By Gianluca D’Elia
After 10 years at Rider, Ben Dworkin is taking on a new position at Rowan next semester as the founding director of its upcoming Institute for Public Policy.
After the sudden passing of political science professor Dave Rebovich in October 2007, Dworkin was chosen as the new director of Rider’s state politics institute, which was soon given its new and current name: the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
“It’s an exciting, new opportunity for me and the right move for my family,” he said. “In the beginning it will probably look similar to what we do at Rider, but it’s also a chance to do some different things, and that will be an exciting personal and professional challenge for me. But I owe everything to Rider. I was a graduate student when the former provost, Don Steven, plucked me from relative obscurity and asked me to take over for Dave Rebovich. I’ve been honored to try and build on Dave’s shoulders.”
University spokeswoman Kristine Brown said Dworkin taught her important lessons about state politics and political communication since she first started working at Rider. Nearly five years ago, Dworkin was part of the search committee when Brown was first hired.
“I will never forget the day the Bridgegate scandal came to light,” she recalled. “I was watching the news unfold in my office with Ben. I think we both knew instantly that this was going to be a tremendous national story, and Ben’s credibility as a trusted political commentator from New Jersey had just taken on a whole new meaning. Watching Ben lead the discourse about Bridgegate and its impacts on our political landscape over the next several years was fascinating. I will miss working with him every day. He will be leaving big shoes to fill.”
Over the past decade, Dworkin has been interviewed by nearly every state news outlet and high-profile newspaper, including The New York Times — a role that Brown said has raised the profile of Rider and the Rebovich Institute.
He leaned back in his office chair and mentioned he was waiting for a call back from a high-ranking state politician, who left a voicemail on his cellphone while he was teaching a class. Behind Dworkin was a wall crowded from top to bottom by framed photographs of students, past and present, as well as nearly every guest speaker that has visited Rider through the Rebovich Institute since 2008.
“Every person who has been governor has come to Rider since I’ve been here and talked to and hung out with students,” he said proudly. “You don’t have to watch these people from 500 yards away. You can get up close and take a selfie with them. We wanted to make Rider a destination point for anyone who wants to be a leader in Trenton. I think we built that reputation, and it’s a positive thing for students to be able to access.”
The Rebovich Institute has also brought in senators and representatives, as well as leaders in the state legislature from both sides of the aisle. This semester alone, two former gubernatorial candidates from two parties — Republican Kim Guadagno and Democrat Jim Johnson — visited Rider and talked to students. Even Gov. Chris Christie has kept a picture of himself speaking at a Rebovich event prominently displayed in his office for the last three years.
Dworkin stood up and pointed to a picture of Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien on the wall. At the time the photo was taken, Stepien was on a panel of speakers analyzing the results of the 2009 gubernatorial election that Christie had just won.
“Now he’s the political director of the White House,” Dworkin said. “These people all came here, and our students got exposed to them here. That was all part of our goal to help students understand government and to give them access to these folks because they’re major folks, even when you don’t realize it yet.”
Dworkin said his goal at Rider has been to raise the level of political awareness on campus and elevate what people know through events such as state and congressional debates, leadership seminars, guest lectures and casual “brown bag lunches” with political experts. He spent his Rider career increasing the program’s presence on campus, which included small tasks like creating an official letterhead, as well as larger responsibilities such as building up an alumni network.
“When I came here, it was hard to find Rider alumni who were working in state politics,” he said. “Now, there are dozens who are working full time in politics.”
He said one of his proudest achievements as director was developing an internship placement program.
“What was unique here was that we created our own base of contacts that wasn’t just a subsection of a career services office,” he said. “This office became a place where one could go to access those resources.”
In general, every college places interns, but Dworkin said the Rebovich Institute’s placement program stood out because of its individual attention, workshops on résumés and how to make the most of an internship, as well as a comprehensive online guide to finding political internships around the state. He said he is sent over 70 different internship opportunities to post on the guide every summer.
Dworkin also started a scholarship program for interns in 2011, his motivation being the fact that most government internships are unpaid. The first year, one student participated and earned $500. But by 2017, the Rebovich Institute awarded over $20,000 total to 16 students.
“Making a commitment to funding students was personal for me because I could only do internships that paid while I was in college, and that limited my options,” he said. “I knew when I came to Rider that not much had changed for today’s students. And the folks at Rider, who are overwhelmingly people that work their way through school, might understand that they need an internship to have career options when they graduate but they can’t afford it.”
Senior international business major Nina Catrambone utilized the internship program as she worked for Assemblyman Herb Conaway of Burlington County, and then went on to work for the Rebovich Institute alongside Dworkin.
“He was always very sensitive to my goals,” she said. “When I interned with him, my main objective was to work in the intersection between business and politics. Once he knew that, he allowed me to really take the lead on the business-focused components of the Rebovich Institute. On top of being a great mentor, he’s also a valuable part of my network, and I know he’ll always be there.”
The university has not yet found a new director for the Rebovich Institute, Dworkin said.
He said he is going to miss his students the most, many of whom he said he mentored as if he were their “older sibling.”
“When you’re a professor, one of the great benefits of this career choice is advising and mentoring young people,” he said. “When you see students who you’re introduced to freshman year, and you help them with an internship here and there, and they succeed and find a place they didn’t realize could be a space for them to learn and shape the future — you feel such incredible pride.”