public and private colleges and universities.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and Rowan’s gift is rewriting the history of public campus partnering and co-development – thereby creating a contemporary business parable that other flagship state universities can learn from in their quest for national ranking and recognition.

In just the past six breathtaking years, Rowan’s President Ali Houshmand has challenged conventional thinking about mission evolution, institutional advancement, campus master planning, and exponential quality growth management. Significantly, Rowan’s faculty and student profile grew stronger, larger, and more competitive. Impressively, Rowan has increased its scale from 10,091 students to 17,300 students in just six quick years with a projected 25,000 student enrollment by 2023.

In the past 8 years, Rowan has attracted $1.2 billion for current and future expansion, design, and construction – with private co-developers picking up the lion’s share of the capital outlay, amenities, and public infrastructure costs to support and connect these building projects.

Beyond construction, Rowan created New Jersey’s first new medical school in over 35 years – Cooper Medical School of Rowan University and assimilated UMDNJ’s School of Osteopathic Medicine, now the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Rowan is one of two institutions in the Nation that offers both traditional Western biological medicine and osteopathic medicine degree programs.

Beyond medicine, Rowan has ignited path breaking applied research in medical and life sciences; engineering technologies; and has led by example in creating an environment that incentives business entrepreneurship – the intersection of Rowan’s success.

During this same period, Rowan completed construction of new buildings for the medical school in Camden, engineering college, and the business college.

Beyond the campus, one can see the evidence of this Exurban Renaissance in the faces of downtown merchants, students, faculty, and visitors – making Glassboro South Jersey’s newest collegetown and proud home to Rowan University.

Strolling down Rowan Boulevard, one can observe firsthand the downtown renewal with student housing, retail, bookstores, cafÁ©s, and soon to be upscale restaurants and craft brewery, cobranded with national brands like Marriott, Barnes & Noble, and regional brands like Chickie’s and Pete’s Crab House and Sports Bar.

Beyond the main campus, Rowan has attracted private investment for development of its new 600 acre West Campus and considerable expansions of its South Jersey Technology Park. These significant investments have now laid the groundwork for a new health care complex, international firms moving to its Tech Park, and even the transformation of a fossil quarry into a world-class research site inspiring the next generation of researchers, scientists, and engineers – just 4 miles away from the main campus.

Paradoxical though it may seem, Rowan has creatively partnered with County Colleges to co-brand Burlington County College and Gloucester County College into Rowan College at Burlington County and Rowan College at Gloucester County.

Recognized now by peers and aspirants, Rowan has made BizJournals’ Top 100 public institutions; U.S. News & World Report’s Most Innovative institutions of higher learning; and College Nets Social Mobility Impact top-tier list.

At a time when other public universities are charging at least $25,000 a year for tuition and fees, Rowan has managed to develop a $25,000 total tuition and fee cost for a complete baccalaureate program. At the same time, Rowan has capped tuition increases to never be above the rate of inflation. Rowan has also added a score of new degree and certificate programs; hired 200 tenure track faculty over the past 5 years and will hire 100 new positions over the next 5 years; and engaged an additional 30 professional academic advisors to support student success – read as, retention, persistence, and graduation.

In depicting President Ali Houshmand’s secret to success, Rowan Board of Trustee Chairman Linda Rohrer put it nicely this way: “his knack for numbers and drive to re-conceptualize higher education are matched only by his energy and love for our students.” With all this readily apparent, it is also easy to see why the Board is confident in what lies ahead in advancing Henry Rowan’s “…Little Hundred Million” legacy in perpetual motion.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities: New Strategies for Higher Education Leaders (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.


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