Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo Jan. 27 interview transcript
On Feb. 1, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo sent an university-wide email discrediting an article in The Rider News reporting his plans to retire from Rider after his contract ends in 2025. The Rider News stands by the story’s reporting and headline, which Dell’Omo’s email described as “inaccurate.”
Among other comments from a Jan. 27 interview with Dell’Omo that he plans to depart the university in 2025, he said: “I’m hoping as I go out, my last two and a half years, I guess that I have left, trying to get the university to a position where whoever follows me as president, hopefully can have a little bit easier time doing it.”
He further stated: “I really just felt that if I did not extend retirement [from] the 24th, July of ’24 being my last year, that, this is going to be a critical time for the university to change leadership at this time…”
In the interest of full transparency with the university’s students, faculty and staff, The Rider News is releasing the unedited 15 minutes of the interview discussing the topic of retirement with Dell’Omo from Jan. 27, along with a written transcript and audio excerpts that led to the article and headline.
Amethyst Martinez (Managing Editor, The Rider News): The first thing that I want to kind of talk about, just super briefly, is that I saw your contract got extended by the Board of Trustees, for, I think it’s one year to 2025, which puts you at a decade at Rider. And I just kind of want to know, what are your thoughts on being extended and you know, that leads you to being at Rider for a decade. Kind of your thoughts on how your tenure has been and things of that nature?
Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo- Well, It’s funny, you say decade because, this will be my second decade as president of a university, I was president of a university previously, at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. And I was there 10 years and this would now be 10 years as you said. It’s funny, early in my career back 20 years ago, basically, an older president, who I was very fond of and see as sort of a mentor to me, once told me, he said ‘Greg, max out at 10 years, never be a president beyond 10 years. That’s because 10 years is like a magic number because after that, you’re not really adding much value. It’s kind of you know, same old, same old and finally, you retire or move on to another institution.’ I said, ‘that sounds like an old wives tale. It seems like it’s playing out that way. You know, my first presidency which started back in 2005 and went through 2015, it was somewhat similar to this environment. It was an institute that was struggling financially and so forth. In 2008 the recession hit and the world changed, in 2008 there was a major recession and I was trying to figure out what was going on. In many respects, myself, and the team, the faculty was able to turn it around. But you know, we did some very interesting things, but basically stuck to the fundamentals of strong academics, strong student life, build the campus up, you know, really do a lot of the right things. Try to raise money for endowments, for scholarships and to help students pay for their education. And so it kind of went from an environment that was really struggling but by the time I left in ‘15, enrollments were strong, we were expanding on housing and the campus was on an uproar, I mean it was really moving in the right direction. And so when I decided to come back to New Jersey and accepted the offer at Rider, I knew Rider, I was not blind, I knew what I was walking into at that time. Rider was experiencing challenges, financial challenges, there were deficits before I got here that my predecessors were trying to deal with and going through some cost cutting and so forth. And we also knew that the future was going to be even more challenging because that there was a demographic cliff that was going to happen. We all knew, we all look at demographics, that’s science and we knew come ‘24- ‘25, there’s gonna be a drop off and by the time we hit ‘26- ‘27, there’s a big cliff, of just not having enough high school graduating seniors going to college. [briefly inaudible 3:09-3:12] So we knew all those things and we also knew coming into Rider, even though Rider has a rich history and done wonderful things for our students, students have always had a great education, great outcomes, we knew we had challenges. We knew we had some limitations on our program offerings. We weren’t keeping up with a lot of the new programs that were out there, particularly in tech areas, in science areas, even some on the business side and so forth. So we knew we had to do some new program development. We knew the facilities, the campus is attractive, but it still needs a lot of upgrade. We knew both on the academic side and housing, let’s face it, housing’s a disaster. I mean the dorms are not where they need to be and we all knew that, that was very important. I remember being interviewed for the job and I met with SGA [Student Government Association] leaders at the time for the interview process and I remember I asked them, I said to the students, I said, ‘OK’, tell me, what’s the big issue? What’s the most negative thing about Rider University?’ And without a beat they said housing. Then they told me, I didn’t know it at the time, they told me at that point that we were ranked in the Princeton Review as the worst dorms in the country, which is not something you actually want to go out there to promote.
Dell’Omo: That’s just the reality of the situation. So we knew we had to figure out ways to make investments as well as get our costs in control and so forth. So we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I have to say, and we say this all the time and I’ve probably said it to you Shaun [Chornobroff, executive editor, The Rider News] in the past, I felt that the things we were doing here with new program developments, investments and some of the capital projects with the campus, getting some of our costs in control, we were beginning to see progress. In 2017, my second year in we hit enrollments that were one of the largest freshman enrollments in a long time for the university, over 1,000 freshmen came in 2017. We were really moving in the right direction, primarily because we were starting to develop some new programs and making those investments. The BLC [Bart Luedeke Center] was getting redone, Sweigart Hall the business school was getting redone. We were really trying to upgrade athletics, basketball stuff was being kicked in, we were making those upgrades, making the residence halls a little bit more palatable in terms of air conditioning. So we’re gradually moving the needle in those areas to be successful. And we brought in engaged learning, [briefly inaudible 5:21-5:25] focusing on the student experience to get great outcomes and those kinds of things. Programmatically and sort of institutionally I felt we were going in the right direction and the numbers were beginning to kick in and our budget was getting stronger and stronger at that point in time. I mean, we actually had one year there between like, ‘18 or ‘19, ‘18, where we actually had a small surplus of cash flow in the university that one year. In 2020, March of 2020 when the world changed, I don’t think I’ve ever said this, but we had a board meeting on March 3 or 4th of 2020 and things were starting to look really good. And we actually went to the board and at that board meeting we got the board to approve another bond offering to help us go to the market, raise more money because we wanted to more with the dorms, we wanted to finish off the Alumni Gym project, we wanted to really do the science building much more aggressively than we did, and we also knew that we could bring over Westminster from Princeton to Lawrenceville, and we knew we had to make more investment in the facilities here for that. And we were thinking, at that point in time, we were also planning to do the [U.S. Route] 206 project, which we’ve talked about a lot of times, which is, you know, basically create new housing, on 206, upper, upper student housing with more apartments housing with retail on the lower level, and create sort of [a] college town look on 206 and so forth. So we went to that board meeting, and we laid out a plan. And the board said, ‘This is great, we’re moving in the right direction.’ They approved the bond offering that we wanted to go out to the marketplace on, and literally what? Three days later, the world changed. And we had to go back and we ended up going forward with the bond offering but we scaled it way back, because we knew, we’re not quite sure what the world’s gonna be like in the next year. We thought we’d be out of school for two weeks, and it ended up being two years. So we scaled it back. And what happened was, I think the pandemic really hurt us badly because even though enrollments are beginning to creep back, housing, you know, we’re still at 1,600 students in our housing. Our full capacity of housing, if you filled every single bed on campus, we can probably get it close to 2,400 beds filled. Now we have not been at 2,400 in a long long time, at least not in my time, I don’t know, even the people before me. The most we were getting at was being at 2,100 students in our housing. Right before the pandemic we were about 1,900-2,000. Once the pandemic hit, that basically dropped down to nothing in the first year and a half, and now, it’s only back up about 15 to 1,600. So we’re talking anywhere from really 500 to 800 empty beds on this campus. That’s major revenue, and it’s just lost. And so we’re trying to figure out, and that’s another reason why I think, not having that time to really continue to improve your housing, both in terms of the quality of housing, but the type of housing, you know, has really hurt us, you know. We still have way too many of the old-fashioned kind of dorms, double occupancy, bathroom down at the end of the hall as opposed to more suite-like, more apartment-like housing that students really want today. And so, it kind of caught up to us all and in that timetable we were on, just had not been aggressive enough or fast enough to get us through the pandemic. And now, that’s why we’re watching the post-pandemic era in a very, very careful way. That’s why we have to be very, very careful on our expenses, and how we’re planning, because it’s very fragile from a standpoint of if those enrollments don’t come back, if those new student housings don’t come back, if we don’t continue to add new programs that students are interested in. Right now, to give you an example, we have added new programs over the years [inaudible] computer science, cybersecurity, we do business analytics, other programs at the university. 85% of our undergraduate enrollment is concentrated in 30 programs. Even though we have about 60-something active programs, only 85% of all enrollment falls into those 30 programs. Now it doesn’t mean you get rid of all the other ones, even though we’ve been scaling back on low enrollment programs, but you have to make sure that you’re utilizing the resources to get, to attract the most students and still have those other programs available for courses. They have them as part of your particular education requirements, your core, as well as some minors and so forth. So it’s looking at higher education in a much more, and I hate to say this, I know a lot of my faculty colleagues, you know, I’m a faculty member at heart, you know, it’s a business, and you’ve got to make sure that, you know, we are not-for-profit, the mission of public mission institutions, but we still have to pay our bills and we still have to make sure that we’re using our limited resources, in some cases, declining resources, in as effective ways possible to get us back on that growth model for the university. So has it been easy? No. Challenging? Yes. I have a lot more gray hair than I have. But it’s, it’s, you know, you have to make some tough decisions, we try to be as inclusive in that decision making as possible, to have as much feedback from people. But we can try to do the best we can, and hopefully, people, that’s why I hope that we can work together. You’re always gonna have disagreements, whether you’re a family or you’re a university. As long as you can work through those disagreements in a way that’s productive. And It’s taking the ultimate goal of how do you improve our institution, because campuses today, that, they can be more complex, but it is still, in my mind, the most rewarding job and the best career job I’ve ever had in my life.
Shaun Chornobroff (Executive Editor, The Rider News): So, ’25 is going to be your last year here you think, kind of like no matter what.
Dell’Omo: I think so
Dell’Omo: Never say never, but I think [inaudible] to do a one year extension, I think it was important to do a one-year extension, and I’ll be honest with you and I have no problem sharing this with everybody, I really just felt that if I did not extend retirement [from] the 24th, July of ‘24 being my last year, that, this is going to be a critical time for the university to change leadership at this time, is more challenging, even though many people out there don’t agree with what I do and how I handle the job, there is a lot to be said for stability, in terms of how the outside world sees you, and hopefully there’s a contingent that determined that stability is a good way to go in right now.
Chornobroff: So just a follow up, I just got one more thing, I know she’s got a couple, few, couple things more she wants to touch on, even outside of this. You said the way the outside world perceives you. You know 2025, again, imagine it three years in the future. How do you want, or what do you want your legacy as university president to be when, you know, the eventual curtains close or whatever. You know, what do you want that, what do you want your legacy to be here?
Dell’Omo: My legacy is, you know, we went through a tough time as all higher education did, and you know, we tried, we transitioned in the university and we now have have gotten on a path to be successful down the road financially, as well as continuing, academically we’ve always been very strong. And that’s not the issue, it’s making sure you have the resources to continue to excel academically and to continue to grow as an institution. And I hope, my goal is to, like I said, leave my successor, whoever succeeds me as well as the university as a whole to feel that we’ve weathered the storm and we’re moving in the right direction.