Rowan University, no stranger to bold plans, is promising to double its enrollment in the next decade as it tries to leverage its status as the state's newest public research university.
"This is the greatest opportunity for the university to really step back and try to re-engineer a new institution for this century,'' said Rowan President Ali Houshmand, a mathematician and engineer by training.
The research university status becomes official Monday, making Rowan one of three state-recognized research institutions, along with Rutgers and the New Jersey Institution of Technology. The status will be granted the same day Rutgers formally absorbs most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The changes are the main pieces of a reorganization of New Jersey's higher education system.
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UMDNJ's assets will be split, with Rutgers getting most of them, including two medical schools. Rowan gets UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, and University Hospital in Newark becomes a stand-alone entity.
Gov. Chris Christie has said the primary aim of the changes is to turn Rutgers into a medical science research powerhouse.
Houshmand says it also clears the way for Rowan to make an impact on another problem often cited by Christie and others involved in higher education: Some 35,000 New Jersey high school graduates leave the state every year for college, in part because New Jersey doesn't have enough seats.
When those students graduate from college, they're seen as likely not to return to their home state, which costs the state well-educated residents and means that taxpayers don't see the full results of the K-12 educational system they support, which is among the nation's costliest and highest quality by many measures.
The state research university status, Houshmand says, will bring Rowan more state funding per student, create an easier path to recruiting top faculty members and students, and expand enrollment.
The school is already seeing some benefits from its new status.
The state announced in April that it would borrow $1.3 billion to pay for construction projects on public and private university campuses. Rowan's share of that is $118 million, second only to the $357 million set aside for Rutgers. The amount is also nearly $25 million more than any of eight state colleges _ the group that Rowan previously belonged to _ are in line to get.
Rowan plans to use the money to put up a new building for its business school, expand its engineering school and repair and upgrade infrastructure around campus.
The bigger plan, Houshmand said, is to start and expand the educational programs that will benefit the region's employers. While there's a liberal arts component to the undergraduate curriculum, the idea is to churn out engineers, medical professionals and business majors rather than humanities or social science researchers.
The university also plans to expand the programs offered at community colleges on weekends, nights and online. Additionally, some of the school's sports teams, now in the NCAA Division III, could move to the top division, Houshmand said.
With more state money, careful savings and using income from a continuing-studies school, Houshmand said, Rowan is keeping tuition unchanged and is able to hire more than 60 new faculty members across several departments.
Houshmand says Rowan's history as a nontraditional university gives it the opportunity to experiment.
Rowan was founded as the Glassboro Normal School in 1923 and didn't get much attention until 1992, when industrialist Henry Rowan announced a $100 million gift to the school.
The university, quickly renamed, added an engineering school at its benefactor's request. It has also grown to 12,500 students _ 3,000 more than it had been before the gift. It's changed from mostly a commuter school to one where nearly half live on campus or nearby, largely in apartments.
So far, faculty groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, are embracing the changes. The AFT branch president, Joseph Basso, a public relations and advertising associate professor who graduated from Glassboro State in the `80s, thinks the school can pull off its plans.
"It's an exciting time. As an alumnus, I'm happy also because the institution's growing,'' he said. "As an employee, it's wonderful.'' The challenge, he says, is preserving the small school feel as Rowan becomes a bigger institution.
Off-campus, Glassboro, about 20 miles south of Philadelphia, didn't look much like a college town, but Rowan is changing that, redeveloping a swath of the community with dorms, a classroom building, stores and restaurants in a $300 million public-private project.
Not all the ambitions for Rowan have worked out.
In 2006, there was a proposal to build a professional soccer stadium to anchor a new second campus on what was an orchard a few miles from the main campus. Plans for the stadium and other campus fizzled. Houshmand said the university is now discussing turning the land into a health care village where people with medical problems would live temporarily and learn better diet and exercise habits.
And last year, Christie proposed having Rowan take over the Camden campus of Rutgers in the higher-education reconfiguration. Rutgers students, faculty and alumni protested and prevailed that the flagship state university should still have a presence in southern New Jersey. But as part of the university restructuring, Rutgers-Camden will get greater independence from Rutgers' New Brunswick-based brass and will collaborate with Rowan on medical science education.
Bill Freind, an English professor at Rowan, said he's seen the quality of students improve along with the past changes. So he doesn't mind that some ideas have not worked out.
"When you're thinking big,'' he said, "not every plan is going to come through.''