In the wake of a long-awaited report from the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller outlining improper budgeting that predated his tenure, NJBIZ caught up with New Jersey City University interim President Andres Acebo, the 37-year-old who was appointed earlier this year to take the helm of the institution in the midst of this crisis.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
NJBIZ: Before we get into the state comptroller report, how have things been going generally at NJCU since we last spoke?
ANDRES ACEBO: I think they’ve been going well. I’ve been emboldened by the unprecedented collaboration on this campus. One thing that I’ve been particularly proud of is how we have confronted crises by searching for unique opportunities, by doubling down on our mission of not just talking about who we serve, but having difficult conversations about how we serve them. I think that’s important.
I’m profoundly proud of the collaboration – pretty historic, significant and unprecedented in nature – with union leaders on this campus. No leader can move an institution alone. And a lot of the hard work happens behind closed doors – late nights, early mornings and weekends. And I’ve found dedicated partners on this campus and off. I have to acknowledge that as well, like community leaders and the legislative delegation and state officials that have been very committed to the students we serve and the mission of this institution. And I’ve been privileged to be able to be someone that’s at the helm trying to lead those reforms and that re-dedication to a mission.
Everything from, in my first week, an unprecedented labor agreement with the building trades. It’s all about economic mobility in our community, making sure that the investment dollars circulate multiple times. Historic and unprecedented agreements with our union leaders at a time of significant strife and heartache, a significant recentering on engaging with one another and being proactive in that engagement and intentional in it. Because the work product and the deliverables that are all aimed at student success are best served and best engineered working together.
There’s no monopoly on good ideas. The work with the University Senate, faculty and professional staff. You’re lucky to get a plurality of support on anything. When you get 95% of a body ratifying a proposal to overhaul a general education curriculum, which is a daunting endeavor. But with an eye on improving and doing things differently and meeting our population where they are. We are now poised to be the most transfer-friendly public university in the State of New Jersey.
Q: As you’ve tackled the budget woes head on, what reception have you encountered meeting with these different stakeholders, partners and campus members?
A: Something I’m particularly proud of is that we’ve put the focus on our students and how we serve them. That goes from confronting some hard truths about how the business model has been sustained for far too long and not just on our campus; inviting accountability and transparency as pillars of our recovery, I think are very important.
You don’t get 95% support. You don’t get unanimity and collaboration with union leaders, at a time where there’s a lot of strife on other campuses, without leading with transparency, empathy.
Some of the decisions that I inherited, that had to be made, are not ones that I made lightly. Ones that I have no doubt will give some folks – depending on how they’ve been impacted by it – some misgivings. But I’ve tried to lead with empathy, which is making it very clear that I lose sleep about some of the decisions I have to make. And that, but for certain circumstances, I wouldn’t make them. But I have to think about the long-term sustainability of an institution for it to be revitalized and recover by being cemented and anchored in service of a particular community.
I think fiscal oversight goes hand-in-hand with equitable investment in an institution. So, things like the appointment of a fiscal monitor, I think would actually serve this institution really well, not just in the form of accountability, but also trust and transparency.
Q: On this report: You knew this was coming down the pike when you took over this position. Now that it finally did drop, what were your immediate takeaways or reactions to some of its toplines?
A: First and foremost, with sincere gratitude for the due diligence that was conducted and the focus and recommendations on how to strengthen higher education, in general, in the state. The recommendations, in particular, are ones that long before this report were signaled and memorialized in many ways in some of the legislative actions that we’re developing, and that I’ve been personally supportive of from the beginning of my presidency and, actually, long before it.
I think fiscal oversight goes hand-in-hand with equitable investment in an institution. So, things like the appointment of a fiscal monitor, I think would actually serve this institution really well, not just in the form of accountability, but also trust and transparency. And with an extra eye and voice on what this institution’s needs are and the recovery.
Q: How important is it to take this moment to put real, structural reforms into place instead of one-shots and gimmicks?
A: I think it’s important that any conversation about investment has to include the follow-through on the oversight and the accountability. And that engenders both sides of the conversation on the need equation. That when we talk about equitable investment, we’re talking about who the institution serves. And every study shows that the population we serve, they have to overcome significantly more, so it costs more to educate them. It costs more to serve those populations. Our students disproportionately deal with things like food insecurity, housing insecurity, economic insecurities.
Q: In April, before the state comptroller report, you introduced an NJCU Recovery and Revitalization Plan. How would you describe the genesis of that plan as well as its aim?
A: It’s a framework and a vision-in-action. It is incredibly important to me to cement and orient an institution about being purpose-driven and mission-focused. And I think that framework highlights that by acknowledging and affirming what, many times, institutions take for granted, which is who you serve.
Q: You have made a number of moves to address the budget shortfall that we’ve discussed, with more to come. It’s not going to be an overnight fix. But how would you describe those efforts? How are you feeling about the tough cuts – decisions – as you described, that you’ve had to make? Do you feel like things are headed in the right direction as we sit here today?
A: I do. I think state support and funding is a critical component to that. What we confronted was an existential threat to this institution, its mission and long-term sustainability. Those difficult cuts that have been embraced on this campus with a roll-up-your-sleeves collaboration and, again, lots of late nights and early mornings with stakeholders and leaders on this campus.
I can’t underscore enough the work of the University Senate and union leadership on this campus. I’ve had a partner. I think they’ve found a dedicated partner in me. I think we’ve telegraphed a new model for labor management relations in higher education.
Everyone knows where things went awry. And I appreciate the grace that’s been given, acknowledging what I’ve agreed to take on. And I think that that’s engendered trust and engagement. My own leadership team has embraced their own cuts themselves. This is being felt everywhere. But it’s also the empathy piece, I think, that has been important. I had to recognize that the pain is sometimes felt disproportionately. While it’s being felt across-the-board, it’s felt disproportionately at times. And I have to be empathetic to that and intentional in addressing it.
What we confronted was an existential threat to this institution, its mission and long-term sustainability.
Q: Between all the budget uncertainty, subsequent cuts, and now this report, what has the reaction been from the students you serve? What has going through this process shown you about their strength and grace in dealing with this adversity?
A: I love that question and thank you for asking it. I’ve been moved by this actual fact: Most of our students, I would say, are not as aware of the controversies and the challenges facing the institution. And that is a humbling recognition of reality as a leader of this institution. Because what’s top of mind for them is their lives and the challenges that they have to overcome day-in and day-out; the things that undermine their families’ tranquility, security and prosperity.
Our students are incredibly extraordinary. I say this to donors. I say this to potential employers. You hire an NJCU student, you donate to an NJCU student — it’s an investment that will yield significant dividends. The grit, the dedication, the perseverance of our students that matches the vibrancy of a community, the dynamism of our community, the rich diversity, making something out nothing in many instances.
Many of them and their families are starting their lives, quite literally, anew in our communities. I am moved by that.
The vast majority of our students aren’t following the editorial pages. They’re not following – what I’m getting outsized credit for – about cutting a structural deficit by more than 50%. They’re thinking about how many credits they need to get their degree. They’re thinking about picking up those extra hours and that extra shift so they can help mom and dad pay their rent. Some of them are working adults and working parents themselves.
I can’t underscore them enough. It’s humbling. And that’s the responsibility I’m talking about. It’s not just the work. It’s the responsibility. The things that keep me up at night are things that the folks that we’re trying to fight for and be more responsible for, and deliver better for, probably don’t know.
Much is said about my age, but I’m old enough to believe this and I’ve experienced this — that the most worthwhile pursuits are the ones that will let you have an impact that you may never fully realize for yourself. And so that’s what’s driving me. That the work we do, it’ll be to the benefit of faces decades from now, years from now, that will never lock eyes with me.
Q: I’ll close with this one, and I appreciate your time and candor as always. When we spoke in the winter, you said it was a privilege to be entrusted with leading this institution at this particular time in history, and that you were running toward something. This experience, the first few months, has it reinforced that feeling?
A: Without a doubt. I’d like to think that I would care and treat this with as much fidelity as I have by sense of personal integrity. But also, the fact that this is an institution that serves the community that shaped me. Literally, its graduates educated me, protected me and nursed me. That my loved ones have crisscrossed this campus in pursuit of economic mobility. That responsibility has been humbling and, perhaps, what will prove to be one of the most significant privileges of my professional and personal life.