Gregory G. Dell’Omo, Ph.D., currently the president of Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, will become Rider University’s seventh president on Aug 1, 2015, succeeding Dr. Mordechai Rozanski, who is retiring.
Members of The Rider News staff sat down for an interview via FaceTime with Dell’Omo on Dec. 4. The article below gives excerpts.
After a long day of interviews and excitement, Dell’Omo offered TRN a look into his past and his plans for Rider’s future. We welcome Dell’Omo to the Rider University family.
TRN: What attracted you to Rider, why do you think you would be a good fit here, and what prompted you to apply for the position?
Dell’Omo: Being from New Jersey and actually thinking about going to Rider when I was looking at colleges back in the early ’70s, I’m familiar with it going way, way back. I thought about playing baseball at Rider, but went to Montclair. Getting involved with higher education, first as a professor and then moving through the ranks to becoming a president of a university, I was able to watch Rider grow and transform significantly in that 40-year time period. The transformation has been very impressive.
With the new programs, the campus, the student body and new things happening, Rider just seemed like it had a real energy level to it. An institution that has had that kind of growth and development, but also is eager to take it to another level — that is the kind of attitude I was looking for in an institution.
I’m very excited; it is like my wife and I are coming home in many respects. We’re both from New Jersey, so we have family there and there are a lot of similarities between Robert Morris University and Rider in terms of history, even though Rider is much older. They both evolved from proprietary business schools to comprehensive universities. Rider, though, has grown more and has become more comprehensive, particularly in the areas of arts and sciences, in addition to some of the professional areas. I think, from the successes I’ve had at Robert Morris University, hopefully I can carry that forward to Rider and build a team there and hopefully have even more success.
TRN: At Robert Morris there are six NCAA men’s sports and nine women’s sports. RMU has football and ice hockey — men’s sports that we don’t have here at Rider (here, ice hockey is a club sport). Is that a Title IX issue? How will managing sports at Rider be different from Robert Morris University?
Dell’Omo: Most college campuses in the U.S. are predominantly female. About 55 percent females vs. 45 percent men. RMU is the complete opposite. We’re about 56 percent male and 44 percent female. A lot of that is due to our programs; engineering is our largest, growing program in the university, even though business has always been the biggest. The [gender] percentages have been different from colleges across the U.S., including Rider, so we looked at our sports and brought football in about 21 years ago. They had a little more leverage there because we didn’t have many male sports besides basketball. We were able to bring that in with women’s ice hockey and lacrosse. We’ve been able to manage Title IX issues better because of our predominantly male population on campus.
Bringing football to a university is very expensive and there are Title IX issues, particularly when you have a predominantly female student body. That is a real challenge and there are a lot of growing issues with football on campuses. But, I have to say, coming from St. Joe’s, where we didn’t have football, to Robert Morris, where we do have football — there is an impact that that has on the campus in the fall, with the games and all of that. There are a lot of positives, but there are also a lot of costs attached to it. It’s something that I would like to learn more about in regards to football at Rider, but it is not one of the first things I will be exploring seriously because of the costs and Title IX issues. There are some other sports that I found interesting that do not exist at Rider that really hit me initially. Lacrosse seems like a natural area with the strong field hockey program that Rider has had for years. It is in the MAAC conference so I would ask questions about that first.
TRN: What are your goals here at Rider?
Dell’Omo: What I would like to do is continue to promote the growth of the campus and programs, raise the quality of the programs. That doesn’t mean that the programs aren’t where they need to be, but they always have to be updated and be more current and relevant. Raising the profile of the programs both from the standpoint of the faculty and students.
Making sure that academics are first and foremost in the institution. I think it is really important to have students grow as individuals and that incorporates everything from the in-class experience and the content and having strong faculty to deliver that and do it in an exciting and passionate way, but also allowing and requiring students to apply the knowledge they learn in college through internships and other kinds of applied learning that really become a major part of the educational experience. Having the content in itself is not going to prepare students for a competitive world outside of graduation. It’s your ability to show that you can take that knowledge and be able to apply it with experiences and results, the whole idea of engaged learning.
I would like to see the faculty really help the students have those applied learning experiences that enhance their credentials and give them a competitive advantage once they leave Rider. That encompasses more than just internships and studying abroad — it really involves a college experience.
That is why I think student life and athletics and clubs play a very important part of the undergraduate experience. Those are the things I would really like to build upon. The new thing we’re looking at is not enough to look at a student’s initial job. We must also ask, “How do we also prepare you for a lifetime of change?” I want this to be student-based, and I know a lot of colleges say that, but it’s a matter of living it and making it part of your DNA and culture.
TRN: You were able to increase the number of students living on campus at Robert Morris University. What was your purpose in doing this? Would you try to do the same at Rider?
Dell’Omo: We did a couple of things. I upgraded the older dorms — some were really bad. We made more apartment-style housing on campus for upperclassmen. That was the kind of housing students wanted. They like to live in group settings and, by building the extra housing, it gave them a reason to stay here. But that wasn’t enough.
We added a lot more student life activities with clubs and engagement during the evenings and weekends and sports. It takes time and it can’t happen overnight. It’s easy to complain about the administration not planning events for students, and there is a certain degree of truth to that, but step back and say, “Guys, this is your university. Come up with ideas and we’ll figure it out.”
There were only about 50 clubs when I first came to Robert Morris University, and they weren’t really active. Now there are about 140 clubs and organizations. We had students and created a culture where we said, “If you have an idea, as long as it is legal and we can fund it, we’re open to clubs.” People have different levels of interest, and we have some crazy clubs, but everyone is different and if we don’t have it for you we’ll ask you to come up with an idea. It changed the attitude. Creating a sense of community is important, but is also difficult and everyone has to be on board — students, faculty and staff — to make it happen.
TRN: We have a sister school, Westminster Choir College, and there has always been the challenge of creating and maintaining a connection between the two schools. Is there anything that you would try to do to bring our two schools closer?
Dell’Omo: That is something that I have learned through the interviewing process. I think that Westminster is a jewel to Rider and is a high-quality institution that has a long history and is very successful with an international reputation. Having it as part of the Rider family and what it brings through the arts is amazing.
I also understand and appreciate the challenges of taking two separate campuses and having them become one institution. It sounds the like the university has worked hard to find ways to have that integration become a reality. I don’t have an answer to what specifically can be done, but it does have to be one of the things at the top of the list. I would like to make that a positive experience for everyone at the university. The key to the whole thing is, you want to make sure you can integrate everything into the university to make it one institution, but allow them to maintain their identity for a certain extent because they are both unique. You don’t want to water it down in any way so it can stand out on its own.
It is more than a challenge, it is an opportunity. One simple thing I asked during my interview is if the president had an office at both Westminster and Lawrenceville — and the answer is no. I understand that, but it might, symbolically, be a first step if we could plant ourselves physically at both institutions. I might be opening a Pandora’s box by trying to be at two locations at one time, but that proximity is a powerful symbol that you are one of us, and that is one little tactic we might consider. With a new dean coming in, this is an opportune time to talk with that person and ask them what ideas they may have to help this be a much more integrated experience for the entire university because Westminster really is a major part of Rider.
TRN: How do you feel about dealing with news media, particularly the student-run newspaper?
Dell’Omo: When I came to Robert Morris University, one of the first questions I asked was, “Where is the student-run newspaper?” And they simply didn’t have a student newspaper and discontinued it for various reasons before I got there. I thought that was a crazy idea. I said, “I want a school newspaper. How can you have a college or university without a school newspaper?”
It’s a great way to communicate what is happening on campus and a great way, if you’re a journalism or communications major, for students to learn first-hand how to become writers, reporters and editors. I know there are trials and tribulations with that, and I think it is just part of the university experience. I am very in favor of a school paper and having them be as involved with the university as possible, hopefully learning proper journalism techniques, ethics and so forth, and writing skills. So I think it is wonderful. I am very open with the media. I think it is very important for universities. We all strive for having our name out there.
One of the challenges for mid-sized private universities is to strive for name recognition, but it is very important to have that desire for your university to be mentioned in the press as much as possible for good things, and that means you have to be as open as possible to the media. You have to be able to make yourself available to the media when there are inquiries or questions, when there is good news to be had and bad news. It is important for the president of the university and for others to be open to meet with the press on all sorts of issues that, many times, you may not want to talk about. But it is the reality of running a university, and I look forward to working with you guys (TRN) in terms of helping the university move forward and informing the students and others of what is going on from a student perspective.
TRN: We see that you have a background in industrial relations. What do you feel is the role of a union within a university? Are you familiar with the new contract that has been put into place this fall at Rider?
Dell’Omo: I did see the old contract and I am aware of some of the issues that were at hand during negotiations this Fall. Our faculty here at Robert Morris University is also unionized. I have a lot of experience with that. We actually negotiated our most recent contract with our faculty at the same time that Rider negotiated its contract. I have negotiated three contracts since I have been president here.
But, yes, my academic discipline is labor relations, industrial relations. I have practiced on the management side; I taught in that area. I was a labor arbitrator before I got into academic administration. I actually worked for a union — when I was in my graduate Ph.D program, I worked for the local AFSCME, a unit out in Madison, Wis. That’s a long way of saying that I believe very much, philosophically, in the right of any workers to organize, if they so desire. To me, it’s a major ingredient in any society that considers itself a democratic society — and that carries over into university settings as well.
When I first began as president of Robert Marsh University, the first official meeting that I had was with the executive committee of the faculty union — at their request, and I honored that request because I felt it was very important. They asked me this same question, and I gave them basically the same answer that I just gave you. I also said that as long as we are on the same page of trying to accomplish the major goal of university, and that is to raise the profile and success of the university, its mission of educating and preparing our students, and ensuring that they are perceived as having a high-quality educational experience that prepares them for whatever they are seeking to do once they leave the university and go on to their careers — we will have no problems at all. It’s when we work against those major goals when things become destructive.
We may have different ways to getting there, but as long as we have the same goals in mind, we can usually find a common ground.
TRN: Can you tell us about your connections to New Jersey?
My wife and I are originally from New Jersey. I am originally from Rumson and my wife is from Fair Haven. When I was working in Philadelphia at Saint Joseph’s University, we lived in Cherry Hill for 14 years. We have a home in Belmar — once you grow up by the ocean, it’s hard to stay away from the ocean. Most of our family still remains in that area. We are very much a New Jersey family.
Will you be visiting Rider before you are officially Rider’s president on August 1, 2015?
Dell’Omo: Yes. We are going to work out specifics. But I am going to find time to go back and forth between the two institutions. I know there are some key events coming up at Rider in the spring semester and I am going to try to coordinate my schedule here at Robert Morris.