Dear NJCU Community,
As I penned earlier this week, the holiday season is an opportunity to find peace and reflection. In the spirit of the season, let us pause to reflect on all that we have validated, committed to, and accomplished together in 2023.
The trust, confidence, and support from the NJCU community to lead our university during the most challenging time in its history is one that I will honor for the rest of my life. It is an immense privilege to lead and drive this institution as your president on a campus that transforms lives and strengthens our community every day — one whose indispensable mission within the community shaped me, and my loved ones.
We have also affirmed the importance of representation and servant leadership. You all, in large and small ways, directly and indirectly, have emboldened my resolve throughout these last 11 months. Growing up breathing the same air and walking the same streets as our students, I intuitively know why are mission matters and it gifts me profound gratitude for how you all protect it and lift it up.
We affirmed that the challenges that plague our community, some of which are systemic, can be confronted from within our community. We validated that the aspirations of our community are not beyond its reach — no matter how seemingly insufferable the obstacles may appear to be and notwithstanding the indignities that must sometimes be endured.
We are not just confined to brick and mortar. Our mission is personified by the stories — proudly common on our campus — of determined hearts persisting through life’s most daunting and yes unjust circumstances to achieve something that transforms a life, a family, a neighborhood, a city, a State, and a Nation.
My prime objective has been to breathe life into shared purpose on campus and to reaffirm the importance of community with moral clarity around the privilege we hold to serve the people we get to champion while tackling some of the most structural and long-standing challenges this institution and public higher education face. This work cannot be done alone but we have proven it can be done together.
We have set a new foundation and standard worthy of the resilience and hopes of the communities we serve. A path forward has been paved to strengthen our mission and our commitments for the thousands that cross our campus and the tens of thousands who have been touched by it. We have done so by leading with not just what stands in front of us in mind but what we collectively have faith in that is yet to be seen.
Let’s first address the most important obstacle we have had to overcome — the university’s finances, which led to the declaration of a financial emergency in June 2022, that for more than a year, placed a cloud of uncertainty, angst, and worry over this proud nearly century-old institution.
NJCU began FY23 confronting an unsustainable multi-year structural operating budget deficit and at the beginning of this calendar year it was in the earliest stages of fundamentally addressing it. Upon taking office on January 17, in consultation with state and campus stakeholders, we immediately developed and implemented strategies aimed at eliminating this burden on our mission and were successful in significantly reducing the existing structural operating deficit down to $8.1 million in under five months. We positioned ourselves to strengthen our mission-focused revitalization. This work was not accomplished without pain or sacrifice, but it was achieved with the establishment of unprecedented shared governance and collaboration. It’s that collective work that continues and must continue to define the future we are authoring together.
Through coordinated and concerted advocacy efforts by campus stakeholders, including legislative leaders, labor leaders, faculty, staff, students, and alumni, in June, the State announced a $10 million stabilization funding investment in NJCU for Fiscal Year 2024. The State further invested an increase in Outcomes Based Allocation (OBA) for institutions of higher education, which led NJCU to receive a $3.8 million OBA increase.
As a result, in my mid-summer reflective communication to our campus community, I outlined that the university had moved from crisis to a time of thoughtful mission-driven revitalization and recovery and that continues to be our core focus.
Working with our Board of Trustees, we announced at our September 2023 board meeting that net of any additional stabilization funding appropriations from the State, the University further reduced the structural operating deficit for FY24 by another 25 percent or $2.8 million — down to $5.2 million — through a combination of additional savings and new revenues.
We continue to steadfastly implement strategies that meaningfully and impactfully drive our mission, reduce and mitigate our financial constraints, and evaluate every potential option and strategy for the longer-term reinvestment in decades-long deferred capital maintenance, mitigation of excess debt obligations, and increase cash reserves. As a result, even with the anticipated enrollment decline, the University is now forecasting a year-end balanced operating budget while strategically seeking to draw down on the $10 million stabilization funding to address critical deferred maintenance needs — both budgeted and unbudgeted.
I want to thank you all for your hard work and dedication in accomplishing this amazing and significant progress. We have much more work to do, but I am confident that our resilient community will continue the work of solidifying our university’s mission with renewed purpose and intention.
Our recovery, however, was never solely financial in nature. It had to be mission-driven in purpose with a framework for long-term sustainability of the indispensable role our mission plays in the lives of countless people in our community. As such, at our April 2023 Board of Trustees meeting, we announced the introduction of the New Jersey City University Recovery and Revitalization Plan: A Framework for Long-Term Financial Sustainability, Mission Focus, and Student Success. This framework and the highlighted unprecedented institutional reforms discussed in the 24-page document will drive student achievement and mission focus for the next three years, and beyond, as NJCU emerges into an institution that emulates the resolve of its extraordinary students.
One pillar emphasized in the Recovery and Revitalization Plan was that of shared governance. For years, the university community has clamored for shared governance and engagement. We changed how we operate to incorporate it into the fabric of our work.
In April, NJCU and AFT Local 1839 — the institution’s local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, representing faculty, professional staff, librarians, adjunct faculty — announced a historic Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that sets the vision for shared governance and good faith labor relations at the university, underscoring a commitment to collective responsibility for student success.
At a time where labor strife permeated on other campuses in this state, our work is a well-documented example of what shared governance could and should look like.
Moreover, this June, at my recommendation, the Board of Trustees approved the most progressive shared governance changes in the history of the university, as three ex officio positions were approved to join the Board in September at its reorganization meeting — Meriem Bendaoud, Ph.D., Faculty Representative Member; Helen Dao '99, '05 M.S., President, NJCU Alumni Association; and Pete Hernandez, Chair, NJCU Foundation. This reformation of the Board governance structure ensures the voices of students, tenured track faculty, alumni, and the foundation will be a permanent fixture in all Board deliberations. The result is an enhancement to a renewed commitment to shared governance and mission-driven work. These efforts also led to the University Senate amending its constitution per long-standing accreditation recommendations.
These reforms allowed for engaged representation to collaboratively approve a refreshed and revised university mission statement and first-ever vision statement in November 2023 that is expected to be finalized and adopted early next year.
The Recovery and Revitalization Plan also identified academic reforms and student success initiatives as a vital pillar.
In late April, thanks to the leadership of Donna Adair Breault, Ph.D., Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Dr. Scott O'Connor, Director of our General Education program, we introduced recommendations for the most significant overhaul of our general education curriculum in decades. This overhaul allows every course on the approved New Jersey Council of County Colleges (NJCCC) list, including those without direct equivalencies, to be accepted at NJCU for general education credit. The NJCU University Senate, with 95 percent in favor, overwhelmingly voted in favor of the reforms to the General Education program — thus making NJCU the most-transfer friendly institution in the State of New Jersey. In an era where higher education must be willing to adapt and change, NJCU, by becoming the only four-year institution in New Jersey to do this, has elevated higher education reform.
In June, NJCU and Hudson County Community College (HCCC) announced the formation of HCCC|NJCU CONNECT, a transformational program that will provide highly visible, inclusive, and barrier-free transfer pathways to guide students and their families from high school, through studies at HCCC, and on to graduation from NJCU. Last week, that work came to fruition when I joined HCCC President Dr. Christopher Reber at a signing ceremony on December 11 to formally introduce and launch the American Association of State Colleges and Universities/Aspen Institute research-based modeled program, beginning in January 2024.
Additionally, this semester, we have focused intently on the long sought development of an Academic Master Plan and a Strategic Enrollment Plan. Both of these initiatives captured a broad engagement of campus stakeholders — from surveys, to Asynchronous Town Halls, Gallery Walks, and finally intensive workshops that led to an impressive investment from the university community. As a result of these adjacent and complementary initiatives, the Academic Master Plan was completed this month, and the Strategic Enrollment Plan will be introduced early next year.
Guided by our Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness Dr. Rachél Fester, the University’s accrediting authority, Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), affirmed our significant progress and determined reforms, and validated and complemented our compliance with the standards of ethics and integrity. The MSCHE team observed that “NJCU has made significant progress in moving from financial crisis to recovery. Significant improvements in the operating budget have been implemented in a short period of time.” MSCHE further observed that our university “has made noteworthy progress in reflecting on its identity and mission, reaffirming its commitments, and fostering a spirit of renewal to rebuild trust.”
As we reinvest in student success, this semester the Division of Student Affairs was reimagined as the Division for Student Development and Community Engagement with the stated mission of providing comprehensive support and opportunities for the holistic development of students, ensuring they graduate as well-rounded individuals with the skills, knowledge, and resilience to succeed in diverse and evolving contexts while honoring that our mission will always strive to meet them where we find them.
We committed to and seen an exponential growth to our new Men of Color Initiative to confront endemic retention and completion challenges in our community. We established a standing DWF committee to assess and address persistent achievement gaps that recognize the disproportionate challenges faced by first-generation students.
NJCU proudly supports Dreamers, and we began the year by becoming only one of three institutions in the State of New Jersey to partner with TheDream.US, the nation’s largest college and career success program for undocumented immigrant students. As a result, New Jersey’s immigrant youth are eligible to apply for this national scholarship that awards up to $33,000 total for a bachelor’s degree. It is yet another way we are moving the needle on social mobility.
Beyond our campus, this year we have made great strides in engaging with and cultivated key partnerships and relationships with organized labor and important organizations in our community that drive NJCU’s commitment and mission of economic mobility.
In January, in partnership with the Hudson County Building Trades, we announced details of a historic Project Labor Agreement (PLA) and a memorandum of understanding aimed at providing internship opportunities for NJCU students and authorizing all university construction projects that exceed $5 million be completed by union labor. NJCU became the first public university in the state of New Jersey to execute such a Project Labor Agreement that also included student and community career development partnerships. We made a commitment to our community, that as we rebuild and reinvest in our mission it will be done with and by those who are linked and tied to it.
NJCU continues to strengthen this partnership with union labor while working to bring economic opportunity to residents of Hudson County, as evidenced by a job fair in October with the Building Trades on campus for students and Hudson County residents to learn about job opportunities with local trade unions.
In June, we announced a partnership agreement with the Latino Action Network and the Latino Action Network Foundation which will focus on the development of community education, civic engagement, and research initiatives on educational equity and health care access policies.
Just weeks ago, with facilitation from NJCU’s Guarini Institute for International Education and Economic Mobility, I signed a first-of-its-kind memorandum of understanding (MOU) with GLACO — Grupo Latinoamericano de Cónsules en New Jersey. NJCU is the first higher educational institution in New Jersey to enter into a formal collaboration agreement to partner with GLACO — an alliance made up of 17 Latin American consulates.
Leaders from across the state and the nation are invested in our university’s future. NJCU is the oldest public Hispanic-serving institution in the state and this spring, we welcomed Dr. Antonio Flores, President of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), who visited the university for the first time. He participated in a roundtable discussion with students, district superintendents and community college leaders, Board members, faculty, administrators, and legislative representatives on the crucial role that Hispanic-serving institutions play in uplifting communities and providing equal access to education, and the importance of investing in HSIs.
This October, just one week after we hosted our earliest Fall Open House in our history which drew future Gothic Knights from all over the state, and returning alumni and friends who attended our Family & Alumni Day, our colleagues from the Office of the New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education (OSHE) witnessed and engaged with the power and impact of our mission as Secretary of Higher Education Brian Bridges, Ph.D. and state leaders joined us for culminating event of Hispanic Heritage Month. Further, Dr. Bridges joined us for a student-centered question and answer session with the university's Latino student leaders.
And this August, NJCU held its largest and most successful new student orientation in recent years, welcoming more than 1200 freshmen, readmits, and transfers to campus for the first time, along with a record number of parents for the event.
Our communications outreach continues as we tell our story to audiences around the state and nation. A highlight of these efforts culminated this spring when I appeared on "Tiempo" on ABC-7 in New York and to a national audience to discuss the university's financial emergency and its road to recovery. It has been extremely well received and even led to new students discovering what NJCU had to offer.
At every juncture, we have cemented our responsibilities to the students we serve. We have made sure they have a seat at the table and that their voices are heard.
Our proudest day of 2023 came on May 30 when we conferred 1,587 degrees — 1,135 undergraduate, 406 graduate, and 46 doctoral degrees — during our 2023 Commencement exercises. Tania León, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and educator, and Ryan P. Haygood, a nationally respected civil rights lawyer, were awarded honorary doctorate degrees.
The graduation of our students is the culmination of all our collective work. Just this week, we announced that NJCU was ranked No. 1 in the State of New Jersey and 10th in the United States in CollegeNET’s 2023 Social Mobility Index (SMI) —a dramatic improvement from 105th place in 2021 and 44th place in 2022. A testament to our recommitment and focus on the core objective of our mission and in honor of who we serve and where they find us in their lives.
This index measures the extent to which institutions educate more economically disadvantaged students — with family incomes below the national median — at lower tuition and graduates them into good paying jobs. I am pleased that these rankings demonstrate what we at NJCU have always believed — and what we have doubled down on in the last year – that higher education should be a transformative experience that empowers individuals to overcome barriers, systemic and personal, and realize their promise. This recognition is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our faculty, staff, and students, and the significant efforts undertaken over the last year.
Together, we are authoring and anchoring an intentional mission-focused revitalization worthy of the students and communities we are privileged to serve, one rooted in what has been the hallmark of the institution for nearly a century — an opportunity at a better life, through higher education.
In 2024, let us resolve to continue our important work that we have highlighted here so we can further empower this dynamic community that depends on our indispensable mission. I am grateful for all we have accomplished, together.
Happy New Year, NJCU.
Yours in service with admiration and affection,
New Jersey City University