Rowan University president Ali A. Houshmand says 2012 "really wasn't easy," an uncharacteristic understatement by a man whose speaking style tends toward emphatic. If not dramatic.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think we could pull it off," he says, referring to the July debut of the new Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, in downtown Camden.
"A huge one" is how Houshmand describes the impact of Rowan's recent acquisition of the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine campus in Stratford.
And Rowan, which hired him as provost in 2006 and named him president in July, has "the greatest potential to become a major player in higher education in this region, if not in the country," he declares.
Houshmand's office on the main campus in Glassboro offers a picturesque view of Bunce Hall, where the Glassboro Normal School opened in 1923. It became a university in 1992 after industrialist and alumnus Henry Rowan's $100 million unrestricted gift, which funded the creation of a College of Engineering and sparked the transformation of the campus.
"What an amazing legacy!" says Houshmand, fit and energetic at 58. "It will impact thousands of people for generations."
Two decades of post-donation growth transformed Rowan into what Gov. Christie insisted in January would be a credible suitor for Rutgers University's campus in Camden. Opposition to the plan, mostly from Rutgers-Camden supporters, was swift and loud.
"There was a lot of tension, occasional excitement, and fear" on campus, Houshmand says. The political battle was bruising; one online comment even likened Houshmand to a lapdog ("if there's anything I'm not, it's that").
A compromise later approved by the state Legislature will make the two universities autonomous collaborators, rather than a single institution.
"I think we ended up getting exactly what we wanted," says Houshmand, adding that he never supported a shotgun marriage.
"I believed Rowan should be designated a research university, and that we should get the School of Osteopathic Medicine, and that Rutgers-Camden should get more autonomy and collaborative [opportunities]."
Fulfilling the promise of the designation and the acquisition are the latest priorities of Houshmand's administration, joining the Rowan Boulevard development project in downtown Glassboro and the proposed College of Health Sciences in downtown Camden.
The health sciences campus would be a joint undertaking with Rutgers, Cooper University Hospital, and the Coriell Institute.
The new school and campus would reflect what Houshmand believes is the best way to capitalize on Rowan's new research-university status: by offering professional degrees in areas such as biomedical engineering.
Houshmand also says he wants to expand access to a Rowan degree through partnerships with all seven of South Jersey's community colleges, as well as through its long-standing relationship with Camden County College, which has a satellite campus in downtown Camden.
"The state doesn't have the resources, so we need to be creative and find ways we can provide the kind of education people want.
"What we have here is tremendous opportunity," says Houshmand, who grew up poor in Iran.
"I was a kid who at 12 or 13 was walking the streets with no shoes because he didn't have two cents. And now I'm the president of a major university.
"What other countries, honestly, have the capacity to allow you to do that? This really comes from the heart. I feel very fortunate to be in this country. I feel extremely grateful."
He predicts that with its new schools and partnerships with community colleges, Rowan could double in size, to 25,000 students, in 10 years.
"I have no plans for this job to be a stepping-stone," Houshmand says. "Of course it's up to the board [of trustees]. . . . But I'd like to stay here to retire."