To say it has been a busy start to 2023 for Andres Acebo would be an understatement.
Last month, the 37-year-old Hudson County native was appointed as the interim president of New Jersey City University (NJCU), becoming the youngest known president to ever lead a public university in the Garden State. He takes over at a critical time for NJCU, which has been in the news recently amid a major budget crisis, which NJBIZ has extensively reported on.
Last week, the school announced an historic labor agreement with the Hudson County Building Trades. Afterward, NJBIZ spoke with Acebo about that agreement, his new job, the budget crisis, and much more.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
NJBIZ: It’s been a bit of a whirlwind few weeks for you. Can you describe what it has been like since getting appointed to this position?
Acebo: I think it’s an understatement to say anything short of that it’s been a privilege to be entrusted with helping lead this institution at this particular time in its history. And for me, it’s not just a privilege. I can’t even begin to fathom a greater honor that I’ll ever professionally be bestowed than to serve a community that raised and shaped me. I’m a proud product of Hudson County’s public schools. This institution, as I noted, in very direct ways impacted my life. I was educated by its graduates. I was nursed by its graduates. And this institution, in particular, for my own family and friends has been signaling and shepherding a path to prosperity and economic mobility that would have otherwise evaded them.
NJBIZ: NJCU has gone through a rough couple of months. What has that been like, not only taking the helm, but in this moment?
Acebo: This was certainly not something that was ever in my career trajectory or even something that I ever fancied pursuing. It would be completely disingenuous to even say that I had mapped out for myself, in my career, something that would lead to a university presidency. But I think sometimes the greatest privilege is being bestowed responsibility. And this institution has given me an opportunity to be responsible, in consequence of decisions that have been historically made.
And it was hard to say no, to be very blunt, to this opportunity, when campus stakeholders, union leaders, students, alums, senior leaders on this campus, and trustees asked me to consider taking this on, because I do have that deep personal connection to this institution. I ran to NJCU’s mission. I didn’t run from something. I ran toward something. And every single day on this campus, there are students, faculty, and staff that live the mission of this institution, that personify its mission.
Our students overcome far greater challenges than the ones that this institution faces without the resources readily available to overcome them. And it’s that realization that emboldens me to be very optimistic. And I’m stubbornly optimistic. And I hope that that’s something I engender on this campus. Difficult decisions will continue having to be made. But the outpouring of support, and not of individuals, but of the mission, has been humbling to find myself in that kind of fellowship and that communion.
But I think sometimes the greatest privilege is being bestowed responsibility. And this institution has given me an opportunity to be responsible, in consequence of decisions that have been historically made.
NJBIZ: How would you describe your efforts to gather the community and bring together all the different stakeholders?
Acebo: We made news today, some good news for a change, right? We signed a historic project labor agreement with the New Jersey AFL-CIO’s affiliate, Hudson County Building and Construction Trades — one-of-its-kind.
I’m the son of a waiter and a school aide. I became the first in this family to go to college and then law school. My education was what catapulted me and brought economic mobility into reach. And that pledge today that we solidified in pen to paper cements that, no pun intended, with the trades. It literally cements that commitment and ushers in something I believe wholeheartedly should be worthy of replication and emulation up and down the State of New Jersey by every public institution.
NJBIZ: Before you were appointed to this role, you were handling a lot of the budget duress, helping to bridge the deficit. Can you talk a little about some of your efforts before you were in this role, as well as now moving forward?
Acebo: I will say that it’s a community effort. Given the office that I sit in, I suppose I get more credit than I deserve. I find myself right now being a first among equals. But nothing that’s been accomplished thus far would have been remotely achievable without a community of support. So let me pay respect to that, first and foremost, which is my campus responded to an emergency. My campus owned the consequences of decisions that didn’t come to fruition, of circumstances beyond its control, of a public health crisis and a pandemic that disproportionately impacted our community, and therefore, our students.
So, in very short order, the institution jumped into cost mitigation. We began fiscal year 2023 with a $22 million budget structural deficit. And within 120 days cut that approximately by 50%. We had to say goodbye to some really good, long-serving dedicated servants of this institution’s mission, something that I get emotional thinking about because those decisions are never easy. We began by addressing some of the middle-management rightsizing needs. We implemented a furlough program to extend our runway to address our immediate cashflow concerns. We sat down with our organized labor units on campus and negotiated historic concession agreements that puts the mission of the institution first without compromising, to the greatest extent possible, the mission of this institution as we weather these financially uncertain times.
NJBIZ: As you go through that process of “right-sizing” and making cuts, how’s the morale been on campus? You mentioned that the community is used to overcoming adversity. How has the response been to some of these moves to bridge the budget gap?
Acebo: The institution is one where it’s faculty and staff are fiercely protective of this institution’s mission. And I think what I’ve seen is a community that is expressing despair. And it’s my job, it’s the job I took on, to reinvigorate hope.
Beyond the headlines, every single day on this campus, people are serving a mission under distressing circumstances. And that is cause to find hope amidst the despair. When you can tie yourself to something grander than yourself, there’s reason to keep your chin up. And that’s what I try to remind everyone on this campus. I think that this campus is desperate to see how we come out of this.
NJBIZ: What’s the communication been like with the state? Has there been any dialogue at the state level?
Acebo: This is where I am going to give the obligatory shoutouts because it’s well deserved. In my dealings, in particular, with Secretary of Higher Education Bridges and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Comanto, and their entire staff, I found people that care about my community. And they’ve been partners. I haven’t had to champion as ardently as I’ve had in other circles the mission of this institution.
There’s an engagement. There’s definitely a partnership there that my students are worthy being of championed.
Secretary Bridges, Deputy Secretary Comanto, and the rest of that staff, to me personally, have been people that I’ve grown fond of because I believe they care about my students and my community, and are willing to engage in difficult conversations from time to time. But they are willing to put students and my campus first.
Beyond the headlines, every single day on this campus, people are serving a mission under distressing circumstances. And that is cause to find hope amidst the despair. When you can tie yourself to something grander than yourself, there’s reason to keep your chin up
NJBIZ: The financial emergency is going to, no doubt, take up a lot of your time and attention. But, just generally moving forward, what are some of the things you have on your mind? What are some of areas of focus beyond the budget crisis since you still need to serve the students and move things forward?
Acebo: A laser focus on student retention is incredibly important. And student success on this campus and engagement with our stakeholders and businesses to make meaningful access to opportunities through internships and career development is incredibly important.
But I can’t think of anything greater over these next 24 months than affirming our anchor status in the communities we serve and our reach, and building and coalescing community trusts between private business and enterprise, public institutions. That is going to be critical because that’s how you ensure the long-term sustainability of a mission.
If I do my job right, every time that people think about this institution, they won’t just think about its real estate assets or its geographic footprint, but think about its people.
But I can’t think of anything greater over these next 24 months than affirming our anchor status in the communities we serve and our reach, and building and coalescing community trusts between private business and enterprise, public institutions.
NJBIZ: When you got hired, you said, ‘there is no nobler and more humbling opportunity than one that lets you embrace responsibility to serve your community at a time of greatest need.’ Can you elaborate on that? What does that statement mean to you?
Acebo: Higher education, for quite some time, has been quickly approaching an inflection point. I think society, as a whole, has. I think the pandemic had a way of making us more hypersensitive, as we should have probably always been, to some of the vast inequities in our communities. And that’s what’s exploited and revealed right now as this institution overcomes its immediate challenges.
I can’t think of something more noble and more humbling than being trusted to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people to champion a mission that addresses with intentionality the breaking down of those systemic barriers of opportunity, that safeguards the pursuit of a better life.
Much will be said about my age. And I recognize that it’s a reasonable topic of discussion. But the focus is that I relate to my students. I’m still paying my student loans. I know what it is to overcome. It’s not that long ago that my wife crisscrossed this campus herself. And it’s that connection I think of. Answering a call to serve at this particular time is a great responsibility and one that I have to honor and be worthy of. And that’s how I intend to lead. To prove worthy of this trust, day-in and day-out, in how I carry myself and how I lead. And to be a champion for this community and for my students and faculty and my staff, who are more than deserving of a champion.
I can’t think of something greater or more noble that I may ever be entrusted to do than to find myself in a community that made and shaped me, and to help lead it.