Dr. Ali A. Houshmand spoke with The Whit to detail Rowan’s achievements and challenges during his decade-long tenure as the University’s President.
Last June marked ten years since Houshmand took leadership of Rowan University, shadowing the national average of 6.5 years according to a 2017 American Council On Education report.
Two hard-working parents supported Houshmand and his nine siblings in his hometown of Tehran, Iran. The family’s financial hardships sprouted his desire for a better life.
“It was a very loving family. But… it was tough. And it was good because sometimes I think toughness is good for people. Because it kind of makes you appreciate good times, and also makes you humble,” Houshmand said.
While studying for his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Essex, Houshmand played soccer, idolizing his professional older brother. “Not in a million years” could he have imagined being a university president for ten years while playing college soccer in the United Kingdom. He strengthened his educational background with a master’s degree in mathematics, a second master’s degree and a doctoral degree in operational and industrial engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
“Education, desire for learning, being inquisitive, is innate in you,” Houshmand said. “I remember when I was a kid, I didn’t have paper, I used to write in the sky. And I could see things that I was writing, I could do calculus in here [in my head].”
Under Houshmand, Rowan’s enrollment has more than doubled from the onset of his tenure, rising from 11,000 students to about 22,640 students in the Fall 2021 semester according to Rowan University. The school’s workforce improved by 125% over this period, while earning a Carnegie doctoral high-research designation in 2018. Rowan’s partnership with community colleges provided accessibility to Rowan degrees from all across South Jersey.
In terms of affordability, Rowan College of Burlington County and Rowan College of South Jersey “enables everyone to have an equal playing field,” Houshmand said.
Increasing access is one of his four goals for higher education, along with improving quality, ensuring affordability and promoting economic development.
According to Houshmand, “We have accomplished them in so many ways,” yet to assume he is satisfied with Rowan’s current status would be ill-judged.
“Right now the biggest concern that I have is the safety of students. Mental and physical,” Houshmand said. Since the beginning of the Fall 2022 semester, there have been instances of gunfire, sexual assault and racist graffiti on campus, all of which upset the president immensely. As a parent of two, Houshmand understands the trust a student’s parent has for the University to keep them safe.
“I give you my most precious asset, and I want you to take care of them,” he said, stating that student safety remains a top priority. “That’s the one that really keeps me going … I would do whatever, and I know my colleagues will do whatever we can to make sure that our kids, you guys, are safe.”
Houshmand has been on the front lines of funding aid to students since 2017, via his famous hot sauce. Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce is sourced from the president’s home garden, with all proceeds going towards the Rowan University Student Emergency Scholarship Fund.
In light of his success at Rowan, Houshmand takes little credit.
“This is us. And the reason I say it’s us is this – because in higher education, professors and faculty and staff are very powerful. They have strong opinions, they can express it, it’s a free society. Nobody is going to threaten them if they speak their mind,” Houshmand said.
Houshmand’s respect for opposition and challenges helps him grow as a leader. He believes that a workplace that has opposing viewpoints can be essential, as the decisions his office makes can be culture-changing.
“Change is hard in any institution and Rowan has really gone through an incredible transformation,” Rowan Provost and Senior Vice President Dr. Tony Lowman said. “It took a lot of time and patience to get the necessary buy-in on some of his innovative ideas. He got there by listening and working collaboratively with faculty and staff to get as much buy-in and collaboration on the path forward as possible.”
Lowman was impressed by his vision and cites Houshmand as a major reason behind joining Rowan’s higher education faculty.
He cited two mentors that he credits the most influence during his ten-year term. Dr. Steve Pollack, a professor in the department of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan, gave him strong criticism at a crucial time during his doctoral program, earning the respect of Houshmand.
“I absolutely adored him because he made me feel like a fool every time I went into his office,” Houshmand said, speaking on the fact that opposition fuels him to succeed.
Former Drexel University President Constantine Papadakis was mentioned as the person who pushed him to become president himself. Papadakis hired Houshmand for his first higher educational position at the University of Cincinnati.
His time at Cincinnati, and later at Drexel, taught him that each institution has its’ own way and that fabricating expectations that are unrealistic to its community can only hurt the school.
“I saw big and small, prestigious and not necessarily so prestigious, research versus teaching, rural versus big city– I’ve seen all those things,” Houshmand said.
Entering his eleventh year as Rowan’s President, Houshmand understands the time will come when he has to pass the torch.
“My hope is that this university can function, no matter who sits in this office, at the highest level of excellence there is,” he said. “The beauty of this country is that the system is such that one president comes, another one comes and another one comes. That’s what I’d love to see happen here.”
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