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Dr. Ali A. Houshmand’s rise to the presidency of Rowan University is a tale of perseverance.

The fifth of 12 children, Houshmand was born in Tehran, Iran, to illiterate parents. He was a gifted math student and eager to study abroad. He learned enough English as a teen to pass his college entrance exams, and in 1975 he took a one-way flight to London and got a job mopping floors at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

From those humble beginnings, he eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, a master’s degree in mathematical statistics and doctoral degrees in industrial and operations engineering. He became Rowan University’s seventh president in 2012 after serving for approximately six years as provost/senior vice president, CEO and interim president.

In his current role, Houshmand tries to take the long view and look beyond his time as leader of the university.

“You should always strive to make decisions that impact your next president,” he said. “If you make decisions that impact you, you can be criticized for being selfish, or you’re seen as trying to protect your job. But, if you do it for the next president, you’re doing it for, in my case, the university.

“For example, If I receive a $10 million gift today, I have two choices: [I can] give it away throughout the campus and make a large number of people happy with me or I can find a way of using it in a way that helps everyone on campus over a long period of time. “I would save that money, put it in an endowment and let the funds grow in perpetuity. The next president will have the good fortune of impacting many more people than the original gift could have ever done on its own.”

Under Houshmand’s leadership, Rowan has evolved from a regional college to the 88th-ranked public university in the nation. Enrollment has grown from 11,000 students in 2012 to 23,000 students in 2022, making Rowan the fourth fastest-growing research university in the U.S. for three consecutive years, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Rowan’s workforce has grown by 125% in 10 years, and Houshmand collaborated with community college leaders to develop programs that allow students at those schools to earn a bachelor’s degree from Rowan for under $30,000.

Houshmand has even turned his gardening hobby into a benefit for the university. In 2017, the university began producing and selling Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce, with proceeds going to the Rowan University Emergency Student Scholarship Fund. Houshmand grows the hottest varieties of peppers and other vegetables on the West Campus Farm with help from employees and students. Houshmand himself leads all the gardening work, and his hot sauces, made from a private recipe, are available in three heat levels: Ali’s Nasty, Nastylicious, and the hottest, Nastyvicious.

“The effort has, directly and indirectly, led to millions of dollars in donations to the university, with online customers ordering from as far away as Japan and Australia,” Houshmand’s staff said.


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