Leadership & Governance

Creating ‘a Sense of Ownership’

Nariman Farvardin, president, Stevens Institute of Technology

October 05, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

In a Chronicle video, Nariman Farvardin, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey, talks about balancing its hands-on majors with the liberal arts.


KARIN FISCHER: Hi. I'm Karin Fischer, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm here today with Nariman Farvardin, who's the president of Stevens Institute of Technology. Thank you for joining us.

NARIMAN FARVARDIN: Thank you very much, Karin.

KARIN FISCHER: I wanted to start by asking you — you came to Stevens several years ago. But your predecessor left under something of a cloud with some questions about financial mismanagement. How have you sort of worked to right that ship and to kind of help rebuild trust?

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NARIMAN FARVARDIN: It is true. I joined Stevens a little more than five years ago. And when I joined the university, I realized that the university was somewhat shaken up.

There was a long period of leadership under the previous president — 22 years. And from what I understand, towards the end, there were some issues with, perhaps, fiscal mismanagement. And maybe the university as a whole was tired of that management style.

So I guess the most important thing that I did that has proved to be very helpful was that in my first year as president, we brought the entire community together. We asked ourselves, where does Stevens want to go? What does Stevens want to look like 10 years down the line? And we engaged the entire community in a very serious, very transparent strategic-planning exercise that created a sense of ownership, a sense of purpose, a very strong sense of destination.

And then, since then, we've been working together to actually implement the strategic plan. We've been very, very disciplined in the implementation. And I can tell you that, partly as a result of developing the plan — creating that engagement and involvement and conversation — and partly as a result of a disciplined implementation plan, the community has come together.

A sense of trust and confidence in the administration has been instilled in the community. Quite frankly, the university is now a vibrant place. People are proud of their association with the institution and very happy about the progress that is being made.

KARIN FISCHER: I know one of the things that you do tout often is your job-placement rates, that quite a large percentage, almost all, of your students do find work within six months after graduation. And of course, we know what the climate has been like in recent years for college graduates. I also know that you yourself have served on some commissions looking at sort of aligning higher education and work-force development. And I wonder, with both of those experiences, where do you think the disconnect is between higher education and the employers?

NARIMAN FARVARDIN: You asked many good questions. Let me try to address them as best I could. First of all, it is true that Stevens is very proud of its accomplishments in terms of giving students an experience and an education that makes them marketable.

Our students basically have no effort, when they graduate, to have a job. The record is incredible. We now have 95 percent of our graduates who are either in graduate school, or they have a job within six months from graduation.

So what are the issues? Why is it that other universities don't have as stellar a record? I think there are multiple reasons.

Number one, I actually chaired the commission in the state of New Jersey to study the alignment between the needs of the work force and the degrees and the programs offered by universities. And quite frankly, the findings are eye-opening. There is essentially no strong linkage between the needs of the work force and the products of higher-education institutions.

In my opinion, this alignment needs to be fixed sooner or later. Universities can't continue to educate young men and women in areas for which there is not enough demand. Not that we are exclusively focused on work force, but certainly addressing the needs of the work force, especially that part of industry that needs higher education, is very important. We can't ignore that.

The second point that I'd like to make is that we live in an environment, in a society, where technology is the key driver of human progress. Technology is playing a critical role in economic development. And we believe that integrating technology into all aspects of the educational experience of students can make the students much more marketable. And this is something Stevens does very well. We are proud of saying that technology is in our core and that any student who graduates from Stevens, whether they're a computer-science major or a finance major or a music and technology major, they're all technology savvy.

And yet, at the same time, we give them a very strong and very balanced exposure to liberal arts, to ethics, to philosophy, to the values of our democracy. And as a result, we believe the educational experience that they receive makes them a good human being, ready to get out of the university and contribute to society. I think this balanced approach is something that would prove useful for higher-education institutions all over the country.

KARIN FISCHER: Are there are other things that you think higher education, broadly, colleges across the country ought to be doing to better prepare their graduates to find jobs and employment?

NARIMAN FARVARDIN: Well, I think what I pointed out, in terms of striking the right balance between preparing the students for a job and preparing the students to be a good human being, is probably the most important thing. But along with that, I would raise another issue that I think should be of interest to any university president in the country. And that is the notion of increasing cost of higher education — something that all of us need to be concerned about.

You probably know that the total college debt has now exceeded $1 trillion. And I think universities need to constantly think about ways to increase their effectiveness and efficiency, ultimately, in order to make sure that higher education is available to the middle class. Otherwise, in the long term, we will be depriving the middle class from access to higher education. And that could have very serious adverse consequences for the nation.

KARIN FISCHER: I just wanted to ask — I know from your background, not only have you been an academic, but you've founded a number of start-ups as well. And I wonder, that aspect of your background, how does that influence, or does it influence your leadership?

NARIMAN FARVARDIN: You know, I started a company, along with three former Ph.D. students, about 15, 16 years ago. And that experience was one of the most exciting, exhilarating, and gratifying experiences of my life. I never quit my university job. But I did play a fairly significant role in putting the company together, in putting the initial team together, in securing funding for the company.

And I learned a lot from that experience. And I'd like to provide opportunities like that for young men and women when they don't have a lot of responsibilities, when they are in a position that they can take risks, when they don't have a significant obligation to pay a mortgage at the end of the month, and they don't necessarily have a big family to care for.

I think this country is founded by a group of adventurous, smart, risk-taking entrepreneurs. These people have contributed to generating an enormous amount of wealth for our country. These people have paved the way for extremely high standards of living that we all enjoy. And I think it's our collective responsibility to create an environment for future generations to be even more successful entrepreneurs, to solve societal problems, and to make our country and the world a better place. As such, I think that should be an important part of the leadership responsibility of any university president.

KARIN FISCHER: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate the conversation.

NARIMAN FARVARDIN: Thank you for the opportunity.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is karin.fischer@chronicle.com.