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New Jersey City University president testifies before lawmakers on school’s financial troubles

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New Jersey City University president testifies before lawmakers on school’s financial troubles

Jun 11, 2024 | 7:10 am ET
By Sophie Nieto-Munoz
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New Jersey City University president testifies before lawmakers on school’s financial troubles
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Without financial intervention, it is unlikely New Jersey City University will survive as a stand-alone institution, its fiscal monitor told lawmakers Monday. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Governor's Office)

New Jersey City University’s financial situation is so dire that its state-appointed fiscal monitor compares it to a patient who has undergone surgery. 

“A year and a half ago, I would say that their circumstances are very, very serious, and they ought to be getting their house in order,” the monitor, Henry Amoroso, told lawmakers Monday. “The patient is still suffering, but recovering, but now it needs the type of intervention to make the recovery a full realization.” 

Sen. Joe Cryan asked if the university would be able to survive as a stand-alone institution. 

“Without significant financial intervention, I do not think so,” Amoroso replied. 

During the three-hour hearing in front of the Legislature’s two higher education committees, Amoroso joined New Jersey City University interim president Andrés Acebo and state Higher Education Secretary Brian Bridges to lay out the school’s difficult financial landscape and how it’s taking on recommendations Amoroso made in a fiscal report released in March.

The Jersey City-based university is facing nearly $300 million in debt and capital needs, a number that had lawmakers asking how it took so long for school officials to realize the extent of their problem.

Its board declared a financial emergency in June 2022 and laid off top staff, including administrators. A state comptroller report later revealed former university president Sue Henderson and other administrators mismanaged $14 million in pandemic relief funds before Henderson was allowed to resign with a $288,000 severance payment, car, and housing subsidy. 

Bridges pointed to the university’s prior administrations that “overextended itself significantly.” New regulations have been put in place that allow state higher education officials to monitor schools so they don’t find themselves in the same position, he said. 

Amoroso was the first fiscal monitor appointed to oversee a state-run college under a law mandating monitors when higher education institutions face financial issues. The law requires public colleges to submit regular audits and fiscal reports to state officials.

In an effort to eliminate some expenses, the university slashed 48 undergraduate programs, Acebo said. This impacted less than 10% of the student body — some of the programs had just three students pursuing them, Acebo added. 

He said the university began to focus on taking finite resources and reallocating them “where they would be more meaningful and core to our academic expertise.” 

New Jersey City University faces a “unique mission” in helping its population of diverse students get their degrees, Amoroso said. Some funding goes to ensuring students aren’t unhoused between semesters, which means keeping the dorms open year-round and ensuring students have access to food even when classes are on recess.

The school boasts a student body where more than 60% are from Hudson County and more than half are first-generation college students. The undergraduate population is about 45% Latino and 21% Black, and many students come from low-income households. 

“Life disproportionately happens to our students,” he said. “The academic rigor is not what keeps them from persisting. It’s trauma and tragedy.”

Amoroso’s report urged the university to find a larger educational institution to partner with to survive. Acebo said the university also has made “significant progress in identifying partners” to acquire real estate but was reluctant to discuss them because of ongoing negotiations.

Ultimately, the partnership may lead to it merging with a larger school, but New Jersey City University has an “obligation to study each and every opportunity and option, including looking at whether or not the university could sustain itself independently,” Amoroso said.

The officials all differed on how much money the university needs to stay afloat but agreed it’s in the hundreds of millions. Amoroso said the university expects to spend around $30 million in capital projects this fiscal year and about $7 million in operations. The cost of long-term capital needs, like new roofs and heating systems, likely exceed $80 million to create an “enhanced learning environment that our students rightfully deserve,” Amoroso added.

He also said ending a lease to rent space in Monmouth County — another suggestion from his report — would significantly reduce debt.

The school is also working on revamping its board, which still includes people who were there while the school was facing the worst of its financial crisis, a fact criticized by Sen. Bob Singer (R-Ocean).

There are people sitting there that went all through this that didn’t run to the guns and didn’t say, ‘Wait a second, there’s a problem here. We have to stop here.’ They kind of flowed with everything,” Singer said. “I just am bothered when there’s no true accountability.”

Some people on the board have been there for more than 20 years, Amoroso said. He agreed the board must see turnover to implement change, but believes the current board understands the school’s current difficulties.

Amoroso will continue monitoring the school’s finances through at least Sept. 14, 2025.

An earlier version of this story misquoted a comment from Henry Amoroso.