The experiential learning platform Forage, used by institutions across the world, recently announced its awards for the top 50 colleges and universities that are best creating career pipelines for students. Among the Ivy League schools and R1 institutions was New Jersey City University at No. 36—a notable entry, not because of its prowess in connecting students with jobs but because its own future is uncertain.
Yes, NJCU scored high in areas of student engagement, early participation and its ability to prepare students for the workforce. Yes, it beat out the likes of Dartmouth and Fordham, and even the nearby New Jersey Institute of Technology. But despite its strengths, the university is facing stern questions about whether it is still viable amid a serious “financial crisis.”
According to an NJ.com report, NJCU needs about $10 million from the state in order to remain solvent after it was revealed that it was running about $150 million in the red because of several factors cited by its Board of Trustees: COVID-19, enrollment dips nationally, a lack of funding, and another key one, a spending spree that was supposed to boost NJCU’s reach under President Sue Henderson. She resigned last week after a decade in the role.
The fallout has forced the institution to lay off managers, seek pay cuts and furloughs, and prompted acting president Jason Kroll, the former vice president for advancement and chief strategy officer, to state humbly in a letter to the community: “I am deeply sorry that this is where we find ourselves.”
NJCU’s situation is becoming more common in higher education, especially as the pressure-packed past two years have pinched budgets and put pressure on presidents to grow, overcome the costs of the pandemic and try to boost enrollments when students are less likely than ever to be entering postsecondary education. However, Kroll is not losing faith, despite the almost insurmountable odds against NJCU.
“It is clear through my conversations with our staff and faculty just how much they care about the mission of this university and the students it serves,” Kroll said, giving a nod to a faculty senate that in September called out Henderson in a vote of no confidence over management of the university’s finances. “I, too, am committed to fighting for our university and our core mission of serving a population that no other four-year public institution serves. We can all agree that our students deserve our greatest possible effort.”
Those students, numbering around 7,500 and mainly in-state, are primarily Latinx, Black and women. They pay a robust $15,000 per year plus fees to attend an institution that might rank high on the Forage list but has struggled to gain footing on other national charts. In the U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings—certainly not the only benchmark and oft-critiqued—NJCU lies in the bottom group of regional north universities known as “Nos. 131-171.”
Making a comeback seems insurmountable given its standing and its financial challenges. However, Kroll believes that trajectory can change. He understands it starts with winning back faculty and staff, and that too might be difficult given the above-mentioned cutbacks.
“There will continue to be serious hardships within the NJCU community, which will be particularly felt by personnel,” he wrote to the community. “All options must be on the table. There are no words that can soften this hard reality. There will be continued shared sacrifices in the days and months ahead. These actions are necessary for the university to recalibrate and position itself for a better future. Ultimately, our goal is to position NJCU as the most progressive and compassionate workplace in higher education—not only in New Jersey but nationally as well. We will be leaders in this area. All ideas will be on the table, and I would welcome input from you.”
Under Kroll, NJCU will be working over the next three months to address shortfalls and make tough decisions. In the meantime, he is hoping for a boost from the state. No matter how long its run lasts, Kroll made one assurance to its constituents. “As long as I am sitting in this seat as acting president of NJCU, I can promise there will be full transparency in all our communications with the campus community,” he said.