From rags to Rowan: President Ali Houshmand

From rags to Rowan: President Ali Houshmand

By Robert Strauss, New Jersey Monthly contributor

Little in Ali Houshmand’s childhood suggested that he might someday lead a university as its president. Growing up in the 1960s in the Iranian capital of Tehran, he knew mostly hardship.

“We were poor, but it is hard to explain in an American context,” says Houshmand. “Poor like in the worst part of Camden, and go even further than that. Poor in terms of not having food. Poor in terms of not being able to bathe, because we didn’t even have the money for the public bath.”

But Houshmand says he was one of the lucky ones. His father was able to earn just enough from odd jobs to keep a roof over the heads of Ali and his nine siblings.

Houshmand had at least two other things going for him. His parents insisted that their children take advantage of the one benefit Iran provided at the time, a free education for all. And he had the drive to make the most of that education. His ability to achieve academic excellence would lead him on an unlikely journey to his current station as president of Rowan University, the fifth largest state university in New Jersey.

“We lived in a rough area,” Houshmand recalls during an interview in his office at Bole Hall on Rowan’s tree-lined Glassboro campus. As a youngster, he played soccer in his bare feet after school and looked for trouble, “like any teenager.” 

But in class there was no nonsense. The young Houshmand recognized that learning could lift him out of poverty. Fortunately, schoolwork, he says, “came to me naturally.”

Houshmand’s proficiency in English helped him pass an entry exam for a prep school in London. With the help of his brothers, Houshmand scraped together enough money for a plane ticket and some expenses. When he arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport, however, he discovered his English had serious gaps.

“An immigration officer started asking me questions, and I had no idea what he was asking,” Houshmand says. “Even though I knew a few words, apparently I didn’t know anything.” A fellow passenger translated for him, then helped the newcomer find his way.

“I started working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I spent the rest of my time doing schoolwork,” Houshmand says. Within a year, he had passed Britain’s A-Level exams and was admitted to the University of Essex, where he would earned a BA in mathematics and a master’s in mathematical statistics. He contemplated returning to Iran to teach, but the nation was in tumult. It was 1979 and the Shah had been overthrown.

He remained in England, but jobs were hard to find. A professor encouraged him to further his studies at a university near Detroit—where, the professor warned, “everyone has a gun and they shoot each other.” Throwing caution to the wind, Houshmand headed to America and landed a teaching-assistant job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, 40 miles west of allegedly lawless Detroit. 

At Michigan, Houshmand changed his focus to industrial engineering and earned two more degrees. He also met his future wife, Farah, a fellow Iranian immigrant. (Their daughter, Layla, 27, and son, Kasra, 25, are now graduate students­—she at Michigan in biomedical engineering and he at Temple in neuroscience.)

After a brief career detour working for United Airlines in Chicago as a systems analyst, Houshmand returned to academia at age 35, settling in for 10 years with the engineering faculty at the University of Cincinnati. “I really thought I had made it,” he says. “I didn’t desire much else. We were secure.”

But after a decade at Cincinnati, a former mentor recruited him as associate provost of the engineering school at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “It was a huge jump [in status],” he says. Six years later, Rowan offered him the job of provost—the leader of the academic side of the university.

When Houshmand arrived at Rowan in September 2006, it was an institution on an upward trajectory. Fourteen years earlier, Henry Rowan, an engineer and entrepreneur who grew up primarily in Ridgewood, pledged $100 million to what was then Glassboro State College. At the time, it was the largest gift ever made to a public college. Overwhelmed by Rowan’s largesse—he had no previous connection to the college—the board of trustees voted to rename the school Rowan College (later Rowan University) in his honor. 

At Rowan, Houshmand rose to the position of CEO, and in 2011, when university president Donald Farish resigned, Houshmand was named his interim successor. He was viewed as a temporary caretaker; initially, he didn’t even apply for the permanent job. 

The trustees spent nearly a year vetting candidates from all over, but no one seemed right. “We took a long time trying to find the best person,” says board chairman Linda Rohrer. Finally, they turned to Houshmand, who was inaugurated as Rowan’s seventh president in September 2013. “He was so low-key,” Rohrer says, “we didn’t realize we had the man right here.”

“It is wonderful,” Houshmand, 59, says of his job. “I am sure that it is something I never would have dreamed as a young boy.”

At 7 am every Friday, a group of men meets at Angelo’s, a retro-style diner on Main Street in downtown Glassboro. The regulars include locally influential lawyers, accountants, educators and businessmen, as well as Glassboro Mayor Leo McCabe. After Houshmand’s appointment as university president, Thomas Gallia, who retired from Rowan in January after 50 years as a professor and administrator, invited him to join the breakfast group. 

Initially, Houshmand was reserved among the Gloucester County bigwigs. But that changed quickly. When the mayor mentioned one morning that his son was a Notre Dame graduate, it stirred Houshmand’s Michigan memories and sparked a group trip to Indiana for the 2012 Michigan-Notre Dame football game. The following season, the group took a trip to Ann Arbor for the rematch there.

“It is not just doing business, but that we have learned to have personal relationships,” says McCabe, a retired Exxon-Mobil chemist and perhaps one of the few mayors in New Jersey with a PhD. “We have learned what is good for Rowan is good for Glassboro and vice versa.”

Breakfast-group member Joe Devine, CEO of Kennedy Health System, which operates three South Jersey hospitals, admires the way Houshmand interacts with people of all kinds, even chatting with the cooks and waiters at the diner. He looks everyone in the eye, evaluates what they say and never judges people by their job or station. 

“He struggled growing up and knows that struggle can make you a better person,” says Devine. “He wants to build something here that everyone will be proud of. He is truthful and tells people what he believes, which I think the people in the community really like.”

In the 17 years since it became a university, Rowan has improved and expanded its infrastructure and raised its stature, far surpassing its roots as a teacher-preparation college. It was still looking for a great leap forward when, in 2012, Governor Chris Christie—with the support of Democratic political power broker George Norcross—presented a plan to create a major South Jersey research institution by merging Rowan with Rutgers-Camden and a new medical school based at Camden’s Cooper University Hospital, where Norcross chairs the board. (The medical school had been in the works since Christie’s predecessor, Jon Corzine, signed an executive order for its creation in 2009.) Opponents successfully blocked the merger plan, but the state launched the medical school—Cooper Medical School of Rowan University—in August 2012 in Rowan’s new Medical Education Building in Camden, and Rowan and Rutgers-Camden are partnering on new health-science programs. 

As provost, Houshmand helped oversee the launch of the med school. Now that it is functioning, the day-to-day is in the hands of its dean, Dr. Paul Katz, who reports to Houshmand. To date, the school has enrolled 110 students; it hopes to reach its capacity of about 450 by 2016.

Houshmand’s primary success as CEO and interim president is the $300 million development known as Rowan Boulevard—a square mile or so of property connecting the Glassboro campus with Main Street. Businesses in the area had been struggling for a generation, even as the university was starting to thrive. With a series of purchases by the town, the existing buildings—mostly run-down student rental houses—were demolished. Over the last two years, six new buildings have been finished or are under construction, including an honors dorm with retail on the first floor, a new Barnes & Noble bookstore, a hotel and conference center, and a building for continuing-education classes.

As CEO and interim president, Houshmand was Rowan’s point man on the project. He worked with the town on an innovative financial model, under which Rowan leases back the new academic and housing properties. With the newly built housing, more businesses and eateries have opened, making the town more attractive to students. Even those who commute have reasons to stay around campus longer.

Heather Simmons, a Gloucester County freeholder and public relations executive who earned her graduate degree at Rowan, applauds Houshmand’s efforts at transforming the area. “He came to town and said the status quo wasn’t enough,” says Simmons. “When you have a campus that students and faculty want to hang out at, it becomes a new mindset—something better socially and academically.” 

There have been other changes. Houshmand has reduced Rowan’s dependence on adjunct faculty, hiring 60 new faculty members in 2013, most in tenure-track jobs; another 31 hires are planned for this academic year. Earlier this year, he closed a partnership deal with Gloucester County College. Under the arrangement, students at the county college with sufficient grades and credits gain automatic admission to Rowan. GCC itself has been renamed Rowan College at Gloucester County, exemplifying Rowan’s expanded reach. The university is also developing additional PhD. programs in engineering and psychology.

Houshmand wants to allow more adult classes and online learning. His advocacy for more dorms and other student amenities has transformed what for decades had been primarily a commuter school into a modern residential school.

Perhaps most ambitious is Houshmand’s fund-raising goal. He hopes to more than double the school’s $180 million endowment in the next 10 years. The medical school and Rowan’s new status as a research institution are essential to the push.

“He, and we, see it as an opportunity to get more funding for everything,” says Rowan board chair Rohrer. “Now, when someone wants to give for research, they know we have a medical school to enhance that.” In February, for instance, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave Rowan a $3.05 million grant for multidisciplinary research into health-care delivery.

Houshmand hopes to increase full-time undergraduate enrollment to 13,000 from the current 11,000 over the next 10 years. His mission, he says, is to provide an affordable education for as many students as possible in New Jersey, but particularly South Jersey. Only about 3 percent of Rowan’s students come from out of state, and he expects that will increase only slightly, mostly in the graduate schools. 

Rowan was able to hold the line on tuition and fees last year. For the current academic year, the price-tag for in-state students is $12,616, a 1.9 percent increase over the previous year.

“He is frugal,” says Rohrer. “He knows when to use outside contractors and when to have it be in-house. Is it from growing up having to make do in poverty? I don’t know. But if so, it has worked for us here.”

Houshmand, who as president earns an annual salary of $550,000, lives with his wife in university-owned housing in Glassboro. He feels a sense of community here, even though there are few, if any, other Iranians. The Houshmands attend campus events and go to Philadelphia, about 25 miles away, for restaurants and theater. “You do have to get away at least a little bit to have perspective,” Houshmand says, “but nothing major.”

He occasionally returns to Iran to visit his family, but feels little connection with his native land. He steers clear of controversy when talking about his roots.

“I have enough to do here, and I am hoping to make this a place that is renowned,” he says. “I know that is a big goal, but I have been able to come from those dirty, barefooted soccer fields to here. I expect no less of myself now.”

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Date Published: Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - 10:00